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Focus on the science

Photo courtesy Paul Mayer

By Paul Mayer     2/14/23 11:39pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

Over the past year, the back-and-forth between science educator Professor Dave and Rice’s own James Tour has reached a new level of fervor, accompanied by name-calling, accusations of dishonesty and hordes of angry YouTube comments. To Professor Dave, Dr. Tour misunderstands origin-of-life research and purposely misrepresents the field.  Dr. Tour, on the other hand, claims his issues with OOL are based on the science itself and expresses concern that the public and students are misled about OOL research. Beneath all the incivility are two people who seem to care very deeply about science and science education. I encourage the Rice community to focus on the science itself, not any of the personal attacks.

In the past, I was not a fan of James Tour and bought into the depiction of him as a religious fundamentalist who prioritized converting students over teaching them science. As a result, I understand why Professor Dave and his audience could think that Dr. Tour has a religious agenda. Dr. Tour is an outspoken Christian and even hosts Bible studies with students (which he has every right to do). But when I attended a talk by Dr. Tour, he was nothing like the rumors suggested: he did not mention any miracles or God at all. I began to share his concern that claims by science communicators and introductory textbooks discouraged students from entering the field of OOL.

I was also concerned that Professor Dave was blinded by his own views and presuppositions about Dr. Tour, a concern that grew larger after watching his recent video “The Delicious Unravelling of James Tour,” which did not feature much science at all. Instead, Professor Dave came dangerously close to expressing the same anti-Christian and anti-religious sentiments touted by New Atheists who have fallen into moral dogmatism. Their back-and-forth misrepresents the usual civility and charity that characterizes serious academic discussion. Constant character attacks, allegations of fraud and dishonesty and armchair psychoanalysis are not how scientists resolve disputes.  Rather than responding to these claims, the Rice community must uphold its commitment to excellence and integrity, and instead respond to the quality of research and the arguments themselves.

Both Dr. Tour and Professor Dave are excellent teachers and share a similar goal of teaching science. Dr. Tour won the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching two times while at Rice (in 2007 and 2012). Professor Dave has millions of subscribers and has helped countless students learn chemistry (including some at Rice). Consider the irony that there are people at Rice taking Dr. Tour’s organic chemistry class and using Professor Dave’s videos to help study for exams, leveraging the expertise of both to understand the material better.  The two are great at explaining science on YouTube, so it is only when their conversation reaches a personal level that it ceases to be worth watching (save for entertainment).

I now think that many of the accusations against Dr. Tour are unprofessional, unprovoked and baseless.  Professor Dave is more responsible for the current hostility for directly targeting Dr. Tour and his religion, as Dr. Tour has repeatedly stated he believes his religion plays no part in his scientific work. If someone came after me and my work on the basis of my personal life, I would not hesitate to respond. Additionally, I would expect my colleagues to come to my defense, not necessarily for my own sake but to remind the public that data and experimentation are paramount to science, not personal belief. I’d argue further that their silence here is unacceptable: if someone criticized another scientist on the basis of other personal characteristics like their race or gender, I would similarly expect researchers to quickly dismiss such nonsense.

Because we attend a leading research university, we each share the responsibility of demonstrating to the public how research is done.  This means coming to conclusions based on the strength of the evidence, not who is the loudest, flashiest or funniest.  I implore my fellow students to listen to both sides with an open mind, not with the intention of discrediting either Dr. Tour or Professor Dave.  You may even learn some chemistry in the process.

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