How the Texas Board of Ed. misrepresented a Nobel Prize winner: a repost

Because Nobel laureate Werner Arber is addressing evolution at the Landau meeting of Nobel laureates, I thought I'd repost this piece from January 21, 2009, which was first posted from the Texas Board of Education meeting room. Enjoy.

In November, the Texas Board of Education met to consider their new science standards. As I've mentioned a major point of contention is a reference in the current standards to "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific explanations, a concept only ever applied to evolution, and without any clear explanation of what it means.

In the course of 6 hours of testimony, witnesses constantly asked what these "weaknesses" were, and got no clarity. Finally, at an ungodly hour, Cynthia Dunbar (the one who thinks public schools are evil and that President Obama is a s3kr1t Mussulman) gave her explanation. In the course of doing so, she perpetuated blatant falsehoods about a Nobel Prize-winning doctor.

A concerned teacher observed that:

[During the 2003 textbook hearings in Texas] Much of the testimony given in support of 3A, the strengths and weaknesses, was given by the Discovery Institute, who were here, giving presentations on that. In that case, they were using this as a strategy for keeping open the idea of "teaching the controversy," which doesn't seem to be as prevalent within the scientific community as it does within our community at large.

Dunbar replied:

D: OK, but the last testimony heard was that science is not something that's determined by majority vote, there is a scientific method.

I would like to have someone of the magnitude of Dr. Werner Abner [sic] here. I don't know if you know who he is. Are you familiar with him?

A: Not right off the top of my head, no.

Dunbar: He is a Nobel laureate. He spent his life doing studies in evolution and genetics. I don't think we could get him here, I think he's in Switzerland. But his, his years and years and years and years of research in genetics and evolution are very, very credible, and his end result recently, I think it was in September, was that the genetic code, and genetic mutations are actually built in to a limitation that they can only go so far, which is contrary to the ultimate result of natural selection and all of that. But that would not be someone outside of the scientific community…

At which point the discussion proceeds to whether she wants religious taught in science class

Later, Dunbar and a student from UT got into the same discussion:

A: My question would be: Where's the data to prove the, I believe it's four weaknesses, four limitations. Where's the data for that? It's my understanding that the entire scientific community doesn't believe that they exist.

D: First of all, science is not based on majority rule,

A: Right

D: And there's lots of data. Do you know who Werner Arber is? He's a PhD and a Nobel laureate.

A: I believe I heard you talking about him earlier.

D: And do you know who he is.

A: Not extensively.

D: Go Google him. Because he spent his life on evolution and genetics. So there is data out there [on the weaknesses of evolution], we don't want that squelched. We want to be able to discuss it. And as a political science major, I would hope that you of all people would want there to be open discussion these types of issues within the classroom.

A: You keep talking about the scientific method. When these four weaknesses are applied to the scientific method and they fail– I don't understand –

D: His documentation, if you go read it, I mean it's very clear as to the geneticists and the documentation of the mutations and all that. I mean it's not anything that fails, it's testable, it's observable, it's right there. But those are the types of the things that we want the students to be able to discuss …

So Dunbar wants Arber's response, eh? Taking her advice, I did Google him. One thing I learned is that he did not publish anything in September, but an article by Jerry Bergman was published about him in that month's issue of Acts & Facts, the newsletter of the young earth creationist Institute for Creation Research.

Setting aside everything I will lay out from this point forward, it is important to note that, based on Dunbar's comments and the ICR article, she clearly based her understanding of this scientific matter on a single article in a creationist magazine, and is ignoring the testimony and guidance not only of the AAAS, the NAS, and her own committee of experts, but Texan Nobel Prize-winners. Educational policy should never be made on the basis of creationist publications, especially when those publications make demonstrably false statements. The references to a publication in September alone demonstrate that she is relying on the ICR piece, and various shared misinterpretations confirm this.

In the article, ICR's Jerry Bergman insisted that Arber is an ID supporter, largely on the basis of an interview from the early 1990s, collected by Ray Varghese. Varghese is at the center of a controversy over Anthony Flew's conversion from atheism to deism, and is accused of passing his own words off as Flew's in order to make him seem more Christian than he is.

Arber also co-organized a conference on evolution for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last November, at which he firmly stated his support for evolution as science and his belief that it is compatible with religious faith.

His own research shows no signs of doubts about evolution, and indeed he has published work with such luminaries of evolutionary biology as Richard Lenski, and his own Nobel-winning work on restriction enzymes has been powerfully useful to evolutionary biology.

