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James Tour Focused on Science, Dave Farina on Character Assassination: So, Who Wins?

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As I noted in a previous post, over the course of the origin of life (OOL) debate between James Tour and Dave Farina, things got technical and things got ugly. If you want to judge who had the better argument, the best place to start is to examine the opening statements. These statements reflect what the two participants carefully planned to say to the world when they were in the comfort of their offices, thinking about the best arguments they could make. These statements reflect what the participants wanted to say before the heat of emotion started to enter into the evening. Their opening statements thus speak volumes about their core arguments, and what evidence they had to back their positions. 

It’s simple: James Tour focused on science, Dave Farina focused on character assassination. It’s the first of three noteworthy rhetorical indicators I’m covering which help reveal who won the debate:

  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’re talking about the first indicator here — so let’s dig into the specifics.

Tour’s Opening Statement

Tour commenced the debate by giving Farina a gift — a laser-induced graphene-based printout of Professor Dave that looked flattering and was seemingly given as a genuine gesture of kindness. That’s a nice present! Tour’s opening statement then proceeded to focus 100 percent on science and laid out five areas where origin-of-life models fail to work under realistic prebiotic conditions:

  1. The origin of polypeptides (i.e., proteins and enzymes)
  2. The origin of polynucleotides (i.e., RNA)
  3. The origin of polysaccharides (i.e., carbohydrates)
  4. The origin of specified information in the above polymers
  5. The assembly of the above components into an integrated functional living system — a cell. 

After laying out these five challenges, Tour provided citations from leading researchers acknowledging severe deficiencies in origin-of-life models. For example, he quoted James Shapiro at the University of Chicago saying that “certain questions like the origins of the first living cells currently have no credible scientific answers.” He quoted Richard Dawkins who admitted, “We know little more than Darwin did about how it [life and its evolution] got started in the first place.” Finally Tour quoted Lee Cronin who said, “Origin of life research is a scam” because “no one is really trying to actually answer the question or think it can be done.”

(Cronin later attempted damage control, saying these comments were made “tongue in cheek” but his words supported the original interpretation: Cronin admitted that origin-of-life researchers should not believe that making various types of molecules, e.g., RNA, in the lab will “unlock the origin of life.” He charged that researchers should be trying to “make a cell from scratch” and show that they can make “contingent information embodied outside the genome in the cell” — which Cronin admitted they have not yet done.)

Tour closed his opening comments by saying to Farina: “I’m looking forward to seeing the data with chemical specificity. That’s what I’m asking of you, so I’m telling you up front.”

Thus, before even getting into the heart of the debate, Tour said what he wanted to say in his opening statement and it was 100 percent focused on the data and substance. 

Farina’s Opening Statement

Next, Dave Farina gave his opening statement. It was highly focused on attacking Jim Tour’s character – and dealt very little with science. Here are Farina’s opening words, which framed his argument for the whole debate: 

We’re here because of James Tour. James, a chemist and also an apologist who lies about origin-of-life research on the Internet.

Farina went on to attack Tour for his “fragile, archaic faith,” because he has (supposedly) “admitted that he is a creationist” and “believes in biblical creationism” and believes that “blind faith will always beat scientific research.” (None of this is true of Tour as far as I know.) From there he just piled venomous attack upon venom attack and insult upon insult — so many that I could barely keep up trying to write them down. To recount a few:

  • Tour is “totally dogmatic.”
  • Tour “regularly lies”
  • Tour is “approaching the field not as a scientist but as a preacher.”
  • Tour “pretends he’s a scientist”
  • Farina attacked religious people who find Tour’s arguments persuasive, saying Tour provides “embarrassing commentary” for “science-illiterate Christians who share his bias and delusions.”

Farina also attacked Tour’s publication record, citing his apparent “inability to publish anything on this topic [which] makes him completely irrelevant,” and dismissing Tour’s articles in the journal Inference as “clueless ramblings” which should be ignored because Inference was “launched by Discovery Institute propagandist David Berlinski.” This argument of course commits the genetic fallacy and ignores the fact that numerous highly reputable scientists have published in Inference including Christoph AdamiCharles LineweaverNoam ChomskyJeremy EnglandLawrence KraussAvi LoebJean-Pierre LuminetDenis NobleMartin Rees,James ShapiroIan Tattersall, and Alexander Vilenkin (to name just a few of the more recognizable names among many other highly qualified scientists). 

