A team at Michigan State University recently published a biology paper about the evolution of E. Coli that produced some remarkable results:
The bacteria are growth-constrained by low levels of glucose, and most lines have evolved so that they burn through the glucose as quickly as possible, then wait for the next daily infusion. About 33,000 generations in, however, one line of bacteria did something else entirely: it began to digest the large amounts of citrate present in the media. This is more startling than it sounds, as E. coli is sometimes defined by its inability to metabolize citrate.
Naturally, this pretty straightforward example of evolution is intensely threatening to the strain of conservatives who are deeply invested in denying evolution, like the people who populate Conservapedia, the encyclopedia founded to combat the “liberal bias” at Wikipedia.
The denizens of Conservapedia were not amused. They apparently subscribe to the belief that acceptance of some scientific data goes against conservative values.
Clearly, Lenski’s bacteria appear to have evolved a significant new capacity. Fortunately, the residents of Conservapedia found a way out of this logical conundrum: Lenski was either misinterpreting his data, or he faked it. In an open letter to Lenski, Conservapedia’s Andy Schlafly (an attorney with an engineering background) wrote, “skepticism has been expressed on Conservapedia about your claims, and the significance of your claims, that E. Coli [sic] bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study.” Their solution? Show them the data: “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.”
Lenski replied, noting that the whole purpose of scientific paper is to discuss and display data and to use them to justify conclusions; the data were in the paper itself. He also pointed out he’d placed a copy of the paper on his website for those without subscriptions to PNAS. Lenski also spent some time reexplaining some of his conclusions, and pointing out errors and misconceptions in the letter he had received. This response prompted a second letter from Schlafly, suggesting he wanted to review the data underlying the data presented in the paper, and noting that the work is taxpayer funded, giving him a right to it as a taxpayer.
From here on out, standard Internet drama ensued. By the time of his next reply, Lenski had apparently read the discussion pages attached to the letters, and discovered that Schlafly hadn’t actually bothered to read the paper he was demanding the data for. He has also discovered that some Conservapedia members were simply calling the whole thing a hoax, and accusing him of having engaged in research fraud. As a result, Lenski was apparently very annoyed, and his second letter is far more assertive.
Lenski again notes that the paper actually contained the relevant data, and that Schlafly’s complaints suggested he wouldn’t know what to do with any further data were Lenski to provide it to him. In this, he was backed up by a number of Conservapedia members, who said more or less the same thing in the attached discussion. Several of those individuals are apparently now ex-Conservapedia members, having had their accounts blocked for insubordination. In fact, anyone who questioned Schlafly’s demands seem to have been branded an opponent of public access to scientific data; the statement, “I’ll add your name to the list above of people who oppose the public release of data” peppers Schlafly’s responses throughout the discussion.
So, science, published in a peer-reviewed journal and conforming to all the standards of research, meets conservative dogma. Unsurprisingly, for the denizens of Conservapedia, dogma wins. They the scientists frauds and demand to see all the “data” in the form of the actual bacterial samples, knowing full well that they will never get them, then use the facts that they can’t get their hands on the actual bacteria to call the scientists untrustworthy and call their experiments into doubt. Ladies and gentlemen, your Conservative movement. Is it any wonder these folks can’t run a government?