I attended a talk by James Tour last night at a large, highly conservative church in my area. I’ll start with a couple of good points. I was glad to see him mention @swamidass and mention his work on GAE. He praised the book and highly recommended it to the audience. Additionally, to his credit, toward the end of his talk, he did mention an incident (without using names) when he accused a researcher of lying. He admitted fault and seemed sincere in his wish that he hadn’t used such strong language. He also mentioned a conversation he had with the other party over the phone that was quite gracious.
He proceeded to attack Szostak’s reasoning that was discussed in the phone call. I wish he would have left it alone, because that definitely added a rather bitter aftertaste to what sounded like heartfelt regret over the incident.
He also seemed to have his finger on the heartbeat of his audience and definitely geared his talk to what they wanted to hear. Several of his points could have been wrapped up as “Scientists make a ridiculous guess, publish some research that doesn’t show what they say it shows, whip up science media to exaggerate claims, take advantage of an ignorant public, and cram these results into textbooks.” This sequence of events was portrayed both for OoL research and for evolution, in general. I found this incredibly ironic as he was using tactics very similar to what he claimed the rest of the scientific community uses.
The meat of his talk was in stark contrast to that of a talk he gave about 13 months ago to scientists and physicians at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. After the MDACC talk, he was asked directly if he believed that the theory of evolution was the best explanation for what is not observable in biology today. He answered that evolution was “the only ballpark in town”, which I thought at the time was an odd way to put it, but it apparently concealed that he has serious doubts about evolutionary theory. Last night, he went so far as to mention Mary Schweitzer’s research and expressed doubt about the preservation of soft tissue. I don’t know if he intentionally sounded YEC-ish to a YEC audience, or if he really has YEC-ish leanings.
What was particularly upsetting was the rather cagey way in which he discussed human/chimp genome similarity and the ENCODE project. He claimed, in front of hundreds of people, that the 95% similarity referred only to the 1.5% of the genome that contains genes. He stated (possibly technically accurately, but incredibly misleading) that scientists were finding more and more dissimilarity in intergenic regions, but did not address the extremely high degree of similarity in those intergenic regions. Essentially, he pulled off the impressive trick of taking a jab at the term “junk DNA”, while simultaneously misleading the audience to believe that non-coding DNA was completely mismatched.
Outside of the GAE reference and the admission of fault for the Szostak attack, I could not have been more disappointed.