Worst. Encyclopedia. Ever.

Conservapedia launches attack on evolution. A scientist gets annoyed

Published June 30, 2008 7:40PM (EDT)

I tried to read the Conservapedia entry on evolution a few moments ago, but after simultaneously breaking out in a cold sweat and hives I realized my body was experiencing a potentially deathly immune reaction, and I could actually feel my brain's synaptic activity slowing down.

To wit: from the self-declared "Trustworthy Encyclopedia":

Although the defenders of the theory of evolution contend there is evidence that supports the theory of evolution, there are many who are against the theory of evolution and state there is a multitude of serious problems with the theory of evolution. For example, an article by CBS News begins with the observation that, "Americans do not believe that humans evolved, and the vast majority says that even if they evolved, God guided the process. Just 13 percent say that God was not involved."

Why was I subjecting myself to such comedy? Well, thanks to DailyKos, I enjoyed the pleasure this morning of reading an exchange between Richard Lenski, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State University, and Andrew Schlafly, the grand poobah of Conservapedia.

Earlier this spring, Lenski and several co-authors published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the results of a long-running experiment involving many thousands of generations of E. coli that documented a striking example of evolution in action. After about 31,500 generations, a random mutation enabled a subpopulation of the E. coli to exploit citrate as a carbon source, something that the initial breeding population was incapable of achieving.

Schlafly and his Conservapedia followers were suspicious, and demanded access from Lenski to the "raw data" so that they could prove for themselves that he was, as a number of commenters posited, a "hack" perpetrating a "fraud." After some back and forth, Lenski unloaded a broadside against Schlafly that has to go down as one of the great, fact-based flames of all time.

Anyone who respects science and has been annoyed over the years by religious and culture-war motivated attacks on the theory of evolution will savor Lenski's response in full. But here's a taste:

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 web site.

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! [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unicorn_in_the_Garden] 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. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allusion]

For those interested in further discussion of the "data," the Conservapedia discussion page includes some additional informative back and forth between actual microbiologists and the skeptics. Which proves that even in a den of ignorance, enlightenment can be found.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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