Good Math/Bad Math

Friday, March 24, 2006

More bad probability: Cheating with Chance from AiG

Remember back in this post, I put together a taxonomy of the ways probability was commonly misused?

Well, here's a really great example of the kind of thing I was talking about. This comes from Answers in Genesis, in an article titled, in a striking bit of honesty, "Cheating with chance":

The argument from probability that life could not form by natural processes but must have been created is sometimes acknowledged by evolutionists as a strong argument. The probability of the chance formation of a hypothetical functional ‘simple’ cell, given all the ingredients, is acknowledged to be worse than 1 in 10^57800. This is a chance of 1 in a number with 57,800 zeros. It would take 11 full pages of magazine type to print this number. To try to put this in perspective, there are about 10^80 (a number with 80 zeros) electrons in the universe. Even if every electron in our universe were another universe the same size as ours that would ‘only’ amount to 10^160 electrons.

What kind of errors are there is just this one paragraph?

  1. Big numbers: the whole point of this is to try to stress the idea of the probability against it is so large that you should consider it impossible.
  2. Fake numbers: Where does 1 in 10^57800 come from? Nowhere. It's just randomly pulled out of a hat. There's no justification for it. It's just a frighteningly big number, which is effective for making the "big numbers" tactic work.
  3. Misshapen search space: the argument is based on a single step from nothing to a fully functional single cell. Yeah, if you could compute the odds of that happening, they'd be pretty damned large. But that's not what the theory that they're trying to refute proposes: in the theory of evolution, the search space would have millions of steps between inorganic chemicals and a complete cell. The probability of successfully reaching a cell in a properly structured search space will be dramatically different from the probability of jumping from a pile of inorganic chemicals to a complete cell in a search space with no intermediate states.

Alas, this is typical of the kinds of arguments that creationists like to use: fake math and strawmen to try to fool people into believing them.


  • Bad math in Answers in Genesis? Say it isn't so!

    By Anonymous secondclass, at 2:35 PM  

  • Funny how such big numbers are invented to make it appear that life is impossible. The problem is that the true probability that life is possible is one. You don't need to understand probability very well to understand that life exists.

    By Blogger Broadside, at 2:45 PM  

  • Not to mention the whole, not using baysian probability problem...

    BTW, I'm new here, good stuff!

    By Blogger Brian Postow, at 3:16 PM  

  • I love the line “The acknowledged....” Oh yeah? By who? Maybe he meet a drunken scientist in a bar and said I’ll buy you a beer if you sign off on this claim? It certainly is not acknowledged in the peer-reviewed press, you know, the respectable stuff.

    BTW, when I was grading papers as a grad student, one of my professors told me that the quick way to grade student’s proofs was to scan through them looking for phrases like “clearly it follows that...”. People only ever say such things when it is NOT clear and usually only when they don’t how it follows if it even does.

    By Blogger driftwood, at 11:51 PM  

  • driftwood: quick way to grade student’s proofs was to scan through them looking for phrases like “clearly it follows that...”. People only ever say such things when it is NOT clear and usually only when they don’t how it follows if it even does.

    Come on driftwood, that is not very fair. I use the phrase "clearly it follows" in mathematical proofs in assignments when I feel that the step is a very small step and that it should be obvious to anyone who have followed through the proof so far. And I have seen some professors also use it when showing proofs.

    However I admit that "clearly it follows" is a very abused phrase and that it is often used to gloss over stuff. My point is that it is unfair to say "people ONLY ever use" it when they don't know what they are talking about.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:29 AM  

  • The probability games that AiG plays is infuriating. I like to use the Powerball lottery as an example when countering this kind of argument. The odds of winning the jackpot are enormous, like 1 in a trillion. As the jackpot increases, more people buy tickets, reducing the chance that any one of them will win, but increasing the probability the jackpot will be awarded. Despite the supposedly astronomical odds, someone eventually will win the jackpot. Similarly, the odds of non-living chemicals forming a self-reproducing molecule are likely as astronomical, but they had plenty of time to "buy" a winning ticket.

    By Anonymous wheatdogg, at 6:15 PM  

  • The AiG people also like to style themselves as Information Theory experts. It seems that their main arguement for why "microevolution" is possible but "macroevolution" is not is that according them them "random processes like mutations cannot possibly add new "information" to the DNA of organism.

    By Anonymous Cbbb, at 8:41 PM  

  • No, it is fair.

    The point was that if you were short on time and wanted to find the spots where the student might not have succeeded, then those were the places to look. The phrase itself is not the problem, but it is a frequent flag for real problems.

    Oh, and most students learn by mid-semester to avoid such give-aways if they have some doubts about a step in their argument. But it also is usually the case that you already know what part of the argument is most like to trip the students up. Even with all that, I was always a slow grader.

    By Blogger driftwood, at 7:03 PM  

  • Also, there's the error of unspecified units. What is this probability of? The event of it occuring in the next second? Nanosecond? Year? Millenia? Ever? Given what initial conditions?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:42 AM  

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