Aren't we all more than a little tired of Michael Behe?

He keeps saying the same ol' debunked crap over and over again, and nowadays when a paper comes out that shows he was completely wrong about something, he spins it into a triumphant vindication for his sycophantic fans, who are all, apparently, abysmally innumerate. The hobby horse he's been riding for the past few years is the evolution of chloroquine resistance in the malaria parasite: he claims it is mathematically impossible. And that's the secret of his success: he dazzles creationists with bad math. Really bad math. The kind of math creationists have been fallaciously using for decades.

Ken Miller has a tidy new article exposing Behe's ridiculous rationalizations.

Behe has been challenging a lot of people to disagree with his estimate, 1 in 1020, for the origin of a specific mutation in the resistance pathway. It's a crude sleight of hand; no one was disputing that number. We were complaining about how he then misused it as a parameter in his further calculations.

Apparently emboldened a week later, on July 21, 2014 he posted an open letter challenging his critics (myself included) to dispute that 1 in 1020 probability for a CCC. As he put it, “Talk is cheap. Let’s see your numbers.” Such language implies, of course, that these multiple critiques were based on Behe’s numbers. But they weren’t. The problem was not, as Behe now tries to claim, that anyone disputed the odds of developing resistance to chloroquine. Behe’s arguments about an “Edge” to evolution were wrong for a far more fundamental reason.

First, he misrepresented the data in a paper that documented the detailed steps required to acquire chloroquine resistance -- it's what he's always asking for, a step-by-step description of every transformation in a biochemical pathway, it's delivered to him, and then he starts mangling the data. Behe claims that one particular step, the K76T mutation, is impossible, because it is so deleterious that it could never get a toe-hold in the population. This is wrong.

But Behe was dead wrong about it being “strongly deleterious.” In fact, it seems to have no effect on transport activity at all. A neutral mutation like this can easily propagate through a population, and field studies of the parasite confirm that is exactly what has happened. In fact, a 2003 study recommended against using the K76T mutation to test for chloroquine resistance since that same mutation was also found in 96% of patients who responded well to chloroquine. Clearly, K76T wouldn’t have become so widespread if it were indeed “strongly deleterious,” as Behe states it must be. This is a critical point, since Behe’s probability arguments depend on this incorrect claim.

So Behe's denial relies on false assertions that particular steps in the multi-step evolution of resistance are impossible, and then he pulls the stunt I've seen creationists do over and over again for over 30 years. They multiply probabilities together, an operation which only applies if all of the mutations occur at once in the same individual, and if each specific mutation is the only, necessary change that must occur. It's not.

But the math is wrong, and it’s easy to see why. Chloroquine resistance arose in just a decade and a half, and is now common in the gene pool of this widespread parasite. Introduce a new drug for which the odds of evolving resistance are also 1 in 1020, and we can expect that it will take just about as long, 15 years, to evolve resistance to the second drug. Once you get that first CCC established in a population, the odds of developing a second one are not CCC squared. Rather, they are still 1 in 1020. Behe gets his super-long odds by pretending that both CCCs have to arise at once, in the same cell, purely by chance.

I recall sitting in a creationist lecture in the 1980s, and the guy leading us through his 'mathematical' disproof of evolution. You see, there are 20 possible amino acids in each position in a protein. So the probability that the first amino acid, for example, is lysine is 0.05. Then the probability of the second amino acid being arginine is also 0.05, which means that the probability of a specific two amino acid peptide being lys-arg is (0.05 * 0.05), or (0.05)2. Which means that the probability of a 1000-amino acid protein existing is (0.05)1000, or effectively zero, therefore impossible.

It's exactly the same game Behe is playing. It was crude, stupid, and ridiculous when J. Random Creationist was doing it, and it's even worse when a guy with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, who ought to know better, panders to the mob of creationists who don't even grasp middle school mathematics by using fallacious operations in probability.

Miller is right to not expect a retraction.

In July of this year, Casey Luskin, professional spokesman for the Discovery Institute, demanded that Behe’s critics apologize to him. I certainly do agree with Mr. Luskin that an apology is in order, but it’s not the one he’s been demanding.

