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Now this is just funny.

Everyone remembers Conservapedia, right? The "Conservative answer to liberal bias on Wikipedia", or something like that. A strong proof of the theorem that it is impossible to distinguish between genuine wingnuts and parodies of same.

Well, the folks at Conservapedia have really stepped in it this time. A few weeks ago, a scientific paper was published showing strong evidence of evolution in bacteria. That being against the declared Conservative worldview, Conservapedia wrote to the author of the paper and demanded all the raw data so that they could show that the experiment was invalid.

He responded...

The letters back and forth can be found on Conservapedia (archived here in case they decide to scrub it).

We start out with Conservapedia grand master Andrew Schlafly (son of Phyllis), writing:

Skepticism has been expressed on Conservapedia about your claims, and the significance of your claims, that E. Coli bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study. Specifically, we wonder about the data supporting your claim that one of your colonies of E. Coli developed the ability to absorb citrate, something not found in wild E. Coli, at around 31,500 generations. In addition, there is skepticism that 3 new and useful proteins appeared in the colony around generation 20,000. A recent article about your claims appears in New Scientist here
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.e. "We think you're not telling the truth, so please send us all of the evidence that we think you have to support this claim.

Richard Lenski, lead scientist in this research, wrote back:

  1. "... your claims, that E. Coli bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study." We (my group and scientific collaborators) have already published several papers that document beneficial mutations in our long-term experiment. These papers provide exact details on the identity of the mutations, as well as genetic constructions where we have produced genotypes that differ by single mutations, then compete them, demonstrating that the mutations confer an advantage under the environmental conditions of the experiment. See papers # 122, 140, 155, 166, and 178 referenced on my website. In the latest paper, you will see that we make no claim to having identified the genetic basis of the mutations observed in this study. However, we have found a number of mutant clones that have heritable differences in behavior (growth on citrate), and which confer a clear advantage in the environment where they evolved, which contains citrate. Our future work will seek to identify the responsible mutations.

Shorter Lenski: "It might help if you read the paper before trying to disprove it. Looking at the supporting literature might also be a good idea".

Undeterred, our hero writes back to the good professor:

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).
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.
If the data are voluminous, then I particularly request access to the data that was made available to the peer reviewers of your paper, and to the data relating to the period during which the bacterial colony supposedly developed Cit+. As before, I'm requesting the organized data themselves, not the graphs and summaries set forth in the paper and referenced in your first reply to me. Note that several times your paper expressly states, "data not shown."
Given that this is my second request for the data, a clear answer is requested as to whether you will make the key underlying data available for independent review. Your response, or lack thereof, will be posted due to the public interest in this issue. Thank you.

What Schlafly doesn't seem to realize is that the "data that was made available to the peer reviewers" is the data in the paper, and possibly some online supporting materials which have the same availability as the paper itself. In other words, what the peer reviewers saw is what we the reading public can see (assuming that we the public have a subscription to PNAS, of course).  I could give a (long) list of other things that Schlafly doesn't understand about scientific research and publication, but I'l turn the floor back over to Professor Lenski, who schools Conservapedia at length. Because this is long, I'm only going to excerpt, but do read the whole thing at the links above, as it's a modern classic of the smackdown genre.

I tried to be polite, civil and respectful in my reply to your first email, despite its rude tone and uninformed content. Given the continued rudeness of your second email, and the willfully ignorant and slanderous content on your website, my second response will be less polite. I expect you to post my response in its entirety; if not, I will make sure that is made publicly available through other channels.
I offer this lengthy reply because I am an educator as well as a scientist. It is my sincere hope that some readers might learn something from this exchange, even if you do not.

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?


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.


Finally, let me now turn to our data. As I said before, the relevant methods and data about the evolution of the citrate-using bacteria are in our paper. In three places in our paper, we did say “data not shown”, which is common in scientific papers owing to limitations in page length, especially for secondary or minor points. None of the places where we made such references concern the existence of the citrate-using bacteria; they concern only certain secondary properties of those bacteria. We will gladly post those additional data on my website.
It is my impression that you seem to think we have only paper and electronic records of having seen some unusual E. coli. If we made serious errors or misrepresentations, you would surely like to find them in those records. If we did not, then – as some of your acolytes have suggested – you might assert that our records are themselves untrustworthy because, well, because you said so, I guess. But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren’t very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants. In other words, it’s not that we claim to have glimpsed “a unicorn in the garden” – we have a whole population of them living in my lab!  And lest you accuse me further of fraud, I do not literally mean that we have unicorns in the lab. Rather, I am making a literary allusion.

So, will we share the bacteria? Of course we will, with competent scientists. Now, if I was really mean, I might only share the ancestral strain, and let the scientists undertake the 20 years of our experiment. Or if I was only a little bit mean, maybe I’d also send the potentiated bacteria, and let the recipients then repeat the several years of incredibly pain-staking work that my superb doctoral student, Zachary Blount, performed to test some 40 trillion (40,000,000,000,000) cells, which generated 19 additional citrate-using mutants. But I’m a nice guy, at least when treated with some common courtesy, so if a competent scientist asks for them, I would even send a sample of the evolved E. coli that now grows vigorously on citrate

So there you have it. I know that I’ve been a bit less polite in this response than in my previous one, but I’m still behaving far more politely than you deserve given your rude, willfully ignorant, and slanderous behavior. And I’ve spent far more time responding than you deserve. However, as I said at the outset, I take education seriously, and I know some of your acolytes still have the ability and desire to think, as do many others who will read this exchange.

Richard Lenski

For further giggles, read the discussion on Conservapedia about these letters. Fun for the whole family!

(via Ars Technica)


Originally posted to dmsilev on Mon Jun 30, 2008 at 06:56 AM PDT.

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