Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Retraction of Granville Sewell

Followers of Uncommon Descent and other Intelligent Design websites may be aware that recently there was a triumphalist announcement by Dr. Dr. William Dembski of the acceptance for publication of a paper by Dr Granville Sewell, a math professor at University of Texas, El Paso. It was exactly the kind of premature "Waterloo" announcement that has backfired on Dembski in the past, and it did this time as well.
Applied Mathematics Letters had accepted the paper, but not yet published it. Dr. Sewell had a prepublication version up on his own site, to which Dembski's UD post was linked.
The paper itself was a repetition of Sewell's argument that SLOT disproves TOE. Sewell's argument is more like FOOT in MOUTH, though that hasn't prevented him from repeating it nearly word-for-word over the years, as Wesley Elsberry showed in a posting on Panda's Thumb.
Looking up the editor of AML, I took it upon myself to apprise him of the error of his ways.
Dr Rodin,
I am appalled to see a preprint, apparently from Applied Mathematical Letters, of the often repeated and often refuted nonsense of Granville Sewell on an anti-science web site.
Dr Sewell, whose expertise lies in partial differential equations, has writen several times on the relevance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the topic of evolution. Each time he makes poor arguments that do not show any understanding of the physics or chemistry involved, clearly contradicting the philosophy of your journal.
A concise refutation is
The reputation of AML will be harmed by publishing this article by Sewell.
David vun Kannon
Dr. Rodin's response was swift and has been published elsewhere. AML retracted publication. Science wins!
A big shoutout of thanks to Dr. William Dembski, whose premature ejaculations helped avoid even more severe embarrassment for AML.


Hermagoras said...

Meanwhile, the sound of crickets from the IDC community. Are they going to just pretend it didn't happen?

Anonymous said...


email me please.

NickM said...

Looks like they got lawyers to scare the editors into apologizing! Holy moly, I didn't think that ever happened, most editors value intellectual merit above political/legal threats...i.e. "this is long-refuted creationist garbage" is a valid reason to retract an article, but "we are suing you if you don't dignify our creationist garbage" is not a reason to knuckle under.

Anonymous said...


What a small world! This is Anonymous from the Metamorphosis thread. Imagine my surprise when I was reading through my usual blogs and came across this article:

You really get around! I had no idea. Might I ask what your reaction is to recent developments?

Michael said...

"Science wins", more like "science lost" and "dogmatism wins". But anyway, evolutionary fundamentalism lost since the publisher has now apologized to Dr. Sewell. Why can´t Darwinists just deal with the arguments? Instead of trying to silence their opponents.

David vun Kannon said...

Thank you to all, asking for my response. It is now (8 June 2011) at the top o' the blog.

Anonymous said...


//Looks like they got lawyers to scare the editors into apologizing! Holy moly, I didn't think that ever happened, most editors value intellectual merit above political/legal threats...i.e. "this is long-refuted creationist garbage" is a valid reason to retract an article, but "we are suing you if you don't dignify our creationist garbage" is not a reason to knuckle under.//

I think you have it exactly backwards. An ID friendly paper was submitted that was peer reviewed and accepted for publication.

Then, when the Darwinist fundamentalists caught wind of this, they began writing the editor and intimidated the editor into clearly breaking all of the journal's established rules for publication of articles. There was no way to defend this, thus the journal paid the attorney's fees and issued a public apology.

But congratulations on getting the article pulled. It's very reaffirming to see that rather than debate the other side in the arena of ideas (for example, someone else could have published their own article to refute the article by Sewell), you have to resort to the usual tactics.

Anonymous said...

Science wins? You supressed the publication of an article written by a man with a PhD in mathematics. May I ask what your qualifications are? What did you get your PhD in? If ID is so false, then debate it on the floor instead of supressing it.

David vun Kannon said...

Anonymous, as you can see from my letter, I make clear that Dr Sewell's credentials in mathematics, particularly partial differential equations, have no bearing on his ability to speak with any authority on evolution or entropy. I happen to have an MS in Computer Science, but that isn't relevant either. What is relevant is that Dr Sewell cannot and does not address what happens on the surface of the planet between high energy photons entering the atmosphere, and low energy photons leaving the atmosphere.

When I did have a reasonable and courteous conversation about this in the Uncommon Descent blog with Dr Sewell, he could not answer these issues, and said we would have to agree to disagree. So, far from welcoming a discussion on the issues, even on a forum favorable to his views, which regularly bans and muzzles commenters, he ran away from the discussion.

David vun Kannon said...

