Conservapedia takes on Science

18 June 2008

For those of you who have never visited the website Conservapedia.com, I suggest you go read some of their “articles, especially the ones discussing homosexuality and evolution. Comedic gold I tell you…Gold.

Now, they have decided to take on science for real. Now keep in mind the man who runs Conservapedia, Andy Schlafly has no background in biology.  He runs the website along with a group of (really unfortunate) home-school students.  So, this makes his attempt to take on Dr. Richard Lenski who recently released a study of E. coli.  Schlafly decided to write a letter. From Off Resonance:

Dear Prof. Lenski,

This is my second request for the data underlying your recent paper, “Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli,” published in PNAS ( June 10, 2008 ) and reported in New Scientist (”Bacteria make major evolutionary shift in lab,” June 9, 2008).

This work was taxpayer-funded, and PNAS represents that its authors will make underlying data available. I’d like to review the data myself and ensure availability for others, including experts and my students. Others have expressed interested in access to the data in addition to myself, and your website seems well-suited for public release of these data.

If the data are voluminous, then I particularly request that access to the data made available to the peer reviewers of your paper, and data relating to the period during which the bacterial colony supposedly developed Cit+. As before, I’m requesting the organized data themselves, not the graphs and summaries set forth in the paper. Note that several times your paper expressly states, “data not shown.”

Given that this is my second request for the data, a clear answer is requested as to whether you will make the key data available for independent review. Thank you.

Andy Schlafly, B.S.E., J.D.

cc: PNAS, New Scientist publications

Wow. First of all, that data are in the paper. The author from Off Resonance makes it quite clear that the data are there.  Not to mention the “prevalence” of the words data not shown amounts to three times, none of which are related to the emergence of Cit+.  Schlafly and his students clearly have no clue. The “organized data” are organized in the paper. The “raw data” would consist of the original lab notebooks that Lenski worked with. And despte this inanity, Lenski has the decency to respond to Schlafly’s letter with far more than it deserves.

Dear Mr. Schlafly:

I suggest you might want to read our paper itself, which is available for download at most university libraries and is also posted as publication #180 on my website. Here’s a brief summary that addresses your three points.

1) “… your claims, that E. Coli bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study.” We (my group and scientific collaborators) have already published several papers that document beneficial mutations in our long-term experiment. These papers provide exact details on the identity of the mutations, as well as genetic constructions where we have produced genotypes that differ by single mutations, then compete them, demonstrating that the mutations confer an advantage under the environmental conditions of the experiment. See papers # 122, 140, 155, 166, and 178 referenced on my website. In the latest paper, you will see that we make no claim to having identified the genetic basis of the mutations observed in this study. However, we have found a number of mutant clones that have heritable differences in behavior (growth on citrate), and which confer a clear advantage in the environment where they evolved, which contains citrate. Our future work will seek to identify the responsible mutations.

2. “Specifically, we wonder about the data supporting your claim that one of your colonies of E. Coli developed the ability to absorb citrate, something not found in wild E. Coli, at around 31,500 generations.” You will find all the relevant methods and data supporting this claim in our paper. We also establish in our paper, through various phenotypic and genetic markers, that the Cit+ mutant was indeed a descendant of the original strain used in our experiments.

3. “In addition, there is skepticism that 3 new and useful proteins appeared in the colony around generation 20,000.” We make no such claim anywhere in our paper, nor do I think it is correct. Proteins do not “appear out of the blue”, in any case. We do show that what we call a “potentiated” genotype had evolved by generation 20,000 that had a greater propensity to produce Cit+ mutants. We also show that the dynamics of appearance of Cit+ mutants in the potentiated genotypes are highly suggestive of the requirement for two additional mutations to yield the resulting Cit+ trait. Moreover, we found that Cit+ mutants, when they first appeared, were often rather weak at using citrate. At least the main Cit+ line that we studied underwent an additional mutation (or mutations) that refined that ability and led to a large improvement in growth on citrate. All these issues and the supporting methods and data are covered in our paper.


Richard Lenski

And, shockingly enough, Lenski offers a point-by-point refutation of Schlafly’s inanity. It was way more than Schlafly and his ilk deserved. The sad thing is, that Schlafly and his wonderful repository of knowledge will still deny that evolution ever took place, despite the fact that it has been observed both in nature and the laboratory.

I believe this point goes to science.



  1. Did you ever edit on CP? I’m your “possibly related post” author :-). I was AmesG over there; good times.

  2. I’ve never had the patience to edit there, let alone stay on the website for more than 10 minutes at a time.


  3. It’s a fun little sociology experiment if you ever do 🙂

  4. Haha, I imagine…I just don’t have the patience because I deal with those types of people every day in real life :p

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