Certain that ICR had misrepresented Dr. Arber, I contacted some of his professional colleagues to see if they could make him aware of this apparent error in the ICR's article, and in Dunbar's mangled repetition of the same points. One colleague replied that "That certainly seems to me to be a misrepresentation of Prof. Arber's views on the matter, and quite amazing."

Dr. Arber also wrote back, with thanks for alerting him to the problem. He included a statement he had sent to ICR refuting the article and Dunbar's interpretation of it, adding that I was "welcome to make use of this statement in relevant situations." He also pointed out a common problem in dealing with creationists: "I slowly learn to write my papers by taking care to reduce the chance of misinterpretation, but this is not easy." Given creationists' propensity for misrepresentation and quotemining, it is indeed difficult to prevent such misinterpretation.

Dr. Arber's response to the ICR is below the fold. English is not his native tongue, so the language is a bit stilted at times. There should be no doubt, though, that Dr. Arber was misrepresented by the ICR and by Cynthia Dunbar. Had he been at the hearings, as Dunbar wished, he would surely have denied that evolution is riddled with weaknesses, and indeed affirms that "I stand fully behind the NeoDarwinian theory of biological evolution and I contributed to confirm and expand this theory at the molecular level so that it can now be called Molecular Darwinism."

Statement on my view on biological evolution


I recently got aware of an article entitled "Werner Arber: Nobel Laureate, Darwin Skeptic" that was published in September 2008 by the Institute for Creation Research and that is authored by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D. This article completely misinterprets my general conclusions that I base on several decades of studies in microbial genetics. A number of citations are taken out of their original context and surrounded by comments and misinterpretations by the author of the article.

The truth is that I have contributed to advance scientific knowledge on biological evolution by studying molecular mechanisms of genetic variation. Genetic variation is clearly the driving force of biological evolution. A number of different specific molecular mechanisms contribute to spontaneous genetic variation. Together with non-genetic elements specific gene products are thereby involved as variation generators and as modulators of the rates of genetic variation. These are established facts that are based on experimental evidences and that are valid for the course of biological evolution as it works today in living organisms. Theoretically, one can extrapolate into the past history of life development on Earth. One can, e.g., postulate how the genes involved in biological evolution may have become fine-tuned to insure to living organisms a comfortable genetic stability and at the same time to the populations of living organisms an evolutionary development, including adaptability to changing living conditions and an expansion of biodiversity. In contrast, there is, so far, neither satisfactory scientific knowledge nor theory on the origin and early evolution of life on our planet.

On solid scientific grounds one cannot expect to discover if a Creator as defined by religious beliefs and sometimes referred to as intelligent design or God's Will, could be responsible for the origin and subsequent evolution of life. Serious scientific investigations can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God or a possible impact of God on evolutionary processes. In our civilization, both scientific knowledge and religious beliefs contribute essentially to our orientating knowledge, but these two sources of our worldview should not be intermingled.

In conclusion, I am neither a "Darwin skeptic" nor an "intelligent design supporter" as it is claimed in Bergman's article. I stand fully behind the NeoDarwinian theory of biological evolution and I contributed to confirm and expand this theory at the molecular level so that it can now be called Molecular Darwinism.

Werner Arber
Professor emeritus for Molecular Microbiology,
University of Basel.
Nobel Laureate Medicine/Physiology 1978


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I strongly second the above question. Anti-science twits like Dunbar must be confronted with their own distortions.

By eric collier (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

Both creationists and eco-denialists keep sucking on their "science isn't determined by majority / consensus" lollipop. It has long since stopped being cute.

Majority opinion actually does play a significant role in science. Do cardiologists look for your heart in your chest, or in your ankle? Do astronomers point their telescopes up at the sky, or down at the ground? Do paleontologists dig for dinosaurs in the dirt, or in packing crates of marshmallows? There are always foundational elements that are mutually understood to be true, and that guide future learning. You can test those elements, but you have to understand them first in order to understand why they're USUALLY true and what might produce a highly unlikely instance in which they are NOT true.

These types want to be the next Galileo, but to me they sound more like Neo: arguing that we might as well all be dreaming in the Matrix because none of our knowledge is "real."

Even if the letter from Dr. Arber was forwarded to Ms Dunbar, she probably would not be able to understand it. There are too many loooong words in it.

Well, for a second language, Dr Arber expressed himself in absolutely no uncertain terms. I don't know that he could have possibly been clearer. I note particularly there's a considerable bit of pride in his reference to his role in "Molecular Darwinism". No honest person could possibly misinterpret his views on evolution v creationism of any kind.

Which means, of course, creationists won't have a problem doing so.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 30 Jun 2011 #permalink

I strongly second the above question. Anti-science twits like Dunbar must be confronted with their own distortions.