Anonymous (responding to NickM),

I don't think the paper was particularly ID friendly. Anti-X is not pro-Y unless you think X and Y are complete, logical opposites. Very few people think that of ID and evolution. Most anti-evolution folks would, if pressed, say they accept "micro-evolution". Some would say they accept deep time, common descent, variation, selection, etc.

I also don't think you can rightly call my letter (or others) intimidation. Please quote the intimidating sentences in my letter, it is right here.

Anonymous said...

//I also don't think you can rightly call my letter (or others) intimidation. Please quote the intimidating sentences in my letter, it is right here.//


While I agree that your letter was not particularly intimidating, the cumulative effect of various individuals writing letters (as another guy has already admitted that he did on another thread), notable scientists ridiculing the journal, being labeled as "anti-science", and the Hector Avaloses, PZ Myers, and Eugenie Scotts of the world would make many people in academia fear to stray too far away from the party line.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this editor thought he would be excoriated and blacklisted (as has happened to people like Martin Gaskell and Richard Sternberg) if he allowed an ID friendly paper to be published and in a panic he pulled the plug.

But this is all par for the course. The materialist thought police do their cause more harm them good, as it makes them out to be fundamentalist ideologues that can't handle dissenting points of view. The truth will win out in the end.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous,
Yeah, all those folks would make any editor shake in their editorial boots. It is a pity none of them wrote to the editor or influenced his decision. You've constructed a scenario which did not exist.
I agree that the decision by Dr Rodin was extraordinary, but a couple of letters from random folks isn't enough to motivate that action. The evidence supplied in my letter might, or Dr Rodin's just reading the paper, are more likely motivations.

Petri said...

AFAIS, these are the main points of the Sewell article:
(1) Thermodynamically, open systems resemble closed ones in that, due to the microscopical probabilities, the natural direction of change over time is always towards disorder.
(2) The only way of increasing some kind of order (there are various kinds) in an open system is by enriching it with something that directly enhances the probability of the relevant kind of order in that particular open system.
(3) What has been stated in (1)&(2) is readily present in the standard thermodynamical equations themselves, although this may not be an immediately obvious or widely recognized fact.

Now, this seems quite straightforward and rather persuasive argumentation. If true, these are important facts. If untrue, it's important to know, where exactly lies the problem.

In your letter, you gave a link to an article you say refutes Dr. Sewell's argument. I tried to follow it, but the article turned out to lie beyond free access, so the effort wasn't successful.

Thus, I'd appreciate if you'd reiterate here the counterarguments you think absolutely refute what Dr. Sewell has stated (the statements (1)-(3) above, or at least some of them). A balanced view is hardly obtainable without access to both of the rivalling argumentations.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Petri,

The Styer article is available as I've just linked. Its basic argument is to calculate the total entropy received from the Sun by the surface of the Earth over the last few billion years, and compare that gigantic number with the entropy required to drive evolution. That second number is obviously an estimate based on some very broad assumptions, and can be critiqued. I would be thrilled if an ID friendly scientist made such an attempt.

1) Open systems don't resemble closed systems, without some further description. I own a refrigerator, which is running on electricity. The refrigerator is an open system, but the food inside is not spoiling and tending towards disorder. I could make a similar example of a superconducting magnet inside a refrigerated enclosure. So an open system does not necessarily resemble a closed system in any way, until you start adding constraints that define its resemblance to a closed system. So assumption number 1 is just wrong.

2)Yes. For example, I have a pan of salt water sitting in the sun in my kitchen. The high energy (visible light) photons coming from the sun are absorbed by the black coating of the pan, which goes into thermal motion, heating the water and evaporating some of it. As the water evaporates, salt crystals form in the pan. One part of the open system is going into a higher order state (the salt crystals) while another goes into a lower order state. The average direction of the order of the open system will depend on where we draw the boundaries, which gets back to the problems in 1, above.

Sewell's paper cannot even explain the formation of salt crystals. It can't explain photosynthesis. Order from disorder! OMG! Dogs and cats living together!! This is why it is such an absurdly bad paper. These problems were pointed out to Dr Sewell earlier (by me among others), but he has never acknowledged them. The wonder is not that the paper was retracted, it is that it was ever accepted.

Ezra Abrams said...

Not sure I agree with you
I'm a very liberal scientisst who views ID as, at abest, a dishonest way to sneak one particular form of religion into the classroom.
However, the sewell paper passed peer review.
Either the journal has to admit is has no peer review, or the paper has to be published.
To do othewise is to set political concerns (sewell is an idiot) over the well established rules of the game.
In any event, this argument isn't really about facts: the ID people and those who support them are working from psychological motivations (like the loss of rural jobs with the rise of mega factory farms) that have nothing to do with the science of evolution

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Ezra,

I agree with you. If you look at the text of my letter to Dr Rodin, the editor at AML, I did not ask for retraction. I simply expressed dismay at the events. Retraction was Dr Rodin's choice. If you go over to the Retraction Watch blog, you'll find that he retracted other papers at about the same time as well.

