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A War of Words? How to Tell Who Won the Tour-Farina Debate

Photo source: YouTube (screenshot).

A few years ago, just as I was finishing writing my PhD thesis, I received an email from an Internet questioner with the subject “War of Words.” This person expressed concerns that there is so much back and forth between experts in the debate over the origin and evolution of life and intelligent design, that it can sometimes be difficult for a non-expert to determine who is right. I can sympathize with this: Even though I have multiple science degrees, took many undergraduate and graduate courses in evolution, and have closely followed the science for years, it’s still a challenge to keep up with everything. What’s a non-expert to do?

Last Friday we witnessed a debate on the origin of life (OOL) between two widely followed voices on the topic: Rice University chemistry Professor James Tour, and YouTube science educator Dave Farina, aka “Professor Dave.” This debate, which took place on the Rice University campus, was at times turbulent, but it provides an apt example of how to answer my “War of Words” Internet questioner.

“No Viable Model”

The topic of the debate was: “Are We Clueless About the Origin of Life?” Discovery Institute did not organize this debate and I was not a big fan of this framing because it would be much harder to prove a high standard, that OOL researchers are “clueless,” than it would be to prove some lesser — but still entirely reasonable — claim like “There is no viable model for the origin of life.” Nonetheless, Tour faithfully stuck to the debate topic, and he made a strong scientific case against the natural chemical origin of life. 

Dave Farina represented the standard view that unguided natural chemical processes could have produced the first life on earth. Unfortunately, however, Farina decided to focus on a very different debate topic. His topic was essentially — no exaggeration — Is James Tour a liar and a fraud? — and that is precisely what he asserted over and over again throughout the night. Farina’s venom and personal attacks and insults against Tour knew almost no boundaries. It was a spectacle, and I was shocked that the moderator allowed it to proceed. But Farina’s focus on personal attacks and his repeated refusals to answer Tour’s reasonable scientific challenges made it clear to many viewers that Tour had the better argument. 

If you don’t believe me, consider some comments on the YouTube chat posted by viewers who are apparently self-described as atheists, agnostics, and/or former supporters of Farina:

  • “Am I the only non-religious person that finds Tour much more convincing than Dave? This debate made me further convinced. The problem with Dave is that strangely, as an educator, he in no way tried to educate James Tour, but only attack him and slander him, he has zero class, and from a psychology standpoint, seems like he did nothing but dodge and deflect, which would suggest he doesn’t have a deep understanding of the subject, but merely a surface level one, a true scientist wants people to understand the truth, and would carefully address Tours questions concisely and on a deeper level.”
  • “I’m an atheist, however, Farina’s smug and snide attacks on Tour throughout this debate, disgusted me. I may disagree with Tour’s mission, however, no one can ignore his considerable contribution to science.”
  • “I’m agnostic, but hearing Dr. Farina’s statements, grounded on insulting and sarcasm sincerely show more how clueless he or his community are…usually when you use sarcasm it is because you have [little] to say. I say this as an academic myself (other field though) when I see colleagues use sarcasm is because they don’t know how to ground their statements.”
  • “I’m [an] atheist and this was embarrassing to watch. Dave claiming that James doesn’t know how to read papers, while…citing barely anything beyond the titles of a bunch of papers. I think that disrespecting the audience and claiming to know what they do and don’t know was the worst move of the entire debate. It shows that he’s arguing emotionally.”
  • “I’ve been floating around this conflict, viewing from the outside. Dave’s videos helped me in middle-high school. Dave poisoned the well, then used insults and rhetoric as the substance of his ‘argument’. This was disappointing, I was hoping he would bring something of value. Dr. Tour won this one.”

You Don’t Need a PhD

So even though my “War of Words” questioner worried that you need to be an expert to sort through these issues, I’m going argue here that you don’t need a PhD in science and unlimited time to read the literature to quickly see who has the better argument.

You may not be an expert in chemistry like James Tour with a lifelong career trying to synthesize molecules in the laboratory. You may not have published hundreds of peer-reviewed chemistry papers like Tour. You may not even have taken any college-level science courses. But you can watch the debate and learn a lot about who has the upper hand on the OOL question. If you want to know who has the better argument, examining the rhetorical styles of different “sides” of a debate can speak volumes.

Over three subsequent posts, I’m going to elaborate on three reasons that we can see that Tour won, based upon a rhetorical analysis of the debate (plus a little science):

  1. Tour focused on science, Farina focused on character assassination.
  2. Tour posed reasonable scientific challenges which Farina refused to answer
  3. Farina relied heavily upon playground tactics, appeals to authority, and citation bluffing.

We’ll tackle the first reason in the next post. But first a viewer’s warning.

Not for the Faint of Heart

As the debate wore on, at times both participants got quite intense; if you don’t like raised voices, don’t watch this debate. Frankly, as Farina spewed more and more venom against Tour, at times he (Tour) became animated, and even took a few shots at Farina’s chemistry knowledge. Tour’s words about Farina weren’t remotely comparable in intensity or number to Farina’s personal attacks on Tour. In my next post you will read a sampling of just some of those personal attacks. So if you are bothered by Tour’s irritation, ask yourself: Could you withstand such hatred and not get a little hot under the collar? James Tour is a great man…but like the rest of us, he is after all just a man. 

Regardless, it’s undeniable that this debate got a bit ugly and it reminded me why sometimes I don’t like debates. I do wonder if it was wise to give a platform to a person like Farina who was so thoroughly and unabashedly dedicated to making the night about assassinating James Tour’s character rather than investigating the science. Perhaps the moderator was given instructions to keep the debate going no matter how much nastiness and personal venom Farina threw at Tour. I really don’t know. But this is the kind of thing, unfortunately, that needlessly turns some people away from otherwise serious scientific conversations and dialogues over important questions about origins and science / faith issues. 

One Other Thing Is Clear

Farina is a skilled at quickly throwing out lots of arguments of varying quality and then using passive-aggressive maneuvers aimed at provocation. If you are the type of person who is susceptible to theatrics, intimidation, mockery, and character assassination, you might think Farina won. But once you climb out of Farina’s world of venom, invectives, mockery, and rapid-fire citation bluffs, you realize there isn’t much there. On substance, James Tour won the debate handily. Despite a few lapses here and there as the night wore on, overall he focused strongly on the science and made loads of good arguments that Farina did not address. That’s simply a fact.

But even if you didn’t know much about the science, you can easily tell who came armed with facts, knowledge, and a passion for seeking out the truth, and who came with a simple goal to destroy his opponent, at all costs. I’ll be back tomorrow.