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So, Who Is Doing “Pseudoscience”?

A new book from MIT Press, Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science, includes a chapter by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, founders of the website Retraction Watch. In “Pseudoscience, Coming to a Peer-Reviewed Journal Near You,” I found my own name mentioned. They write:

Although one might assume that journals would hold a strong hand when it comes to ridding themselves of bogus papers, that’s not always the case. In 2011, Elsevier’s Applied Mathematics Letters retracted a paper by Granville Sewell of the University of Texas, El Paso, that questioned the validity of the second law of thermodynamics — a curious position for an article in a mathematics journal, but not so curious for someone like Sewell, who apparently favors intelligent design theories over Darwinian natural selection.

Did I really “question the validity of the second law”?

Accepted and Withdrawn

Well, let’s look at the abstract of the accepted but withdrawn-at-the-last-minute Applied Mathematics Letters (AML) article, “A Second Look at the Second Law”:

It is commonly argued that the spectacular increase in order which has occurred on Earth does not violate the second law of thermodynamics because the Earth is an open system, and anything can happen in an open system as long as the entropy increases outside the system compensate the entropy decreases inside the system. However, if we define “X-entropy” to be the entropy associated with any diffusing component X (for example, X might be heat), and, since entropy measures disorder, “X-order” to be the negative of X-entropy, a closer look at the equations for entropy change shows that they not only say that the X-order cannot increase in a closed system, but that they also say that in an open system the X-order cannot increase faster than it is imported though the boundary. Thus the equations for entropy change do not support the illogical “compensation” idea; instead, they illustrate the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.” Thus, unless we are willing to argue that the influx of solar energy into the Earth makes the appearance of spaceships, computers and the Internet not extremely improbable, we have to conclude that the second law has in fact been violated here.

In Section 3, I wrote:

The second law of thermodynamics is all about probability; it uses probability at the microscopic level to predict macroscopic change. Carbon distributes itself more and more uniformly in an isolated solid because that is what the laws of probability predict when diffusion alone is operative. Thus the second law predicts that natural (unintelligent) causes will not do macroscopically describable things which are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view. The reason natural forces can turn a computer or a spaceship into rubble and not vice versa is probability: of all the possible arrangements atoms could take, only a very small percentage could add, subtract, multiply and divide real numbers, or fly astronauts to the moon and back safely…But it is not true that the laws of probability only apply to closed systems: if a system is open, you just have to take into account what is crossing the boundary when deciding what is extremely improbable and what is not.

Then, in my conclusion:

Of course, one can still argue that the spectacular increase in order seen on Earth does not violate the second law because what has happened here is not really extremely improbable… And perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really is not, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and digital computers. But one would think that at least this would be considered an open question, and those who argue that it really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying the second law of thermodynamics, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their colleagues, but we are not.

Even if, as Marcus and Oransky believe, intelligent design were “pseudoscience,” my AML paper was still not pseudoscience. Why? Because it did not mention or promote intelligent design, and it did not question the second law, only the absurd compensation argument, which is always used to avoid the issue of probability when discussing the second law and evolution. But these authors apparently feel that it is pseudoscience to force Darwinists to address the issue of probability when defending their theory against the second law.

A Published Apology

Marcus and Oranski continue:

The article was retracted, according to the notice, “because the Editor-in-Chief subsequently concluded that the content was more philosophical than mathematical and, as such, not appropriate for a technical mathematics journal such as Applied Mathematics Letters.” Beyond the financial remuneration, the real value of the settlement for Sewell was the ability to say — with a straight face — that the paper was not retracted because it was wrong. Such stamps of approval are, in fact, why some of those who engage in pseudoscience want their work to appear in peer-reviewed journals.

Well, whether the article was appropriate for AML or not is debatable, but it was reviewed and accepted, then withdrawn at the last minute, as reported here. And since Elsevier’s guidelines state that a paper can only be withdrawn after acceptance because of major flaws or misconduct, yes, I wanted people to know that Elsevier did not follow its own guidelines, and that the paper was not retracted because major flaws were found, and that is exactly what the published apology acknowledged. Marcus and Oranski omit the first part of the sentence they quote from the apology, which states that the article was withdrawn “not because of any errors or technical problems found by the reviewers or editors.”

They conclude:

And it means that the gatekeepers of science — peer reviewers, journal editors, and publishers — need always be vigilant for the sort of “not even wrong” work that pseudoscience has to offer. Online availability of scholarly literature means that more such papers come to the attention of readers, and there’s no question there are more lurking. Be vigilant. Be very, very vigilant.

In a peer-reviewed 2017 Physics Essays paper, “On ‘Compensating’ Entropy Decreases,” I again criticized the widely used compensation argument, and again I did not question the validity of the second law or explicitly promote intelligent design. Here were my conclusions in that paper:

If Darwin was right, then evolution does not violate the second law because, thanks to natural selection of random mutations, and to the influx of stellar energy, it is not really impossibly improbable that advanced civilizations could spontaneously develop on barren, Earth-like planets. Getting rid of the compensation argument would not change that; what it might change is, maybe science journals and physics texts will no longer say, sure, evolution is astronomically improbable, but there is no conflict with the second law because the Earth is an open system, and things are happening elsewhere which, if reversed, would be even more improbable.

An Unfair Characterization?

And if you think this characterization of the compensation argument is unfair, read the second page (71) of the Physics Essays article and you will see that the American Journal of Physics articles cited there are very explicit in making exactly the argument that evolution is extremely improbable but there is no conflict with the second law because the Earth is an open system and things are happening outside which, if reversed, would be even more improbable. As I point out there, one can make exactly the same argument to say that a tornado running backward, turning rubble into houses and cars, would likewise not violate the (generalized) second law.

Please do read this page (it is not hard to read, but here is an even simpler analysis of the compensation argument), and you will be astonished by how corrupt science can become when reviewers are “very, very vigilant” to protect consensus science from any opposing views. And you can decide for yourself who is promoting pseudoscience.

Photo: An E-Meter, as employed by Scientology, by Daniel Spiess [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.