In recent days Jeffrey Shallit and I have been discussing the differences between a random string of text and a designed string of text. I put the two strings up in this post; Shallit responded in this post; I responded to Shallit in this post; and Shallit replied here.
After all of this back and forth, the one question that remains is the question in the title to this post. Has Jeffrey Shallit’s fundamentalism driving him barking mad?
To remind readers, here are the two strings:
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Shakespeare vs. Keyboard Pounding: Which is “More Random”?
I constructed the first string of letters by haphazardly running my hands across my computer keyboard. The second string is obviously the first 12 lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy. In his first post Shallit made the following statement:
String #2’s [Shakespeare] compressed version is bigger and therefore more random than string #1 [keyboard pounding]: exactly the opposite of what Arrington implied!
Dear reader, when you read that statement you probably concluded that Shallit had made an error, that he had gotten confused and transposed string #1 with string #2. But you would be wrong. Shallit was in earnest when he said that the first 12 lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy are “more random” than a string of text I composed by haphazardly running my hands across my computer keyboard.
In my response I wrote this concerning Shallit’s conclusion:
That is a sentence only a highly educated idiot could have written.
Now when I made that observation I assumed that Shallit did not actually mean what his words literally said. I assumed that like a fighter pilot who has succumbed to “target fixation,” he had lost sight of the hazard that his meaning would be misunderstood. And when I heard he had posted a response, I expected he would back off and explain how I had misunderstood him. I was wrong. In his reply, far from backing off his “Shakespeare is more random than keyboard pounding” lunacy, he actually doubled down and mocked me:
Ahh, the traditional ploy of the scientifically illiterate: your conclusion (about evolution, global warming, the roundness of the earth, scientific theory of disease) disagrees with my preconceptions. Therefore you are the idiot! Very Silly People have used this ploy for hundreds of years. So far it’s not working so well for them.
Shallit reaches a conclusion that is absurd on its face. I point that out. Instead of backing off the absurd conclusion, Shallit mocks me and says my pointing out that his conclusion was absurd was a mere “ploy” by someone who is “scientifically illiterate.”
Now we know that Jeffrey Shallit is a Darwinian fundamentalist, and fundamentalism by its nature often causes its adherents to make strange, even irrational, statements. Materialist fundamentalism especially is a very demanding religion. But rarely have I witnessed such a pristine example of fundamentalist lunacy: A highly-educated college professor willing to make an absolute fool of himself rather than admit he was wrong.
Can a Lawyer Comment on Shallit’s Lunacy?
Shallit takes several jabs at me in the nature of “how dare a CPA question me.” First, it is not clear why Shallit calls me a CPA. My bio clearly states that I left public accounting to attend law school. I am a lawyer. What can a lawyer bring to this topic? In Darwin on Trial Phillip Johnson wrote:
I am not a scientist but an academic lawyer by profession, with a specialty in analyzing the logic of arguments and identifying the assumptions that lie behind those arguments. This background is more appropriate than one might think, because what people believe about evolution and Darwinism depends very heavily on the kind of logic they employ and the kind of assumptions they make. Being a scientist is not necessarily an advantage when dealing with a very broad topic like evolution, which cuts across many scientific disciplines and also involves issues of philosophy. . . .the leading scientific figures have always assumed that nonscientist readers can understand the essential evidence. But evidence never speaks for itself; it has meaning only in the context of rules of reasoning which determine what may be considered and what counts as evidence. Those rules of reasoning are what I particularly want to examine.
In summary, lawyers bring training in logic, reasoning and the evaluation of evidence issues to the table, and as this exchange demonstrates, that training can be useful in dissecting the ramblings of fundamentalists like Shallit.
I said string #1 was not as random as string #2 (in the sense of being more compressible)
Finally, we get to something that makes a modicum of sense. Shallit’s lunacy is at least partially explained by the fact that he chooses to operate solely within the confines of algorithmic complexity theory. As Wikepedia explains:
In particular, files of random data cannot be consistently compressed by any conceivable lossless data compression algorithm: indeed, this result is used to define the concept of randomness in algorithmic complexity theory.
Shallit’s target fixation is laid bare. Shallit’s bizarre statement was caused by the intellectual blinders he has fastened to his face. Like the man in this picture, intellectual blinders can cause you to fall off into a hole of lunacy.
The following are the first two definitions of “random” in my dictionary:
Proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern:
Statistics. Of or characterizing a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.
It may well be true that string #1 is more compressible than string #2 using some compressibility algorithm. But what does that have to do with the ID debate? My point has always been that string #1 is obviously random (using the first definition of random) and string #2 is obviously designed (it is the opposite of the first definition of random). “Ah ha,” Shallit says, “I have just demonstrated that string #2 is more random by running the strings through a compression algorithm. Therefore, Barry is wrong.”
Talk about willfully missing the point. Shallit fixates on the second definition of “random” and insists that “designed” is not the opposite of “random.” That may be if one uses the second definition of random, but it is glaringly obvious that ID uses “random” in the first sense, and in that sense “random” is in fact the opposite of designed, which brings us back to where were started:
The first string of text is random in the sense that it was made “without definite aim, reason, or pattern.” The second string is not random in the sense that it was in fact made with “definite aim, reason, or pattern.” The two strings are of nearly equal complexity. Yet one is obviously designed. How can we tell the designed string from the random string? Because not only is the second string complex, but also it conforms to a specification. Therefore, we conclude that the second string is rich in specified complex information and is therefore designed, not random. Any suggestion that the second string is “more random” than the first string is absurd on its face if we use any common sense definition of “random.”