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How the Scientific Consensus Is Maintained — and How It Can Be Challenged

This is a story about how the scientific consensus is often maintained on controversial issues, even when it is bad science — and how it can be challenged. Parts of this story have already been told before here at ENV, but allow me to put it all together.

Anyone who has ever argued that the spectacular increase in order seen on Earth seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics — at least the more general formulations of this law — is familiar with the standard reply: although entropy (disorder) cannot decrease in an isolated system, the Earth is an open system, and entropy can decrease in an open system as long as the decrease is compensated by increases outside the open system. Isaac Asimov, for example, in a 1970 Smithsonian Magazine article (Asimov 1970), expresses the argument as follows:

Remove the sun, and the human brain would not have developed…. And in the billions of years that it took for the human brain to develop, the increase in entropy that took place in the sun was far greater; far, far greater than the decrease that is represented by the evolution required to develop the human brain.

Most people, when they hear this “compensation” argument, realize there is something terribly wrong with the logic. If we watched a video of a tornado running backward, turning rubble into houses and cars, would we argue that this did not violate the second law, because tornados derive their energy from the sun, and the increase in entropy on the sun is far greater than the decrease seen on the video?

Yet Asimov, Richard Dawkins, and every general physics textbook that mentions evolution and the second law argue that the spontaneous rearrangement of atoms on our once-barren planet into high-speed computers, libraries full of science texts and novels, cars and trucks and airplanes, did not violate the second law because the spectacular decrease in entropy seen on Earth is compensated by increases outside our open system. How is the scientific consensus on this issue maintained? How has such an argument remained almost unchallenged in the scientific community for so many years?

In my book The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations (Sewell 2005), I included an Appendix, “Can ANYTHING Happen in an Open System?” which challenged this compensation idea. I showed that, in an open system, the “X-entropy” associated with any diffusing component X (if X=heat, X-entropy is just thermal entropy) cannot decrease faster than it is exported through the boundary, or, stated another way, the X-order in an open system cannot increase faster than it is imported. Thus the very equations of entropy change upon which the illogical compensation idea is based actually support, on closer examination, the common sense conclusion: “If an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is isolated, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.” When thermal entropy decreases in an open system, there is nothing macroscopically describable happening that is extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view –something is just entering the open system that makes the decrease not extremely improbable. The fact that entropy can decrease in an open system does not mean that tornados can turn rubble into houses and cars, and it does not mean that computers can appear on a barren planet as long as the planet receives solar energy; something must be entering that makes the appearance of computers not extremely improbable, for example: computers.

In the Fall of 2010, I was invited to give a talk based on the ideas in this Appendix. The occasion was to be a 2011 Cornell University symposium entitled “Biological Information: New Perspectives.” After preparing my paper for this symposium, I decided to submit it to a mathematics journal, Applied Mathematics Letters. I warned the editor in a December 2010 e-mail that it would be controversial, particularly because I am known to be a supporter of the theory of intelligent design, and have written a book on ID (Sewell 2010). However, I noted that the article does not discuss ID; in fact, it does not even conclude that the second law has definitely been violated by what has happened on Earth. It only criticizes the compensation argument that Asimov, Dawkins and many, many others have used.

The article was peer reviewed and accepted, and scheduled for publication in March 2011. But only a few days before it was to be published, a Darwinist blogger in New Jersey heard that AML was going to publish it, and wrote the AML editor: “I am appalled to see a preprint, apparently from AML, of the often repeated and often refuted nonsense of Granville Sewell…” The only evidence he offered that my writings were “often refuted nonsense” was a link to a 2008 American Journal of Physics article by Daniel Styer (Styer 2008), which does not mention me or my writings, and which we will discuss later.

The editor replied immediately “Thank you very much for alerting us to the impropriety of publishing Granville Sewell’s ‘A Second Look at the Second Law,'” and promised to withdraw the article. The blogger spread the good news around the Internet, and in fact that is how I first heard that the article was being withdrawn; I did not receive any communication from the editor until several days later, when he finally wrote me, saying that he was withdrawing it because “our editors simply found that it does not consist of the kind of content we are interested in publishing.”