The real apology, which is long overdue, should be promptly sent out to all of those who have been taken in by Luskin’s and Behe’s continuing misrepresentations and distortions of the science of protein evolution. Knowing the Discovery Institute, however, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.

I suspect that Behe knows exactly how he's misleading his readers -- it is so transparent that it has to be intentional. Don't expect him to admit to malicious dishonesty.

Luskin, of course, probably doesn't have a clue.

More like this

I'm sure it's been noted, but it only just occured to me: He's implying God deliberately designed drug-resistant malaria in the middle of an epidemic.

By Josh Martin (not verified) on 05 Dec 2014 #permalink

I am pretty certain he is being wilfully mendacious ; it would take some olympic level denial to be unaware of the existence of carriers of genetic disorders - for they dispell any notion that genes have to undergo simultaneous mutations to be associated with a novel phenotype.

Also - he only needs to take a look at tumours that relapse to know multiple resistance-associated changes crop up all the time.

By Ankur Chakravarthy (not verified) on 05 Dec 2014 #permalink

It's time for Michael to reinvent himself as a climate scientist-- the highlight of the last Heartland Institute revival meeting for coal-fired Christianity was Roy Spencer, the Wrong Way Corrigan of global temperature trends, being declared 'Evangelical Climate Scientist Of The Year " by a Dominionist divine.-- in Las Vegas !

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 05 Dec 2014 #permalink


By brightmoon (not verified) on 07 Dec 2014 #permalink

A few of these criticisms of Behe and Luskin seem valid, but most appear not merely profoundly ignorant, but deliberately mean-spirited.

If we were inferring the likelihood of a particular outcome that was known in advance, and we wanted to retrodict that outcome, we would apply probabilities in sequence, just as creationists do, because they see view the outcome as "known in advance", by God (...oops: "a designer").

If one see's the creation of the universe in these terms, Behe's framework for evaluating probabilities to show how unlikely this is can seem very close to a lottery fallacy, but generally that kind of approximate explanation for particular features in weather, or economics, or other complex systems is fine.

It's the framework that causes problems, not the math or science per se. To the credit of fundamentalists like Hamm: they appear overall able to state their research framework's assumptions much better than actual scientists, since those assumptions are documented in Genesis, for example.

We might be well served to learn exactly how and why such smart, sincere people screw up so badly - and learn about similar weaknesses we all share.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 09 Dec 2014 #permalink

I'm with Josh on this one.

Make note of the statistics-manipulation but then zero in for the checkmate with "why do you think a kind and loving God would design drug resistant malaria in the middle of an epidemic?"

That's something that Joe and Jane Average can understand.

At that point Behe has to play defense: "God works in mysterious ways" etc., at which point we can chase him all over the board: "Is God punishing someone for a sin? Who?" and so on. Anyone who is not an extremist fundamentalist will find any such suggestion repugnant, and then hopefully find Behe repugnant for asserting by implication that a deity would do such a thing.

This reminds me of the claim that evolution is equivalent to a whirlwind going through a junkyard and building a 747. Someone once really did say this to me.

Leonard: Uh, no. Oh, this is Zack. He’s a friend of ours. Zack, this is Stuart. He owns the store.

Zack: Wow, lucky you.

Stuart: Yeah, I work 70 hours a week and average a dollar sixty five an hour.

Zack: Sweet!

Stuart: Is that sarcasm?

Howard: Uh, no, it’s an indictment of the American education system.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 11 Dec 2014 #permalink

Remarkable: The PZ Meyers article suggests that Mr. Behe is intentionally distorting a scientific study, and disseminating "bad math" among those who are ignorant (and therefore vulnerable to his deception). According to PZ Meyers Behe and Luskin are both misleading their readers, (Behe naturally being the more guilty of the two) and are agitating the scientific community with their (in the case of Behe) intent to harm the established scientific understanding. Why are their objections permitted? Why are their challenges entertained? What could evolution be doing in preserving these two detractors... these undeserving mutants?