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James Tour Takes Professor Dave to School: Farina Won’t Answer Tour’s Reasonable Questions

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We’re currently doing an analysis of the online debate between Rice University professor James Tour and YouTube educator “Professor Dave” Farina about whether origin of life (OOL) researchers are “clueless” about how life arose. In an earlier post I discussed how it can be difficult for non-experts to assess who has the better argument in a technical debate. Thankfully, the Tour-Farina debate provides an ideal illustration of how a non-expert can determine who had the upper hand simply based upon observing the rhetorical style of the two debaters. The three noteworthy indicators are as follows:

  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 covered the first element in my previous post, and here we’ll discuss the second indicator.

Dodging Reasonable Questions

After opening statements, each debater was given the opportunity to ask his opponent various questions. Tour focused on the science and simply asked Farina to come to the blackboard and show the chemistry which can produce, under realistic prebiotic conditions, five key aspects of biology: polypeptides, polynucleotides, polysaccharides, specified information, and a functional cell.

In each case, Farina declined to do it. He would not answer Tour’s questions. He would not take the chalk, and he would not touch the blackboard. He would not leave his PowerPoint presentation and the stack of papers (electronic or otherwise) he had prepared. 

In contrast, Tour was rhetorically effective. He listed those five elements on the blackboard. He drew out chemistry and invited Farina to come and explain how it happened. And at the end of each question, after Farina refused to come to the blackboard to explain the chemistry to the audience, Tour wrote “Clueless” next to the question. In another context this might have seemed harsh, but given that the official question of the night was whether origin-of-life researchers are “clueless” about how life arose, it seemed fair enough. 

“Not Clueless”…Really?

At end of the debate, Farina finally did write something on the blackboard. It was two words: “Not Clueless.” This, needless to say, did not answer Tour’s request for a scientific explanation. Farina clearly could not answer a single challenge Tour gave because he did not know the answers, and he did not know the answers because OOL theorists do not know the answers. 

This is not to say that Farina did not have any scientific arguments. In fact, Farina did appeal to quite a few scientific papers — but they did not back up his claims. This is a practice called citation bluffing, which we’ll discuss next.