Yes, the peer review process broke down. They had attempted to implement some kind of 'rapid review' process and it was taken advantage of. That said, rescinding acceptance due to error seems to be a valid option within the Elsevier publishing process. I think that covers this case.

Petri said...

Yes, I was able to read the Styer article via your new link without problems, thanks.

I'd like to get the picture as clear as possible, and so I'm now presenting my current reading of what you offered as refutations of the Sewell article (for practical reasons, I named the three distinct types of refutations I could find, too):

(I) The Analytical Refutation (AR) denounces the Sewellian Analogy (SA) between thermodynamically open and closed systems: "an open system does not necessarily resemble a closed system in any way, until you start adding constraints that define its resemblance to a closed system. So assumption number 1 is just wrong."

(II) The Synthetical Refutation (SR): "Sewell's paper cannot even explain the formation of salt crystals. It can't explain photosynthesis."

(III) The Global Refutation (GR): the quantitative argumentation in the Styer article.

I'd like to discuss these considerations even further, but before that, I'd appreciate some feedback about whether I seem to have been getting your points right this far.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Petri,

I think you've summarized the points I was making in that comment. There might be other points that could be made, certainly other commenters around the internet have focused on other aspects of the paper. Your names are fine with me, though you could have used A, B, and C just as easily.

Petri said...

As AR directly tackles the Sewell article, I'd like to scrutinize it first.

I find it helpful to dissect the argumentation in the Sewell article as follows.

(A) The analysis of entropies, especially of the equations of entropy change

For easy referencing, let us call the Sewell notion of entropy, and the valid understanding of entropy, as Sewell Entropy (SE), and True Entropy (TE), accordingly. The contents of (A) might now be succinctly summarized:


("the Sewell Entropy equals True Entropy"), i.e., the Sewell article claims to give its readers a valid scientific notion of entropy, and this in itself may be considered as its first central thesis.

Using this notation, denying (A) is tantamount to asserting the opposite of SE = TE, viz., SE ≠ TE ("the Sewell Entropy does not equal True Entropy").

The second central thesis of the Sewell article:

(B) SE = TE implies SA
("if the Sewell Entropy equals True Entropy, then Sewellian Analogy holds as well")

In the Sewell article, SA is expressed, e.g.: "Stated in terms of order, Eq. (5) says that the X-order in an open system cannot increase faster than it is imported through the boundary. According to (4), the X-order in a system can decrease in two different ways: it can be converted to disorder
(first integral term) or it can be exported through the boundary (boundary integral term). It can increase in only one way: by importation through the boundary." If this is so, then in open systems, as well as in closed ones, the "innate direction" is always towards disorder, hence SA.

The third and last central thesis of the Sewell article:

(C) Denying the Compensation Argument (DCA), where the Compensation Argument (CA) states:
"Anything can happen in an open system as long as the entropy increases outside the system compensate the entropy decreases inside the system."

In the Sewell article and applying to the present state on the Earth, DCA has the structure:

If SA then
either the influx of solar energy into the Earth makes the appearance of the present situation not extremely improbable,
or we have to conclude that the second law has in fact been violated here.

AFAIS, (A), (B), and (C) (i.e., "SE = TE", "SE = TE, therefore SA", and "SA, therefore DCA") can be treated as separate arguments, to be handled separately. Thus, to refute the Sewell article, it seems to suffice to refute either one of the three.

As I'm trying to locate where exactly the considered error in the Sewell article lies, I'd appreciate your comment here: should we next concentrate on analysing (A), (B), or (C). (The other ones could also be handled later on, if needed.)

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Petri,

My comment was directed mostly at what you are calling B. Saying that order flows into a system at the boundary, flows out at the boundary, or can decay internally does not dictate the total amount of order or rate of growth of order (the difference between the input and output rates).

Say I have a super-duper atomic force microscope that can move individual atoms. AFMs really exist, mine is super-duper because I can use it to force carbon atoms into position to become diamond, atom by atom. I define my open system to be the set of carbon atoms. Order is flowing in through the boundary (mostly the tip of the AFM), flowing out though the substrate the diamond is resting on, and decaying internally as carbon atoms move around (sometimes ruining the diamond lattice). But that isn't stopping the diamond from growing - the total order of the system is growing.

