Tuesday, June 16, 2020

#2350: James Tour

A nanotechnologist and Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering, as well as Professor of Computer Science, at Rice University, James Tour certainly has reason to be confident about his skills and knowledge in his field of expertise. Unfortunately, that might also be part of the explanation for why he is willing to spew so much nonsense about fields he knows nothing about.

Tour is a signatory to the Discovery Institute’s silly petition A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, making him one of a very small number of nationally prominent researchers among the signatories as well as the even smaller number of those who seem to have been actually aware of what they were signing. Indeed, even Tour himself has said that “I have been labeled as an Intelligent Design (ID) proponent. I am not. I do not know how to use science to prove intelligent design although some others might. I am sympathetic to the arguments on the matter and I find some of them intriguing, but the scientific proof is not there, in my opinion. So I prefer to be free of that ID label.”

Despite demonstrably failing to grasp the basics of evolution (see below), Tour is nevertheless confident in his analysis: “if anybody should be able to understand evolution, it is me, because I make molecules for a living, and I don’t just buy a kit, and mix this and mix this, and get that. I mean, ab initio, I make molecules. I understand how hard it is to make molecules. I understand that if I take Nature’s tool kit, it could be much easier, because all the tools are already there, and I just mix it in the proportions, and I do it under these conditions, but ab initio is very, very hard.” Of course, evolution doesn’t make molecules to a specification, so his comparison is irrelevant, but it is very instructive that Tour doesn’t realize that. Now, he did follow the previous claim up with admitting that “I don’t understand evolution, and I will confess that to you.” That hasn’t stopped him from offering his uninformed opinions (“egregious idiocy”) on the topic on numerous occasions – apparently doing so is justified because other synthetic chemistry experts he has talked with don’t claim to understand everything about evolution either (yes, the unstated premises in that piece of reasoning are somewhat hard to identify; more details about Tour’s ignorance here). So, Tour has for instance claimed that he felt the explanations offered by evolution are incomplete, and that he finds it hard to believe that nature can produce the machinery of cells through random processes, which is not what the theory of evolution says but which would also, independently of that fundamental error, have amounted to a reasonably clear example of a named fallacy. Taking a cue from standard creationist materials, Tour also claims that “[f]rom what I can see, microevolution is a fact” and “there is no argument regarding microevolution. The core of the debate for me, therefore, is the extrapolation of microevolution to macroevolution.” But of course, like the creationists who apparently supply him with his talking points, Tour offers no suggestion for what mechanism could possibly and magically prevent microevolutionary changes from accumulating into macroevolutionary changes over time – besides, one would think that if his considerations based on his own field were relevant (they are not), they would apply equally well to microevolution. We strongly suspect the issue is, for Tour, not ultimately a matter of science or evidence (Tour is, as you’d expect, a religious fundamentalist). 

He also thinks that brave, maverick scientists who question the consensus about evolution are persecuted in academia by cabals of skeptics. Suffice to say: there are better explanations for why you won’t find respected biologists being confused by the questions that confuse James Tour in the field, but we are hardly surprised that when the competing explanations for his observations are “maybe I am wrong about a field I don’t understand” and “I am correct in my claims about a field I don’t understand but it doesn’t look that way because there is a conspiracy to suppress the scientists who say what I do,” James Tour is the kind of person who opts for the latter.

At least creationists seem to have been very excited to have him onboard. Tour has also contributed chapters to creationist and anti-science books detailing his lack of understanding of the theory of evolution and drawing silly conclusions from that, as well as given numerous talks on religion, prayer and how the theory of evolution cannot explain abiogenesis, which it doesn’t purport to do. He also contributed e.g. to the 2018 Dallas Conference on Science and Faith: Tear Down that Wall on how to get faith to take some control back over science.

Diagnosis: As opposed to the vast, vast majority of the signatories to the Discovery Petition, James Tour is indeed a scientist. He is, of course, not a biologist and willfully fails to understand the fundamentals of evolution, but a modicum of confidence, religious fundamentalism, Dunning-Kruger and general ignorance make for a forceful combo. Currently, he is apparently also being persecuted, insofar as people have criticized him for passing desperately silly and ignorance-fueled judgments on scientists and scientific field he doesn’t understand.


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  2. It really concerns me that a "scientist" actually doesn't seem to understand the method, practice nor mental rigour required to be one. This seems to be disturbingly pervasive. Good work as always. This site is epic. (Repost, typo correction)