Saturday, June 21, 2008

He Thinks What?

Michigan State University professor Richard Lenski recently published one of the more exciting papers in biology to come out recently. It's the outcome of a 20-year experiment in e. coli evolution. In a nutshell, Lenski started with a single e. coli bacterium. From this he created 12 identical bacterial colonies. Each colony was grown in a citrate-heavy, glucose-poor medium. For twenty years, the colonies have been re-inoculated into fresh medium each morning(the old medium having exhausted all it's glucose by about halfway through the day), and a sample frozen. Lenski has been watching for genetic divergence among the twelve colonies.

The bacteria responded with the expected genetic divergence - developing more efficent ways to metabolize glucose, for example. Then something less expected happened. One of those colonies evolved the capacity to metabolize citrate. Based on Lenksi's work looking back through the samples, the ability seems to have required three separate mutations, the first one providing no apparent advantage to the bacterium posessing it.

While this is really cool, and why I started reading this article about the whole thing, it's not what this post is about. The discussion after the article is interesting, at least partially because one of the co-authors (Lenski's student Zachary Blount) pops in about halfway through and offers to answer questions as he can. A fairly hostile questioner immediately pops in and starts peppering him with questions (most of which could have been easily answered by simply reading the initial paper, many of which could be answered by a serious look at the review papers). Being unsatisfied with the answers he got (some of which were "go read this paper" with a link), he became even more hostile. Eventually he lets loose with this whopper.

"Zachary and his paper have no credibility because he won't answer some simple, basic, objective questions about it. Zachary and his supporters have long ago passed the final point where they could redeem themselves by giving straight, consistent answers to my questions.

This paper has attracted a tremendous amount of reviews and comments. I hope that a lot of people will see this thread so that Zachary and his paper will be thoroughly discredited."

Wait. What? What kind of doofus thinks that a comment thread on a blog involving a bunch of people who are merely interested non-scientists (and certainly mostly non-biologists), has any power whatsoever to discredit a reviewed, published and ground-breaking paper?

The web sure gives some people delusions of grandeur.


bill said...

Where Creationists are concerned, the rules of logic and the scientific method do not apply. :p

Perpetual Beginner said...

Yep. I came to the realization after watching Larry (the doofus in question) for a while, that he seriously thinks that science is decided by who wins the blog debate - that the better arguer, the one who "wins" gets to have good science.

Which, you know, not. A lot of the reason behind peer review and publishing papers is to reduce the influence of a particular scientists debating skills (good or bad) on how well his ideas are recieved. To throw the attention to the experiments themselves rather than the personalities behind them.