Since the publisher’s public guidelines state that withdrawing an article after it has been accepted is only to be done in extreme cases, for example, when serious errors or plagiarism are discovered, I was afraid people would think that the journal had followed its own guidelines and would assume the paper was seriously flawed, or I had committed some sort of ethical crime. So I found a lawyer who persuaded AML to publish an apology in the journal. The publisher also paid $10,000 in legal fees, thereby acknowledging that the editor had failed to follow the publisher’s policies in this case (see that story here.) The published apology states that the article was withdrawn “not because of any errors or technical problems found by the reviewers or editors, but because the Editor-in-Chief subsequently concluded that the content was more philosophical than mathematical.”

Since AML still refused to publish my accepted article, I went ahead and presented it at the May 2011 Cornell symposium, as originally planned, and submitted a revised version for inclusion in the proceedings. Nearly a year later, in March 2012, the proceedings had been peer-reviewed and typeset, and the book was ready to be printed, in accordance with a signed publication agreement with Springer Verlag. The professor who reviewed my submission wrote, “This is a first class piece of work… When Elsevier/Applied Mathematics Letters pulled this paper from their articles in press, they foolishly lost a great contribution which will be referred to for a great while to come.”

But once again, vigilant Darwinists discovered that Springer was about to publish these proceedings, and pressured the publisher into delaying and, in the end, canceling publication (see the story here). The critics admitted not knowing anything about the contents of the proceedings (as reported here), they just noticed that the editors were known as supporters of intelligent design, and, based on this alone, brought pressure on Springer to withdraw the book. In fact, although the editors and most (but not all) of the participants were friendly to ID, intelligent design was only rarely mentioned in the talks, though most of them were critical of Darwinism’s ability to explain the development of biological information.

Although this time the protests were not directed specifically at my writings (the protesters didn’t know what was in the book, remember), for a second time, my article had been peer-reviewed, accepted and close to publication, when people who had no reason to be involved in the editorial process succeeded, at least temporarily, in suppressing it.

Meanwhile, in March 2012, another mathematics journal, The Mathematical Intelligencer, published an article by Bob Lloyd (Lloyd 2012), criticizing my writings on this topic, primarily the AML article. The AML article had by now become so widely read that this journal apparently felt it needed to be rebutted, even though it had never been published.

Naturally, I prepared a response to the Mathematical Intelligencer piece, and submitted it as a letter to the editor, which, I was told, are normally published “as received,” if they are published. My letter was nevertheless sent to a referee, and rejected (see the story here).

In his concluding sentence, Lloyd writes

The qualitative point associated with the solar input to Earth, which was dismissed so casually in the abstract of the AML paper, and the quantitative formulations of this by Styer and Bunn, stand, and are unchallenged by Sewell’s work.

The Styer paper he mentions is, remember, the only evidence cited by the New Jersey blogger to support his claim, in his letter to the AML editor, that my writings are “often refuted nonsense.” In my response I wrote:

The American Journal of Physics papers by Styer (Styer 2008) and Bunn (Bunn 2009) illustrate beautifully the type of logic my writings are criticizing, so let’s look at these papers.

Styer estimated the rate of decrease in entropy associated with biological evolution as less than 302 Joules/degree Kelvin/second, noted that this rate is very small, and concluded “Presumably the entropy of the Earth’s biosphere is indeed decreasing by a tiny amount due to evolution and the entropy of the cosmic microwave background is increasing by an even greater amount to compensate for that decrease.” To arrive at this estimate, Styer assumed that “each individual organism is 1000 times more improbable than the corresponding individual was 100 years ago” (a “very generous” assumption), used the Boltzmann formula to calculate that a 1000-fold decrease in probability corresponds to an entropy decrease of kBlog(1000), multiplied this by a generous overestimate for the number of organisms on Earth, and divided by the number of seconds in a century.

Bunn (Bunn 2009) later concluded that Styer’s factor of 1000 was not really generous, that in fact organisms should be considered to be, on average, about 1025 times more improbable each century, but shows that, still, “the second law of thermodynamics is safe.”

