Archive for Monday, October 11, 2004

Numerical fallacy

October 11, 2004

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To the editor:

The fallacy of very small numbers.

Kale Woods' use of Chandra Wickramasinghe's one in 10 to the 40,000th power as an estimate for the probability of getting a single enzyme is a favorite creationist trick, namely to dazzle the naive with what appear to be vastly improbable numbers. However, I can easily generate sequences of events which are equally astounding. For instance, if I flip 132,877 pennies and record the sequence of heads and tails, each sequence has about the same probability cited by Ms. Woods.

Returning to the world of enzymes, were there a unique combination of amino acids for a particular function then biology would have a problem explaining how that sequence arose. But biologists know that enzymes don't have to be perfect to be useful and quite different sequences of amino acids can have at least some function.

By the way, Dr. Wickramasinghe is an advocate of panspermia, the idea that life originated in space, a fascinating idea. If teaching the controversy means evaluating panspermia, then fine; at least panspermia is testable in contrast to the creationism and intelligent design ideas that some are attempting to foist on our kids.

Paul Decelles,

Lawrence

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