If Sewell wanted to say something like "disorder must increase", he would have to say that the input must be less than output. Which he can't. Saying that just constrains the set of open systems he's willing to talk about.

I note in passing that you have shifted from terms used to categorize my comment to applying those terms to Sewell's original paper. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to flag it if it becomes a problem later.

Petri said...

I think this conversation is getting more and more interesting, and I appreciate your input and the swiftness of it, too.

I have a hunch that what Dr. Sewell had in mind is not quite so far apart from what you are stating as it might seem. (Of course, I can err here.) One of his main concerns seems to be that a vital part of the information inherent in the entropy equations is often dismissed when talking about entropy changes in open systems, and that this systematically distorts some of the reasoning.

I understood from your latest reply that you (more or less) agree with the beginning (namely, the "A part") of the Sewell argument. I had the impression that "order flows into a system at the boundary, flows out at the boundary, or can decay internally" was not only a rephrasing of Sewell but also something you'd accept as a valid way of describing the entropy changes that can occur in open systems, and, moreover, that this could be understood as the proper general framework of reasoning about entropy changes in open systems. (If I'm wrong here, please correct me.)

If this is so, it seems there is a nontrivial common ground, after all; and having a nontrivial common ground is also one of the proper prerequisites for being able to locate, describe, and measure the disagreements.

There is more I'd like to say (concerning the rest of your reply and the previous ones, too), but as I'm trying to avoid jumping into premature conclusions about your position towards the "A" phase of the Sewell article, I'd like to have a comment on this posting before proceeding.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Petri,

As I said in my previous reply, my initial reply comment to you was focused on what you have called B. That does not mean that I accept what you have termed A as true or in accord with the vast amount of what we know about physics and the second law. Other folks, physicists and chemical engineers who have much better backgrounds than I do, have focused their criticisms on A.

There are many problems with equating entropy and disorder. See for example. But Sewell's whole argument relies on equating them, since he wants to talk about X-order.

To summarize, silence does not equal agreement between my views and Sewell's paper. There is only so much where I feel I can contribute value in the space allowed. I've focused on B because its failures are simple and actually don't depend on what we're talking about flowing across the boundary - entropy, disorder, order, pixie dust or whiskey.

Petri said...

I fully agree on the need to focus, and apologize if I seemingly have jumped to unwarranted interpretations of what you had or had not stated. Yet, in order to get things clear, I felt I had to make some kind of inquiry concerning that point (and was aware of, and expicitly mentioned, the possibility of erring in my interpretation).

AFAIS, the persuasiveness of the Sewell article does not lie in the wording ("X-order" might as well be called "X-negentropy", "X-yportne", something else, or just left unnamed) but in the way it advertises itself as an illumination of the precise relationship between open and closed systems. (Other readers might feel differently, of course.)

As this is of central importance to me, before entering to the other issues (which I want to do ASAP), I'd like to have your comment also to this suggested reformulation of what can happen in an open system: "entropy flows into a system at the boundary, flows out at the boundary, or can increase internally".

(I'm kind of a "depth-first-searching-personality", so I feel the need to try and further one question to some state of clarity before opening the next one. I know that can be considered as annoying narrow-mindedness, but I assure that, if need be, I'll accept "no comment" as an answer. I just need to know I've done my best to get the answer, so, if I won't see one, it won't be because I hadn't even asked the question, but for some reason beyond my reach. That'll be good enough for me, and I'll feel internally free to discuss other points.)

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Petri,

Sorry for the slight delay in publishing your comment and replying. I'm in the process of moving - quite hectic!

I think that with respect to Sewell's "X-order" it is important to note that he isn't just renaming an existing concept, he's inventing new concepts and assuming that a conservation law will apply to them. We could go into that in greater depth at another time.

I'm pretty sure I agree with your statement about open systems.

Anonymous said...

how can you evolutions even have the brain power to dress yourselves in the morning. read the full story you opionionated closed relgion god of evolution folks. play there monky fools, its because OF YOU THEY HAVE FUNDING.

got a question then lets DISCUSS it.

no wonder your country HAS DISINTEGRATED. Congrats!

read it

Anonymous said...

You people are blind cowardly fools; you in particular David vunKannon of Terafly, New Jersey. I suggest you monkey boys laugh while you can as your time is getting very short.
Dan Whitehead
Irving, Tx.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Dan,

Thank you for immortalizing yourself on the internet, to the embarrassment of your children and grandchildren.

Mats said...

Science doesn't win when criticism of darwinian fairy tales are censored. Bigotry wins like that.

Science wins with open discussion, free of censorship.

But I guess the theory of evolution has a diferent set of requirements.