reducing irreducible complexity

December 4, 2008 — 6 Comments

We live in a world of complex things, a world of circuitry, wireless internet, machines most of us have only a cursory knowledge of and chemistry that’s used to make just about everything from medicine to some of our most fearsome weapons. But are we, living beings, also so incredibly complex that just like all the other complicated things around us, we need someone with a master blueprint to make sure our designs work reliably?

mechanical mosquito

That’s what we’re told by creationism and its sibling, Intelligent Design. They argue that every organism we know of has a certain degree of complexity to it and if it were any simpler than its sophisticated design makes it out to be, it would die or just wouldn’t be living. This concept is called irreducible complexity and was engineered by a biochemist who, for some odd reason, forgot the basics of how science is done.

Science is about quantification. Everything has to be measured and defined and complexity is a pretty vague and subjective concept. Let’s say you’re a software developer and you’re working on a software package that helps your company’s employees do their jobs and create reports for managers. It takes you over a year but you get it done and go out for a celebratory drink at a local watering hole where many other developers hang out and celebrate completed projects. There, you run into a friend of yours and start telling her about how complex your program is, how many rules it uses, how many safeguards it has, how many other software packages it has to work with and how many users it has to support.

You friend, un-phased by your tale, says “oh yeah?” and goes on to explain a much larger and much more complicated package she built for a Fortune 500 company that makes your huge program look like child’s play. After she’s done, another programmer tells you both that you went way too far and everything your programs do could be done a lot simpler with a few slight modifications of stuff you can get for free or for a small sum. Something you think is complex is simple by one person’s standards and over-engineered and redundant by another’s. So how exactly does one define complexity? How do you take personal opinion out of it? You can’t just create an experiment designed to test for complexity without defining in concrete terms what constitutes complexity and how one should measure it, and expect the peer review process to approve it.

As cold as it might seem, science is supposed to be totally devoid of personal opinions. If you as a scientist are awed by nature and want to write gushing prose about it’s beauty, do it. But do it on your own time, not in a lab. When you compose an experiment, you goal is to let all those who want to put your theory to the test grab your formulas and your descriptions of how the experiment is to be conducted and replicate it themselves at any time and in any lab. So when you’re telling a scientist to look for complexity at the end of an experiment, it’s like giving her directions to a restaurant without telling her on what street she should turn, the number or the name of the restaurant. She has no idea where to go and what the place is called and yet you’re somehow expecting her to get to this restaurant and get infuriated when she’s not there. Well no wonder! You did everything possible to make sure she’ll never find it.

Aside from injecting personal opinions into the strict discipline of science, creationists manage to make their case even shakier by using endorsements of complexity from people who aren’t biologists. They ask physicists, chemists, mathematicians, people who have little to no expert knowledge of the subject. If anyone were to ask me about techniques involved in playing violins or a piano for a classic musical masterpiece, I would scratch my head, say that it’s complicated and I find it amazing anyone can play such beautiful music without offering any details. But I’m only familiar with turntables and electronic mixers when it comes to music. Ask me about the mechanics of mixing and picking soundtracks and I’ll be more than happy to give you details in the same manner a biologist would be far more qualified to talk about evolution than a chemist or a mathematician.

At the end, what do we have left when it comes to irreducible complexity? We have a vague and shaky definition of what’s complex or not endorsed by people in fields that wouldn’t give them any expert insight into the subject answering loaded questions and somehow, this is supposed to be a valid outcome of an experiment in which everything is supposed to be measured and sorted the same way an arithmetic problem only has one solution. Object A moves into slot G, chemical X turns into chemical Y, angle changes to 30 degrees. Those are scientific outcomes of an experiment. Amazement after glancing into a microscope and a profound sigh of delight at the wonder of nature isn’t. It may be cold and sterile, but those are the facts. Even the most beautiful music that can stir something within us we like to call a soul is a mathematical layout that looks like a waveform of notes in the end and measuring those waveforms is what science really does.

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  • Eddie Pasternak

    “Thats what were told by creationism and its sibling, Intelligent Design”.

    Spelling fail.

  • Greg Fish

    Fail fixed. I’d fire my editor for this if he and I weren’t the same person!

  • http://www.popquizkid.net kara

    What’s your take on the ideology of science? Because when you say:

    Object A moves into slot G, chemical X turns into chemical Y, angle changes to 30 degrees. Those are scientific outcomes of an experiment. Amazement after glancing into a microscope and a profound sigh of delight at the wonder of nature isnt.

    I just can’t help wondering how scientists keep the amazement and the delight out of the A/G movements, the X/Y turns, the degree changes. I mean, people are documenting these changes. People, all wrapped up in culture, and history, and religion (atheism, if not a form of religion, is at least a hyperconsciousness of religion, sometimes importantly so). Is science immune to ideology?

  • Greg Fish

    I don’t think humans could make anything immune to ideology. But again, the point is to be amazed and delighted on your own time and keep as objective as possible in the lab.

  • GeorgeC

    “As cold as it might seem, science is supposed to be totally devoid of personal opinions. If you as a scientist are awed by nature and want to write gushing prose about it’s beauty, do it. But do it on your own time, not in a lab.”

    I couldn’t disagree more with both of those things. Opinion is important in science. If people like Capecchi didn’t take risks because their opinion was that certain things could be done those risks wouldn’t be taken. Similarly pushing your new research is all part of being a scientist. Facts don’t always speak for themselves, and people must be convinced.

    Secondly, the idea that finding “beauty” has no place in the “lab” is ridiculous. I suspect you’re not a scientist yourself and so you find it hard to understand how exciting it is when you finally figure something out by noticing the small data point that could prove it. Once you feel that elation, you’ll come to understand why research is full of people who find the small data points exciting and how it all is part of the beautiful simplicity of nature.

    Finally, science isn’t just looking down a microscope or looking at a small change in a lab. It’s communication. Lay people seem to miss the point that communication is a large part of what a researcher does. When I write a paper, my opinion and ideology goes into it. When I explain what the data show, my interpretation is put on it. Communication with lay people is also very important. It again involves opinion and showing the excitement of discovery and nature in order to educate.

  • gfish3000

    Secondly, the idea that finding “beauty” has no place in the “lab” is ridiculous.

    That’s not the idea advocated in the post. The idea is that treatises on how your lab work helps you understand the beauty of nature should be done on your own time, they’re not fodder for any peer reviewed papers outside an aside in the discussion section.

    Your suspicion about me is wrong. I did research work and yes, there’s opinion and ideology in papers and opinions in any scientific paper. But they’re all backed up with data points and evidence. They’re seldom vague, self-invented terms being paraded around as answers to complex questions or opinions being trotted out with no proof.