Wednesday, June 25, 2008

and lo, the pwnage was both righteous and awesome

Generally the tactics of religious lunatics are pretty consistent when it comes to science: dance around talking about free speech and science not having all the answers, cry "persecution" when anyone tries to tell you that you're spouting unfounded and easily-refuted nonsense, and generally try to avoid making any testable or falsifiable claims whatsoever, for fear of having your arse handed to you on a plate by people cleverer than yourself.

Just occasionally one of them gets carried away, either through a spot of hubris or the expectation that no-one will rise to the bait, and starts making some specific claims. And, just occasionally, they get a little more in the way of a response than they were expecting, with richly amusing results.

Carl Zimmer's Loom blog carried this intriguing story a few weeks ago regarding some painstaking research that had been done into E. coli by Richard Lenski's team at Michigan State University revealing some interesting evolutionary adaptations over a period of 20 years.

Now, when I say "science" in the first paragraph, the bit that the religious have a beef with is always the same: anything to do with evolution. The heliocentric view of the solar system, gravity, the germ theory of medicine, those all seem to get a free pass despite in some cases not being exactly consistent with one holy book or other.

So....a few trolls stopped by the comment thread for the Loom post, and were indulged with admirable patience and restraint by Lenski's research colleague Zachary Blount.

Then Andrew Schlafly, founder of the richly comic (but not actually parodic, rather frighteningly) Conservapedia, got involved, and wrote a letter to Lenski demanding to see his source data. Pointlessly, since most of it was referenced in the paper anyway, but one presumes Schlafly was expecting to be ignored and then be able to assume carte blanche to whine about the Big Darwinist Conspiracy in the usual way.

Amusingly, though, Lenski replied. Possibly because after being locked in a lab with only a few trillion bacteria for company for 20 years he was keen to converse, and was unaware of who Schlafly was. His reply basically said, in very polite terms, read the paper and the literature referenced in it, and then, if you've got any specific questions, get back to me.

Needless to say Schlafly wasn't about to do that, so he had another pop, at which point Lenski presumably started to smell a big fat creationist rat, and issued a lengthier, more detailed and very slightly less polite response. As you know, I don't use the word "pwnage" lightly, but I think it's entirely appropriate here.

My predictions for possible further developments:
  • Schlafly affects a lofty disdain for the (pretty mild) invective in Lenski's second reply, and therefore declares himself to have won the argument.
  • Schlafly makes a whole bunch of entirely unreasonable demands regarding handover of data and samples, Lenski refuses to have anything to do with the whole thing, and Schlafly declares himself to be a victim of the Big Darwinist Conspiracy, and therefore to have won the argument.
  • Schlafly changes tack, declares that "they're still just bacteria" and that because none of them gave birth to a cat or a tapir during the 20-year experimental period evolution is therefore debunked, and he wins the argument.
  • Lenski delivers some sealed flasks of E. coli to Schlafly, Schlafly drops them on the floor while praying for divine revelation, and they eat him. Not very likely, but we can hope.
[Incidentally I'd like it noted that I posted this before reading Ben Goldacre's quite similar article - similar even down to the extensive gloating use of the word "pwnage". Too much to hope that I would scoop professional bloggers on this one, I guess, as it is bulgingly ripe with comedy.]

No comments: