Jeffrey Shallit has commented on his blog about UD’s 500-heads-in-a-row series (see here, here and here). In his comment Shallit demonstrates that after all these years he remains clueless about even the basic ABCs of design theory.
Before we get to Shallit’s Romper Room errors, let me congratulate him on getting at least something right. He refers to the concept of Kolmogorov complexity and writes:
If the string is compressible (as 500 consecutive H’s would be) then one can reject the chance hypothesis with high confidence; if the string is, as far as we can see, incompressible, we cannot.
Here Shallit agrees with our own Granville Sewell, who wrote in comment 4 to my “Jerad’s DDS” post:
The reason why 500 straight coins would raise eyebrows, and most other results, while equally improbable, would not, is easy: because “all heads” is simply describable, and most others are not (many would be describable only in 500 bits, by actually listing the result).
I take it that by “compressible” Shallit means the same thing as Sewell’s “simply describable.”
So far so good. Shallit understands why one would reject the chance hypothesis for 500 heads in a row. He then falls completely off the rails when he writes:
So Rickert and his defenders are simply wrong. But the ID advocates are also wrong, because they jump from ‘reject the fair coin hypothesis’ to ‘design’. This is completely unsubstantiated. For example, maybe the so-called ‘fair coin’ is actually weighted . . . Or maybe the flipping mechanism is not completely fair . . .
Can it really be that Shallit remains utterly clueless about the nature of the abductive inferences at the foundation of design theory? From this statement one can only conclude that he is. Shallit makes at least two errors. Let’s examine them in turn.
Shallit’s first error comes when he states that if one sees 500 heads in a row it is “completely unsubstantiated” to conclude the game is rigged (i.e., to infer design). This statement is ridiculous. It is certainly a fact that there are explanations other than design that might possibly explain 500 heads in a row. But can anyone doubt that “the game has been intentionally rigged” is at least one explanation? To say that a design conclusion is “completely unsubstantiated” is aggressively stupid.
Perhaps Shallit means that it would be “completely unsubstantiated” to conclude that design – and only design – is the explanation for the 500 heads in a row. If that’s what he means, he is certainly correct. He is also certainly attacking a strawman, because no ID proponent has ever, as far as I know, said that when one makes a design inference one is obliged to conclude that only design could have caused the effect.
This is where abductive reasoning comes in. As the Wikipedia article I linked explains, “In abductive reasoning . . . the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as ‘inference to the best explanation.’”
As has been explained countless times here at UD and other places, the design inference is abductive in nature. It is an inference to the best explanation. No design theorist claims a design inference is absolutely compelled. Turning to the 500 heads example, the design theorist says “the game is rigged” is the best explanation. He does not, as Shallit seems to believe, say that “the game is rigged” is the only possible explanation.
In the 500 heads example one might ask if a design inference is permissible? Certainly it is. How could it not be? This is why Shallit’s “completely unsubstantiated” comment is so silly. One might ask if the design inference is valid? It probably is. From our experience of coin flipping it certainly appears to be the most likely explanation. One might ask if the design inference is absolutely reliable? No. It is only the currently best explanation. It remains tentative and subject to modification as more data is obtained.
Shallit commits his second error in the context of his alternative explanations to design (weighted coin; unfair mechanism). Shallit’s seems to believe that his alternative explanations preclude design. They do not. The person who rigged the game may have done so through the means of a weighted coin or an unfair mechanism. Shallit’s alternatives preclude design only if one assumes the coin was not intentionally weighted or that the flipping mechanism was not intentionally unfair. Surely such an assumption is not required. Indeed, from what we know about coin flipping in general, it is almost certainly not even warranted.
In summary, Shallit has demonstrated once again that he does not understand design theory. At least I hope that is what he has demonstrated, because the alternative is that he does understand design theory and has intentionally misrepresented it. Charity compels me to conclude that he is clueless and not mendacious.