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E. coli outsmarts Conservapedia editors

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, July 2, 2008 3:09 EDT

Thanks to Mighty Ponygirl for the tip-off on what might be the funniest email exchange I’ve read in awhile. The story is simple. A scientist named Richard Lenski publishes a paper about E. coli evolution that’s been demonstrated in a laboratory. If you haven’t heard the story, it’s pretty simple—by forcing the bacteria to live under inhospitable conditions, Lenski was able to coax them into evolving an ability to survive by absorbing citrate. For some buttfuck stupid reason, the morons at Conservapedia thought that they could somehow look over the no doubt thick, impenetrable data gathered in the lab and prove that the scientists just made shit up in order to make the godbags of America look stupid. Or not even that. I get the impression from the email exchange that Conservapedia editor Andy Schlafly (who wants you to know he has lots of letters after his name) thought that merely asking for the data would scare Lenski so badly that he’d crap his pants and then immediately admit he made the whole thing up as part of the secular humanist conspiracy of god hate.

Please post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it, and note where in the data you find justification for your conclusions.

I will post your reply, or lack of reply, on www.conservapedia.com . Thank you.

Much to his dismay, the scientist did not actually buckle, because he didn’t actually make it up to make godbags look stupid. And why should he? Even if your goal is making godbags look stupid—and I suspect that Lenski is motivated more by his love of his work in biology—you don’t have to work hard, since they do it all on their own. Lenski replied by noting that the data is not, contrary to Schlafly’s insinuations, being concealed from the public. Because, you know, it’s science.

I suggest you might want to read our paper itself, which is available for download at most university libraries and is also posted as publication #180 on my website. Here’s a brief summary that addresses your three points.

Schafly, in true wingnut fashion, was not going to be deterred from his belief that Lenski is hoodwinking the public by something as simple as facts. If facts were enough to deter wingnuts, then wingnuttery would die in a time period that would put the brevity of the lifespan of E. coli to shame.

This is my second request for your data underlying your recent paper, “Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli,” published in PNAS (June 10, 2008) and reported in New Scientist (“Bacteria make major evolutionary shift in lab,” June 9, 2008).

He then puts up a bunch of links to documents containing the data. No, really. And then, triumphantly writes:

Your work was taxpayer-funded, and PNAS represents that its authors will make underlying data available. I’d like to review the data myself and ensure availability for others, including experts and my students. Others have expressed interest in access to the data in addition to myself, and your website seems well-suited for public release of these data.

Lenski is used to working with E. coli, and subsequently is used to dealing with beings of much greater intellectual capacity than editors of Conservapedia. With that in mind, I think we can forgive him his impatient reply.

First, it seems that reading might not be your strongest suit given your initial letter, which showed that you had not read our paper, and given subsequent conversations with your followers, in which you wrote that you still had not bothered to read our paper. You wrote: “I did skim Lenski’s paper …” If you have not even read the original paper, how do you have any basis of understanding from which to question, much less criticize, the data that are presented therein?

Because Schlafly has a B.S.E. and a J.D. after his name, and doesn’t need to do something like read a paper to know what’s in it, or that he could prove it wrong by wiping his E. coli laden ass with the paper he refuses to read.

Second, your capacity to misinterpret and/or misrepresent facts is plain in the third request in your first letter, where you said: “In addition, there is skepticism that 3 new and useful proteins appeared in the colony around generation 20,000.” That statement was followed by a link to a news article from NewScientist that briefly reported on our work. I assumed you had simply misunderstood that article, because there is not even a mention of proteins anywhere in the news article. As I replied, “We make no such claim anywhere in our paper, nor do I think it is correct. Proteins do not ‘appear out of the blue’, in any case.” So where did your confused assertion come from?….

As further evidence of your inability to keep even a few simple facts straight, you later wrote the following: “It [my reply] did clarify that his claims are not as strong as some evolutionists have insisted.” But no competent biologist would, after reading our paper with any care, insist (or even suggest) that “3 new and useful proteins appeared in the colony around generation 20,000” or any similar nonsense. It is only in your letter, and in your acolyte’s confused interpretation of our paper, that I have ever seen such a claim. Am I or the reporter for NewScientist somehow responsible for the confusion that reflects your own laziness and apparent inability to distinguish between a scientific paper, a news article, and a confused summary posted by an acolyte on your own website?

Rule #1 of Wingnutteria; Once a belief is established, from pregnancy pacts to protein counts, new information that contradicts the belief cannot be admitted, acknowledged, or even looked at for fear it will make you blind.

Third, it is apparent to me, and many others who have followed this exchange and your on-line discussions of how to proceed, that you are not acting in good faith in requests for data. From the posted discussion on your web site, it is obvious that you lack any expertise in the relevant fields. Several of your acolytes have pointed this out to you, and that your motives are unclear or questionable at best, but you and your cronies dismissed their concerns as rants and even expelled some of them from posting on your website. [Ed.: citation omitted due to spam filter] Several also pointed out that I had very quickly and straightforwardly responded that the methods and data supporting the evolution of the citrate-utilization capacity are already provided in our paper.

Oh, I think we all know that he sincerely believed that Lenski would roll over and find Jesus the second some two-bit moron challenged him. But let me leave you with the post scripts Lenski wrote, which are a thing of beauty not to be missed.

P.S. Did you know that your own bowels harbor something like a billion (1,000,000,000) E. coli at this very moment? So remember to wash your hands after going to the toilet, as I hope your mother taught you. Simple calculations imply that there are something like 10^20 = 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 E. coli alive on our planet at any moment. Even if they divide just once per day, and given a typical mutation rate of 10^-9 or 10^-10 per base-pair per generation, then pretty much every possible double mutation would occur every day or so. That’s a lot of opportunity for evolution.

P.P.S. I hope that some readers might get a chuckle out of this story. The same Sunday (15 June 2008) that you and some of your acolytes were posting and promoting scurrilous attacks on me and our research (wasn’t that a bit disrespectful of the Sabbath?), I was in a church attending a wedding. And do you know what Old Testament lesson was read? It was Genesis 1:27-28, in which God created Man and Woman. It’s a very simple and lovely story, and I did not ask any questions, storm out, or demand the evidence that it happened as written at a time when science did not yet exist. I was there in the realm of spirituality and mutual respect, not confusing a house of religion for a science class or laboratory. And it was a beautiful wedding, too.

P.P.P.S. You may be unable to understand, or unwilling to accept, that evolution occurs. And yet, life evolves! [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_pur_si_muove] From the content on your website, it is clear that you, like many others, view God as the Creator of the Universe. I respect that view. I find it baffling, however, that someone can worship God as the all-mighty Creator while, at the same time, denying even the possibility (not to mention the overwhelming evidence) that God’s Creation involved evolution. It is as though a person thinks that God must have the same limitations when it comes to creation as a person who is unable to understand, or even attempt to understand, the world in which we live. Isn’t that view insulting to God?

P.P.P.P.S. I noticed that you say that one of your favorite articles on your website is the one on “Deceit.” That article begins as follows: “Deceit is the deliberate distortion or denial of the truth with an intent to trick or fool another. Christianity and Judaism teach that deceit is wrong. For example, the Old Testament says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’” You really should think more carefully about what that commandment means before you go around bearing false witness against others.

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