Saturday, July 19, 2008

The world's crappiest encyclopedia just got crappier

Unless you're an ignorant Luddite who's just learning to "get on the Internet," you're familiar with Conservapedia, a right-wing attempt to create an Internet Ghetto of Ignorance. It is a place where they can go to not be confronted by facts or be disturbed by reality's well-known liberal bias. It is a place where ideology trumps reality. But now they've set their sights on actually interfering with the scientific process.

Let me explain. No there is too much. Let me sum up. Richard Lenski at Michigan State University has been performing an experiment on E. coli for the past twenty years. Recently, they published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the E. coli had evolved an entirely new feature; namely, that the bacteria could eat the citrate present in the cell medium, where it normally just subsists on glucose that's in there. Here is the New York Times article and here is one of the many good blog articles about his research.

Conservapedia can't let this stand. A demonstration of evolution in action is a direct threat to their creationist views. So Andrew Schlafly, head Conservapedia wingnut, started trying to discredit the paper. He first wrote Lenski demanding his data. Lenski responded saying that all the relevant data was in the PNAS paper. Schlafly wrote again, demanding Lenski's data apparently claiming that he has some sort of right to it since Lenski's work was "taxpayer funded." (As if a scientist working on a government grant has a responsibility to copy decades of work for any yahoo that stops by his lab.) He's even threatened legal action. Lenski responded again with a letter that I can only describe as a thing of beauty. RationalWiki has the entire exchange archived, but it's Lenski's second response that has got to be one of the best takedowns of such an ignoramus I've ever seen. Give it a read.

Oh, but it gets better!

Conservapedia now has a Flaws in Richard Lenski Study page, as well as trying to claim they found lots of errors in his paper at their Richard Lenski page. They're also threatening to write a Letter to PNAS for publication (not unusual if someone wishes to respond to a published paper) pointing out all the "flaws." If they do, just them displaying their ignorance to the scientific community and reading what I'm sure would be an entertaining response letter by Lenski would be so entertaining that it might go a long way to convincing me that there really is a God and he wants me to be amused.

But there's a bigger point here. These people are trying to interfere in the very process that makes science work. That there is this big pseudoscience resource on the Internet -- and let me point out that Conservapedia is intended to be a resource for homeschooled children. They're not making these criticisms in an attempt to forward our understanding of the world; they're making them because this is evidence in support of evolution, and they dare not let it go unchallenged because that would put their religious beliefs in danger. So they throw up a smokescreen and they hound the researchers with spurious demands for "data."

Science is hard. It requires years of study, dedication and then it takes more years of doing research, building a reputation and only then might you come across something really new and interesting. Religion is easy. It just requires a suspension of disbelief and obedience to doctrine. The problem is that science is a tool that leads our society and our knowledge into the future. It's what lets us build new technology, develop new drugs, shrink our transistors, all of which develop our economy. These religious nitwits stand in the way of all that. They attack not just the scientific process, but the population's confidence in its trustworthiness. They are a threat to our future and a threat to our superiority in the world. The sad part is that I think we're outnumbered.

Good posts on the subject:

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