Farina continued his attacks upon Tour, repeatedly showing a slide of him as an “Apologist/Fraud,” further saying, “That’s why we’re here, to highlight Jim’s fraudulence.” He labeled Tour’s arguments “idiotic” and mocked Tour’s “pathetic commentary,” claiming that “apologists like James Tour train people to regurgitate” a “ridiculous lie,” that Tour promotes “the dumbest straw man in history,” that “James knows essentially nothing about any of it,” and that Tour reveals “a level of incompetence that is shocking for someone of his stature,” calling Tour “incompetent” because “his brain ceases to function” when talking about the origin of life, meaning “his credibility is reduced to zero.” If that weren’t enough, Farina said, “James is a brazen liar and charlatan” who is “deliberately lying to a gullible audience with no clue what he is talking about,” and a “pathological liar who actively promotes science denial.” In an odd but revealing statement, Farina closed his opening statement by saying he would “enjoy” attacking Tour personally:

He will be made accountable for his lies for everyone to see. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I will. 

Without any hint of irony or self-reflection, Farina called Tour “a toxic individual” and cited Tour’s “profoundly unprofessional and defamatory behavior.”

Farina’s Subsequent Comments

Everything you just saw came from Farina’s opening statement. But it wasn’t enough for Farina. At various points later in the debate Farina directly attacked the audience, saying they don’t have “a f***ing clue what any of us are talking about.”

Even during the Q&A, when given an opportunity to grant some miniscule level of human goodness to James Tour, Farina took a pass. One questioner asked both debaters to say something nice about their opponent. Without hesitation, Tour praised Professor Dave’s science communication skills and the fact that Farina is a family man. But Dave Farina could not even bring himself to say something nice about Jim Tour. Here was Farina’s response to this question: “I admire the tenacity with which you stick to a script of lies.”

Wow. Farina could not bring himself to say one simple nice thing about his host. In fact, Farina then immediately went on to say more nasty things about Tour: “His content is a manure dump,” “He doesn’t know chemistry,” and charged that if “can’t admit that every statement on there [the slide] is complete bull***t [then] you are fraudulent.”

The Dysfunctional Darwin-Debate Dynamic

Farina’s opening statement and subsequent comments were a near-unceasing stream of invectives and personal attacks against James Tour — and anyone who agreed with him. This invites a simple question: If the evidence is so powerfully on Farina’s side, why the need to resort to such distasteful tactics? Why not focus on the science alone, as Tour did? If the science is on your side, there’s no need to attack people personally, certainly not with a repetitiveness that ultimately becomes numbing, as it does here. It would be much more effective just to show the world the science. This is precisely what Tour did, and (as we’ll see in the next post), what Farina didn’t do.

The encounter between Tour and Farina highlights a dysfunctional dynamic I have commonly observed in the Darwin debate: Materialists often seek to argue not just that Darwin-skeptics are wrong, but also that we are immoral and stupid. They smear our character, truthfulness, competence, and trustworthiness. Their accusations are outlandish, and it can often take time to refute a mass of flimsy moral accusations. They know that. In fact, they want the conversation to be dominated by our defending against sham accusations, in the hope that they can avoid having to talk about the scientific weaknesses in their own position. 

In contrast, we evolution-critics simply want to seek the truth. We’re not looking to destroy people or silence voices we disagree with. So, we will often point out factual errors or logical flaws in our critics’ arguments, and we’ll show what the science really says. But we tend to leave it at that and move on — not going “meta” and trying to assassinate the character of our opponents or claim that they have no right to be heard.

Farina’s style is incredibly common, especially among Internet atheists, and it’s an ugly way of suppressing dialogue, debate, and the search for truth. Beware of Internet atheists and others who seek, in this way, to turn the conversation into an exercise in dysfunction.

People who focus on character assassination are not seeking truth. They don’t have the truth, and thus they seek to destroy those who threaten them with it. Professor Dave’s attacks on Tour undercut Dave’s credibility as a spokesman for his own view. If he had the truth on his side, there’s no reason he would behave this way. I’ll have more to say tomorrow.