Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Design in Plain Sight Can Be Missed

Spilled coffee.jpg

Spy movies often show attempts to pass secret messages to allies without tipping off the enemy. History records many true stories of this practice going back to Julius Caesar, and probably earlier. If the enemy learns the secret, however, the method gets compromised; lives could be at stake. Consequently, there are increasingly elaborate attempts to design protocols for “hiding messages in plain sight” — the art of steganography.

We mentioned this form of intelligent design science in action three years ago. Steganography is associated with another ID science, cryptology (encrypting messages). Now, an improved method for passing secret messages has been designed by scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel that is nearly impossible to break. It uses simple household ingredients like soda drinks, coffee, or mouthwash. Mark Lorch describes it on The Conversation:

Next time you see someone spilling a drink in a bar, you could actually be witnessing a spy secretly decoding an encrypted message. This might sound like something from a Bond movie. But a team from Israel has used some rather nifty chemistry to come up with a way to use common chemicals such as cola as the encryption key to code and decode hidden messages….

The Israeli team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science have continued this tradition with some chemistry that is ingenious enough for any spy movie. Their method, published in the journal Nature Communications, is complex to devise but simple to use, and combines encryption, steganography and password protection. [Emphasis added.]

Some steganography techniques can be compromised if an interloper knows the protocol. Hidden messages in digital image files, for instance, can be brought to light with commonly available software. The new method overcomes weaknesses in other methods, even though it resembles the old child’s game of invisible ink made of lemon juice held over a flame. The authors say:

Unlike with invisible inks, however, uncovering these messages by an unauthorized user is almost impossible because they are protected by three different defence mechanisms: steganography, cryptography and by entering a password, which are used to hide, encrypt or prevent access to the information, respectively.

This means that even if you know the method your enemy is using, he can decode a communique even while you are watching him like a hawk. The authors haven’t spilled the beans, therefore, by publishing the method. Lorch tells how it’s done. It uses an arbitrary cipher correlated with wavelengths of light given off by the chemicals. The “password” can be set by the order in which the substances are added. Unless the interloper knows all three arbitrary settings, it’s unlikely he will be able to detect anything unusual going on.

The whole system may seem rather complex, but the research team have tested it with untrained volunteers and shown that with a few minutes instruction it is really quite easy to use.

So look a bit closer next time you notice someone spill their coffee on some papers (especially if they have a high tech watch on) … they might just be decoding a secret message.

One lesson from steganography is important for intelligent design theory: the intentional action of a mind can be missed. Just because a person cannot detect it doesn’t mean it wasn’t designed. Real information can be hiding in plain sight, whether or not an observer is aware of it. We’ve mentioned before the example of some modern art; an unsophisticated viewer might suppose that Jackson Pollock accidentally spilled some paint cans on a canvas and drove over it with a car. We call it a “false negative” when something is designed but the viewer concludes it isn’t designed.

A false positive is the reverse situation. Something isn’t designed but a viewer infers it is designed. Evolutionists would have us believe that every instance of design in biology presented by ID advocates is a false positive, because natural selection can create the illusion of design. William Dembski proved in his book No Free Lunch that ID theory, properly understood, can admit false negatives but is robust against false positives (pp. 22-28). If sufficient complex specified information is present that exceeds a universal probability bound, a design inference is warranted.

The Weizmann Institute’s new steganography method would appear to be a false negative to all but the few who understand it. What’s the meaning of that spilled cola drink on a piece of paper? Why is the guy looking at his smartphone? Most would never suspect a secret message is in the paper, even if they looked at it. They might get suspicious, however, if they saw him study the paper, look at his phone, repeat this action several times, and then leave in a hurry. Enough observations might lead a team of clever cryptographers to relate the actions to properties of the paper and liquid, even if they don’t yet know the code. In short, they would perform a functional analysis.

Isn’t that what happened in genetics? In the early days of studying DNA, nobody knew it contained a code. It was just a molecule. Years of diligent effort slowly brought the secret to light: the particular sequence of sugars in DNA correlated to specific proteins formed in the cell. If the cryptographers correctly infer intentional design by correlating the spy’s actions with the paper, why cannot geneticists infer design by correlating the protein products with the DNA sequence?

To be sure, the design inference must be based on a high level of specified complexity. And in DNA, that level is easily surpassed. The chance of getting a sequence of DNA sugars to correlate reliably with a sequence of amino acids that can fold into a single protein that can perform a function is vanishingly small. Add to that the requirements of machinery to transcribe and translate the information — there could hardly be a clearer example of specified complexity exceeding a universal probability bound. Dembski set that bound at 1 in 10150. In Signature in the Cell, Meyer calculated the probability of a single protein by chance at 1 in 10164 (p. 212). That’s 14 orders of magnitude beyond the bound — and that’s just for a single protein, let alone a complete, working cell.

DNA is no longer a case of steganography, but of obvious communication. We know so much about it now, we call it the genetic code — the language of life. We know its alphabet, its syntax and its semantics. The message of design is not hiding in plain sight; it’s obvious. If some people miss it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Image credit: © Sandppictures -­

Evolution News

Evolution News & Science Today (EN) provides original reporting and analysis about evolution, neuroscience, bioethics, intelligent design and other science-related issues, including breaking news about scientific research. It also covers the impact of science on culture and conflicts over free speech and academic freedom in science. Finally, it fact-checks and critiques media coverage of scientific issues.