Picking on the Wrong Guy

“Professor Dave” Digs a Pit for James Tour … but Falls into It Himself

Professor James Tour is a name that has become increasingly familiar to Christian apologists with a scientific bent. Tour, a world-class synthetic organic chemist and nanotechnologist, based at Rice University in Houston, Texas, gained international notoriety a few years ago for calling out the many deceptions cultivated by origin-of-life researchers who had been making bold claims about getting close to creating life from non-living chemicals.

Tour took a close look at the materials and methods these researchers employed, and after reading their papers, simply pointed out that in devising their experiments, all of them – and I mean every single one of them – had involved a great deal of human intervention.

The chemical reactions in their experiments were highly controlled. For example, they had used chemicals in pure form (read: brought in) and optimised for temperature, pH, concentration, and other factors using multi-million-dollar instruments. What’s more, the commonly asserted notion that with enough time, many of these hurdles could be overcome was also shown by Tour to be untenable. Why? Because in any realistic natural environment, molecules degrade or are attacked by other chemical species, so scuppering the entire enterprise.

Although the results of their experiments represent anything but true abiogenesis (life arising from non-life), they then passed their work off to a largely ignorant science journalism community that was either unwilling to ask questions or incapable of understanding the amount of human engineering (read: intelligent design) needed to substantiate their claims of having cleared (or almost cleared) the abiogenesis hurdle. The net result of all of this, as Tour pointed out, is mass deception about origin-of-life science on a global scale.

“Professor Dave” Punches Up and out of His League

Despite indirect acknowledgements in top-rated publications like Nature, written by leaders in prebiotic chemistry who agreed with Tour’s criticism, certain YouTubers were not deterred from attempting to discredit Tour’s claims. Dave Farina, of Professor Dave Explains, is an amusing example of one who appears to be a glutton for punishment. Despite having more than 2 million subscribers, Farina, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and failed to complete a master’s in education in science teaching, had the audacity to criticize Tour’s breakdown of the exaggerated claims of prebiotic chemists.

Farina first attacked Dr. Tour in August 2020. Tour responded with a 14-part presentation on his own YouTube channel, which very fairly and consistently debunked Farina’s scientific claims. And true to his deep Christian faith, Tour never once resorted to ad hominem attacks. He even invited Farina to have dinner with his family.

But instead of showing a bit of humility and throwing in the towel, as any sensible person out of his/her depth ought to have done, Farina launched another attack on Dr. Tour, this time canvassing the opinion of a few other scientists, some of whom Tour had debated previously. It should also be noted that Farina declined to engage in dialogue/debate with Dr. Tour on these issues. This time Farina got real nasty, accusing Tour of being “out of his depth,” and “clueless” about the real state of origin-of-life research. What’s more, he viciously mocked Tour’s Christian faith, claiming that it had blinded him to the truth. Serious accusations indeed! So how did it end up?

Not good, for Mr. Farina. Tour pointed his viewers to Farina’s abusive language in the comments section of his (Farina’s) YouTube presentation, and how he deleted important comments made by scientifically competent onlookers to save face. Indeed, in one exchange I personally had with Farina, he accused me of “knowing nothing” and said I did “not have a Ph.D. in biochemistry.” When I posted links to some research papers I had authored, he still dismissed me as a buffoon. That’s where I left off. I didn’t think it was worth the time and effort to engage him on the facts.

And the Beat Goes On

Dr. Tour went much further though. In his second attack, Farina stated that synthetic chemistry is just one of the disciplines involved in origin-of-life research, and he said Dr. Tour wasn’t qualified to talk about such research because he was a synthetic chemist. That argument holds little water though, as organic chemistry is absolutely central to the theory of chemical evolution, where it stands at the interface of all the other disciplines Farina had mentioned. If the organic chemistry isn’t right, you reach an impasse. Curiously, Farina’s three guest scientists turned out to be …. wait for it …. synthetic chemists! Furthermore, when the details of their experiments were carefully examined, they too all showed a great deal of human intervention!

One might argue that chemists engaged in prebiotic chemistry research must, by necessity, have highly controlled conditions in order to get started, but it must be remembered that no such controls could have been in place in the hostile environments likely to be encountered on a primordial earth.

What’s more, Tour took the time to look at the papers written by Farina’s three guest scientists and showed that their methods also involved a great deal of human intervention. And there’s still more. Tour pointed out some very basic mistakes made by Farina on the slides he used to argue his case. Indeed, there were scientific errors on every one of his slides!

It turns out that Farina didn’t go any further than to read the abstracts of the papers he used against Tour. But as any researcher will tell you, abstracts are often misleading and frequently show unconscious bias toward the worldviews of the researchers themselves. By looking “under the bonnet,” as it were, Tour showed that Farina had glossed over many of the details without checking the precise methodologies employed by the researchers he had cited, and that in all cases, human intervention was absolutely required.

Farina also attacked Tour on the teaching of the primordial soup model. He said that deceptive pictures showing a primordial soup in an ancient ocean with lightning bolts and some organism slithering out of our planet’s early oceans are only seen in elementary school textbooks, but never in college-level tomes. But Tour responded by showing slides of dozens of university textbooks showing the very same pictures, including a couple I have in my own library.

In addition, one of Farina’s guest scientists, British inorganic chemist Lee Cronin, described some of Tour’s claims as “nefarious.” Cronin appeared in a TED talk in 2011 claiming that he would be able to create life in just a few years. Twelve years later, we’re still waiting for him to produce the readies.

Anyone interested in origin-of-life science, or even in the integrity of claims about it, should take the time to watch Dr. Tour’s video critiquing origin-of-life science’s exaggerated claims. If you’re not convinced, work through the other links and videos above, to see the extent to which Dr. Tour has soundly addressed the lies, deceptions, and exaggerations made by “Professor Dave” and his guests. I’d encourage fact checking both Farina’s and Tour’s claims. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but we can only hope that this smooth-talking popular science communicator gets his science right in the future.

And as for any naturalistic origin of life, we’re still as clueless as ever!

is that author of eight books on amateur and professional astronomy. His latest book is Choosing & Using Binoculars, a Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts (Springer Publishing, 2023).

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