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Retraction Watch Guys Hallucinate “Intelligent Design” Yet Again

Retraction Watch

A helpful formulation comes from podcaster Scott Adams, of “Dilbert” fame, who comments entertainingly on the political scene. He often points out that politicians and media figures habitually “hallucinate” what they think their opponents have said and then attack the hallucination. It’s different from lying about your enemy because the hallucination is, it seems, sincerely believed.

This phenomenon is familiar to proponents of intelligent design. Our critics regularly attribute ideas to us that we don’t hold, and then attack us for espousing those same ideas, even when we have already corrected them.

Peer Review and Junk Science

Here’s a case in point. Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus are smart guys and smart science writers. Together they founded the useful website Retraction Watch, which tracks retractions of science papers. Writing for STAT, they reported on a preprint paper at bioRxiv by Indian scientists which insinuated that the menacing new coronavirus may have been engineered. Papers at bioRxiv have not been peer reviewed when they are released into the wild. After an uproar, the Indians quickly retracted the paper. Some scientists applauded the episode as a demonstration of the importance of peer review. Oransky and Marcus point out that plenty of junk science gets through peer review, which of course is true. But notice their own junk allegation. They refer to Dr. Michael Shiloh at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center:

History suggests that Shiloh’s confidence in peer review’s ability to suss out pseudoscience may be a bit misplaced. The fraudulent 1998 paper that set off the vaccine-autism scare was published in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading peer-reviewed medical journals. Other examples — including a paper by an intelligent design advocate questioning the validity of the second law of thermodynamics as it pertained to evolution — abound. Papers claiming a link between autism and vaccines pop up nearly every year. [Emphasis added.]

Talking About Granville Sewell

The words in bold are the point of interest. They are talking about Granville Sewell, a mathematician at the University of Texas at El Paso and a contributor to Evolution News. See the writeup on the Sewell affair at the Free Science website, which notes that “Sewell obtained legal assistance, and the journal [Applied Mathematics Letters] issued a statement apologizing.” The journal also shelled out $10,000 to cover Sewell’s legal costs. Oransky and Marcus link to an article they wrote back in 2017 for Nautilus. They said there:

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…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.15

The journal’s apology aside, does Dr. Sewell “question the validity of the second law of thermodynamics”? Of course not! We asked him for confirmation on this point, and he replied:  “As far as I know, the second law never fails when applied to natural processes. Darwinists are the ones who believe that they have found a natural cause — natural selection — that can violate the generalized second law and bring order out of disorder. I believe that only intelligence can bring order out of disorder, and we see that happen every day.”

Sewell’s Often-Repeated Position

Clear enough for you? Apparently it’s not for Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. They are completely wrong to say that Sewell questions the second law of thermodynamics. That is absolute nonsense; Sewell does not question the second law of thermodynamics, nor does he raise the unsophisticated creationist objection that Darwinian evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. 

Rather, Sewell’s argument is that the rejoinder from evolutionists that the Earth is an open system, while true, is not enough to demonstrate that unguided evolution is plausible. Sewell says that there are certain forms of complexity that everyone agrees will not arise under natural, unguided conditions. It thus follows that the fact that a system is “open” does not necessarily mean that the probability of all events occurring is high enough to make such events plausible.

Here is the Abstact from his Physics Essays article, “On ‘compensating’ entropy decreases”:

The “compensation” argument, widely used to dismiss the claim that evolution violates the more general statements of the second law of thermodynamics, is based on the idea that there is a single quantity called “entropy” which measures disorder of all types. This article shows that there is no such total entropy, and that the compensation argument is not a valid way to dismiss the claim that evolution violates the second law. Note that the article does not argue that evolution violates the second law, only that the compensation argument is logically invalid.

“Why Evolution Is Different”

Professor Sewell explains further in a video, “Why Evolution Is Different.” But do you know what the really amazing part here is? Sewell has been through this before with these very same writers! In a book from MIT Press, Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science, they included their charge that he “questioned the validity of the second law of thermodynamics.” After finding his name in the book, Sewell wrote in an article here at Evolution News that this was poppycock. His article “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.” See, “So, Who Is Doing ‘Pseudoscience’?” Sewell added:

Well, whether the article was appropriate for [Applied Mathematics Letters] 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 Oransky 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.”

That was back in August of 2018. Today, Oransky and Marcus still believe he denies the second law of thermodynamics. These two are hailed as champions of responsible, truthful science. Yet you correct them once, and they still come back at you with the same ludicrous assertion about what you think and how you argue, creating a mythical “Granville Sewell” and mocking him for what they think he thinks, rather than argue with the real person. It’s pure hallucination.

Photo credit: Ehimetalor Unuabona via Unsplash.