How the scientific consensus is maintained

This is a story about how the scientific consensus is often maintained on controversial issues, even when it is bad science—and how it can be challenged.

Anyone who has ever argued that the spectacular increase in order seen on Earth seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics—at least the more general formulations of this law—is familiar with the standard reply: although entropy (disorder) cannot decrease in an isolated system, the Earth is an open system, and entropy can decrease in an open system as long as the decrease is compensated by increases outside the open system. Isaac Asimov, for example, in a 1970 Smithsonian Magazine article, expresses the argument as follows:

Remove the sun, and the human brain would not have developed…. And in the billions of years that it took for the human brain to develop, the increase in entropy that took place in the sun was far greater; far, far greater than the decrease that is represented by the evolution required to develop the human brain.

Most people, when they hear this “compensation” argument, realize there is something terribly wrong with the logic. If we watched a video of a tornado running backward, turning rubble into houses and cars, would we argue that this did not violate the second law, because tornados derive their energy from the sun, and the increase in entropy on the sun is far greater than the decrease seen on the video? And yet Asimov, Richard Dawkins, and every general physics textbook which mentions evolution and the second law argue that the spontaneous rearrangement of atoms on our once-barren planet into high-speed computers, libraries full of science texts and novels, cars and trucks and airplanes, did not violate the second law because the spectacular decrease in entropy seen on Earth is compensated by increases outside our open system.

My 2005 John Wiley book, The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, included an Appendix which challenged this compensation idea. In this Appendix I showed that the very equations of entropy change upon which the illogical compensation idea is based actually support, on closer examination, the common sense conclusion that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is isolated, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.” The fact that entropy can decrease in an open system does not mean that tornados can turn rubble into houses and cars, and it does not mean that computers can appear on a barren planet as long as the planet receives solar energy; something must be entering which makes the appearance of computers not extremely improbable, for example: computers.

In the Fall of 2010, I was invited to give a talk based on the ideas in this Appendix, at a 2011 Cornell University symposium entitled Biological Information: New Perspectives. After preparing my paper for this symposium, I decided to submit it to a mathematics journal, Applied Mathematics Letters . The article was peer reviewed and accepted, and scheduled for publication in March 2011. But only a few days before it was to be published, a New Jersey Darwinist blogger heard that AML was going to publish it, and wrote the AML editor saying the article was flawed and should be retracted. The only evidence he offered that my article was flawed was a link to a 2008 American Journal of Physics article by Daniel Styer, which will be discussed below.

A few days later I received a letter from the editor telling me he was withdrawing my article because “our editors simply found that it does not consist of the kind of content we are interested in publishing.” Since the publisher’s public guidelines state that withdrawing an article after it has been accepted is only to be done in extreme cases, I was afraid people would think that the journal had followed its own guidelines and would assume the paper was seriously flawed. So I found a lawyer who persuaded AML to publish an apology in the journal, and in fact the publisher also paid $10,000 in legal fees, thereby acknowledging that the editor had failed to follow the publisher’s policies in this case (see story here.) The published apology states that the article was withdrawn “not because of any errors or technical problems found by the reviewers or editors, but because the Editor-in-Chief subsequently concluded that the content was more philosophical than mathematical.”

Since AML still refused to publish my accepted article, I went ahead and presented it at the May 2011 Cornell symposium, as originally planned, and submitted a revised version for inclusion in the proceedings. Nearly a year later, in March 2012, the proceedings had been peer-reviewed and typeset, and the book was ready to be printed, in accordance with a signed publication agreement with Springer Verlag. But once again, ever-vigilant Darwinists discovered that Springer was about to publish these proceedings, and pressured the publisher into delaying and, in the end, canceling publication (see story here).

Meanwhile, in March 2012, another mathematics journal, The Mathematical Intelligencer, published an article by Bob Lloyd criticizing my writings on this topic, primarily the AML article. The AML article had by now become so widely read that this journal apparently felt it needed to be rebutted, even though it had never been published. Naturally, I prepared a response to the Mathematical Intelligencer piece, and submitted it as a letter to the editor, but it was rejected (see story here).

In his concluding sentence, Lloyd writes

The qualitative point associated with the solar input to Earth, which was dismissed so casually in the abstract of the AML paper, and the quantitative formulations of this by Styer and Bunn, stand, and are unchallenged by Sewell’s work.

The Styer paper he mentions is, remember, the only evidence cited by the New Jersey blogger to support his claim, in his letter to the AML editor, that my article was flawed. In my response I wrote:

The American Journal of Physics papers by Styer and Bunn illustrate beautifully the type of logic my writings are criticizing, so let’s look at these papers.Styer estimated the rate of decrease in entropy associated with biological evolution as less than 302 Joules/degree Kelvin/second, noted that this rate is very small, and concluded “Presumably the entropy of the Earth’s biosphere is indeed decreasing by a tiny amount due to evolution and the entropy of the cosmic microwave background is increasing by an even greater amount to compensate for that decrease.” To arrive at this estimate, Styer assumed that “each individual organism is 1000 times more improbable than the corresponding individual was 100 years ago” (a “very generous” assumption), used the Boltzmann formula to calculate that a 1000-fold decrease in probability corresponds to an entropy decrease of kBlog(1000), multiplied this by a generous overestimate for the number of organisms on Earth, and divided by the number of seconds in a century.

Since about five million centuries have passed since the beginning of the Cambrian era, if organisms are, on average, 1000 times more improbable every century, that would mean that today’s organisms are, on average, about 1015000000 times more improbable than those at the beginning of the Cambrian. But, Styer argues, there is no conflict with the second law because the Earth is an open system, so any extremely improbable events here can be compensated by events elsewhere in the universe.

I concluded,

If you want to show that the spontaneous rearrangement of atoms into machines capable of mathematical computation and interplanetary travel does not violate the fundamental natural principle behind the second law, you cannot simply say, as Styer and Bunn and so many others do, sure, evolution is astronomically improbable, but the Earth is an open system, so there is no problem as long as something (anything, apparently) is happening outside the Earth which, if reversed, would be even more improbable. You have to argue that what has happened on Earth is not really astronomically improbable, given what has entered (and exited) our open system. Why is such a simple and obvious point so controversial?

How the Scientific Consensus can be Challenged

But, alas, it seems that, today, silencing dissent is not nearly as easy as it used to be.

The Cornell proceedings have now been published by another publisher, World Scientific Publishing Co. (here; my contribution is here.) Notice particularly the little story in “The Common Sense Law of Physics” which shows in a humorous way how silly the compensation argument really is.

And the journal Bio-Complexity has now published my new article “Entropy and Evolution” which I believe contains the strongest and clearest presentation of my viewpoint to date. The first thought that will occur to many people who read it will be, how could this illogical compensation argument have gone unchallenged for so long in the scientific literature? Well, now you know how.

This is an abridged version of the original article at Discovery Institute’s Evolution News and Views site, which contains more detail, and references for the articles cited here. Dr. Sewell is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso.