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Professor James Tour: A “Liar for Jesus”?

Renowned scientist James Tour at Rice University is facing the wrath of Internet trolls because of his candid evaluation of origin of life research in a recent public lecture in Dallas. For his frankness, Tour is being vilified by detractors as an attention-grabbing charlatan, an incompetent scientist, and even a “Liar for Jesus”!

Some further background might help you better appreciate the chutzpah of these claims. Dr. Tour is one of the world’s top synthetic organic chemists. He has authored 680 scientific publications and holds more than 120 patents (here is a partial list). In 2014, Thomson Reuters named him one of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds,” and in 2018 Clarivate Analytics recognized him as one of the world’s most highly cited researchers.

Tour is also fearless. He joined more than a thousand other scientists in signing the “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” More recently, he has become a thorn in the side of the origin of life research community, offering blunt assessments of the current state of origin of life research. 

Heretical Views

Such heretical views can get you into trouble. In January, Tour delivered a lecture on “The Mystery of the Origin of Life” to an audience of nearly 1,000 at a Discovery Institute conference in Dallas. The lecture has already attracted over 74,000 views on YouTube — for good reason. Tour’s public talks sizzle, and his rollicking Dallas lecture was no exception. 

At one point, Tour got a bit carried away while critiquing an article by Nobel laureate Jack Szostak, one of the world’s top origin of life researchers. Highlighting an inaccurate diagram in Szostak’s article, Tour made an off-the-cuff remark about Szostak, telling the audience that “he’s lying to you.” It was an uncharitable characterization. To Tour’s credit, when he was challenged on his use of the term “lying,” he apologized directly to Szostak by phone, and he followed up with a statement to someone else, which he authorized for release to the public. Part of Tour’s statement read:  

That was a strong word (“lying”) which I regret saying. I have already apologized to Jack Szostak by phone, and he very graciously accepted the apology. If given a chance, I would likewise apologize to any of those cited in that talk to whom I said such a thing. My behavior was inappropriate.

Exemplars of Civility?

Tour was right to apologize. At the same time, his detractors aren’t exactly exemplars of civility, and I suspect that some of them were far more interested in smearing Tour than promoting respectful dialogue. Take Gary Hurd, Internet atheist, troll extraordinaire, and the Internet’s main attack dog against Tour right now. Hurd’s rhetoric makes Tour’s off-the-cuff swipe at Szostak seem genteel. Hurd is the one who characterizes Tour as a “Liar for Jesus.” He also says: “James Tour lies his ass off for money, adulation, and I suppose his hopes for salvation.” Hurd (whose doctorate is in “Social Science,” not chemistry) goes on to accuse Tour of telling “15 lies in under 4 minutes counting repeated lies. That is Trumpian. And, his lies are exposed by undergraduate level chemistry. They are not even sophisticated lies. They are stupid obvious lies.”

I wonder how many people who objected to Tour’s comment about Szostak have called on Hurd to apologize for his vicious personal slurs against Tour? 

The Substance of the Attack

Regardless, what about the substance of Hurd’s attack? Is Tour really a serial liar who, in less than four minutes, shows that he doesn’t understand undergraduate level chemistry? You be the judge:

1. According to Hurd, Tour was lying when he criticized as scientifically inaccurate two figures in Jack Szostak’s article labeled “Simple sugars.” When I asked Tour about this criticism, he responded that Szostak himself conceded to him that these figures were inaccurate! Tour wrote me:

As listed, the sugars do not look like sugars. One needs to have the double bond shown to one of the oxygen atoms or they are not sugars. Shown are a diol and a triol. Even Jack, when he and I spoke on the phone, conceded that point. And he blamed the error on a staff artist from Scientific American, and the mistake was transcribed when the article was used by Nature. I have written several times for the News and Views section of Nature and Nature series journals. It is an honor to be so asked. But we are asked as authors to show care to ensure accuracy. And the galley proofs are returned to us for our careful check and documented approval. 

So much for this supposed lie by Tour.