Since about five million centuries have passed since the beginning of the Cambrian era, if organisms are, on average, 1000 times more improbable every century, that would mean that today’s organisms are, on average, about 1015000000 times more improbable (10125000000 times, if we use Bunn’s estimate) than those at the beginning of the Cambrian. But, Styer argues, there is no conflict with the second law because the Earth is an open system, so any extremely improbable events here can be compensated by events elsewhere in the universe.

I concluded:

If you want to show that the spontaneous rearrangement of atoms into machines capable of mathematical computation and interplanetary travel does not violate the fundamental natural principle behind the second law, you cannot simply say, as Styer and Bunn and so many others do, sure, evolution is astronomically improbable, but the Earth is an open system, so there is no problem as long as something (anything, apparently) is happening outside the Earth which, if reversed, would be even more improbable. You have to argue that what has happened on Earth is not really astronomically improbable, given what has entered (and exited) our open system. Why is such a simple and obvious point so controversial?

Regarding my last point, The Mathematical Intelligencer referee wrote “Even if Sewell’s criticisms of the Styer and Bunn papers are cogent, that has almost no relevance to Lloyd’s central arguments.” Well, Lloyd did defend them in his closing sentence, and Styer and Bunn have just attempted to quantify the argument that Asimov, Dawkins and Lloyd have made. But perhaps I should have addressed my criticisms of these papers to the journal that published them.

Actually, I had already tried some months earlier to publish an article criticizing the Styer and Bunn papers in the American Journal of Physics. I received the following rejection from the AJP editor within 2 or 3 hours of submitting my article: “Because it is well established in the physics community that there is no conflict between the second law of thermodynamics and evolution, we can consider manuscripts which help students understand why…” Again, my conclusion was only that the compensation argument used by Styer and Bunn has no logical merit, but apparently the editor felt that evolution could not be defended without it, an opinion that appears to be shared by the Mathematical Intelligencer referee, who claimed that by criticizing the compensation argument I was “arguing that a major branch of science must be discarded as conflicting with the second law.”

In January 2013 I made one more attempt to respond to Bob Lloyd’s piece in The Mathematical Intelligencer. This time my proposed “Viewpoint” article was rejected by a different editor, with the comment “Though the Mathematical Intelligencer’s scope is broad, your discussion of the Second Law is better suited for a physics journal.” In other words, the journal’s scope is broad enough to include an attack on your unpublished article, but not broad enough to include any response to the attack.

How the Scientific Consensus Can Be Challenged

Alas, it seems that today, silencing dissent is not nearly as easy as it used to be.
The Cornell proceedings have now been published by another publisher, World Scientific Publishing Co. (here; my contribution is here.) Notice particularly the little story in “The Common Sense Law of Physics” which shows in a humorous way how silly the compensation argument really is.

And the journal BIO-Complexity has just published my new article “Entropy and Evolution,” which I believe contains the strongest and clearest presentation of my viewpoint to date. The first thought that will occur to many people who read it will be, how could this illogical compensation argument have gone unchallenged for so long in the scientific literature? Well, now you know how.


Asimov, I. (1970) “In the Game of Energy and Thermodynamics, You Can’t Even Break Even,” Smithsonian 1, August 1970, p4.

Bunn, E. (2009) “Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” American Journal of Physics 77, issue 10, 922-925.

Lloyd, B. (2012) “Is there any Conflict between Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics?” The Mathematical Intelligencer 34, issue 1, pp 29-33.

Sewell, G. (2005) The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, second edition, John Wiley & Sons.

Sewell, G. (2010) In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design, Discovery Institute Press.

Styer, D. (2008) “Entropy and Evolution,” American Journal of Physics 76, issue 11, 1031-1033.

Image: Sun storm, NASA/JPL.

Granville Sewell

Granville Sewell is an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso. He has written four books on numerical analysis, most recently Solving Partial Differential Equation Applications with PDE2D, John Wiley, 2018. In addition to his years at UTEP, has been employed by Universidad Simon Bolivar (Caracas), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Purdue University, IMSL Inc., The University of Texas Center for High Performance Computing and Texas A&M University, and spent a semester (1999) at Universidad Nacional de Tucuman on a Fulbright scholarship, and another semester (2019) at the UNAM Centro de Geociencas in Queretaro, Mexico.