2. According to Hurd, Tour was lying when he questioned the scientific accuracy of two figures in Szostak’s article labeled “Cyanide derivatives.” Not so, says Tour, who responded to me:

Either we fill in the hydrogen atoms or we show the pi bonds. But we cannot omit both. Moreover, the convention is that all heteroatoms should bear the hydrogen atoms. Only carbon can be devoid of hydrogen in the convention. But that is only to fill the valance states. So one needs to see the pi bonds if we are omitting the hydrogen atoms. Therefore, as drawn, the organic starting materials are glycerol (1,2,3-propanetriol or glycerin), ethylene glycol (1,2-ethanediol), diaminomethane (methanediamine), and 1-aminopropane. The latter two are troubling in light of the text which mentions iron cyanide. Iron(III) cyanide complexes are extremely stable; there is little free cyanide expected to be in the solution, so maybe Szostak is speaking of something else. 

Once again, the charge that Tour was lying or incompetent disintegrates.

Another Charge Evaporates

3. According to Hurd, Tour was lying as well when he claimed that the diagram labeled “RNA nucleotide” in Szostak’s article was inaccurate. Tour’s response to me: “it is not a nucleotide since it is devoid of any stereochemistry.” Again, the charge that Tour doesn’t understand basic chemistry seems to evaporate.

Tour went on to explain that the errors he found in the drawings pale in comparison to the biggest problem with Szostak’s Nature article: 

…all of the above is minor compared to Szostak’s showing that in a single step, heat and light can make a compound that resembles a dehydrated nucleotide (though it is not a nucleotide since it is devoid of any stereochemistry) from “simple sugars” and “cyanide derivatives.” …The major issue is that heat and light cannot afford that conversion from ethylene glycol, glycerol, or the sugar products derived thereupon after their oxidation to the aldehydes. To present that heat and UV light can act on these compounds (even if we are to use these 2 and 3 carbon simple sugars rather than glycerol and ethylene glycol, and to use any simple cyanide derivative) to afford anything like the listed “RNA nucleotide” (albeit not a nucleotide since it shows no stereochemistry) is incorrect and misleading. There are so many steps involved in such a transformation. But to a biologists, like Szostak, explaining to the non-expert, he feels the details are not essential for him to point out. But the details are everything! 

4. Hurd further accuses Tour of lying because Tour declared that Szostak’s article was published by the journal Nature. Hurd argues that the article only appeared in a special section of Nature described by the journal as “an editorially independent supplement produced with the financial support of third parties.” Hurd seems to be implying that Nature wasn’t really editorially responsible for the article. But if you follow the “About this content” link provided by Nature itself, you find an expanded explanation that makes clear Szostak’s article was vetted and approved by Nature’s regular editorial staff. “Editorially independent” means not that Szostak’s article was independent from Nature, but that it was independent from the influence of funders. The content was “already deemed worthy of coverage by our editorial departments… The ultimate approval of any story rests with the editorial department.” So the article in question was definitely published by Nature — just like Tour said. Again, no error, and certainly no lie. 

The Primary Literature

5. Hurd chastises Tour for introducing this section of his lecture by saying he was going to look at the “primary literature” and then immediately talking about Szostak’s article, which was a popular-level summary rather than a piece of primary original research. At last, a fair point (sort of), which Tour concedes in his letter to me. But this is a quibble. Whether a popular piece or original research, the article in question was published with the backing of one of the world’s most prestigious science journals and written by one of the world’s leading authorities on origin of life research. That definitely makes the article fair game for Tour and others to criticize. It should be added that Tour went on in his talk to critique other articles that unquestionably are part of the “primary literature,” just like he promised, and he does this even more in his letter to me and in an earlier essay. So this particular complaint is much ado about nothing. 

Finally, Hurd dismisses Tour’s lecture as a whole by asserting: “There are too many falsehoods, and misrepresentations to review in detail.” But if there really were so many falsehoods in Tour’s talk, you would think Hurd would choose to refute the ones that were the most central to Tour’s hour-long critique. Instead, Hurd obsesses about four minutes where Tour criticizes one short article. I’ve seen Hurd’s critique treated online as if it were a devastating takedown of Tour’s views. But anyone who watches Tour’s entire lecture can easily see that all Hurd offers is (at best) a skirmish at the edges. 

Is that because he and others have no serious response to offer to Tour’s main critique? Judge for yourself by watching Tour’s entire talk or reading his full response to his critics.

Photo: James Tour speaking at the 2019 Dallas Conference on Science and Faith, via Discovery Institute.