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Rice’s James Tour and YouTuber ‘Professor Dave’ debate the origins of life


Jennifer Liu / Thresher

By Nayeli Shad     5/26/23 4:18pm

Dave Farina of the YouTube channel ProfessorDaveExplains came to Rice to debate organic chemistry professor James Tour on the topic of abiogenesis, the scientific theory that life on Earth originated from non-living compounds. The debate occurred May 19 in a full Keck Hall, with up to 2,800 viewers watching the event livestreamed on YouTube.

Farina, a science educator with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, first made a video in 2020 critiquing Tour’s argument that scientists are clueless about the origins of life. Since then, the two have repeatedly posted video responses to each other. Tour was the first to propose that the two debate the subject face-to-face.

The debate, entitled “Are we clueless about the origin of life?” included dialogues on chemistry and religion, opening statements, back-and-forth questions between Farina and Tour and audience questions. 

Tour opened with his statement, saying that his religion does not influence his scientific beliefs.

“I believe that the Bible is God’s words. I never appeal to that book of authority in my academic lectures or scientific discussions,” Tour, also a professor of materials science and nanoengineering, said.

Tour, explaining why he does not believe in abiogenesis, said that scientists cannot experimentally determine how the essential building blocks for all life formed and assembled into cells in the conditions on early Earth. Tour said that many origin of life researchers that Farina cites in his videos said they would create life in the lab but have not yet done so.

“Mr. Farina, I respect your courage to be here tonight. It’s too bad that origin of life researchers are not here themselves to defend their data,” Tour said. “Maybe they know the shallowness of their own research.”

In his opening statement, Farina referenced Tour’s website, which states Tour’s belief that God created all life on Earth and that “faith and belief go beyond scientific evidence for [Tour].”

“[Tour] is openly admitting that there is no science that could ever convince him that life was not directly created by God,” Farina said. “He is ideologically bound to denying abiogenesis … He’s approaching the field not as a scientist but as a preacher.”

Farina continued by saying that Tour is an organic chemist who has never conducted origin of life research, only publishing what Farina called “blog posts” in non peer-reviewed publications. Farina listed several things he alleges Tour has lied about in his videos, including claims that the scope of the research in the abiogenesis field is limited and archaic.

“Today, finally, with no desk to hide behind, every tactic will be elucidated in real time and [Tour] will be made accountable for his lies for everyone to see,” Farina said. “I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I will.”

Tour asked Farina to demonstrate chemically how proteins could assemble in prebiotic conditions. Farina referenced papers about how proteins could form in water, but Tour alleged that the examples given did not work for every kind of amino acid. 

Farina’s questions centered around Tour being a “pathological liar,” asking Tour to explain previous alleged inaccuracies.

“This is important because [Tour] also lies about science that goes over most people’s heads,” Farina said. “So by proving to you what a liar he is, you are now primed to realize how he is lying about all the complex details of origin of life research as well.”

The debate was moderated by Wayne Guida, a chemistry professor at the University of South Florida at Tampa, whose role was to clarify chemical facts for the audience and hold the debaters to the time limits.

“Let’s try to have a dialogue instead of people shouting at each other,” Guida said during a portion of Farina’s questioning of Tour.

Farina then asked Tour about fully self-replicating ribozymes, RNA molecules that act as enzymes to increase chemical reaction rates. Farina said these molecules are key evidence of natural selection, while Tour alleged that Farina’s conclusions were inaccurate.

“You can’t address the research because you don’t want it to be true and we all know why,” Farina said in response to Tour refuting his evidence.

As he cut the men off for the last time, Guida summarized the spirit of the debate.

“If there is nothing else we can say, one thing we can say is that it has been a lively debate,” Guida said.

After the debate ended, Farina and Tour opened the conversation up to audience members who could pose questions to either person. One audience member asked Farina his thoughts on Tour yelling over him throughout the debate.

“The more he yells, the less I can say and the less I can prove him wrong,” Farina said. “It’s a pretty obvious tactic.”

Another audience member asked Tour why he has not tried to publish his critiques of origins of life research in reputable journals, instead opting for YouTube videos. Tour said that social media proved a broader and more accessible platform to convey scientific information.

“I am not trying to reach the origin of life researchers. I am trying to reach the masses,” Tour said. “There is something called social medium that is allowing me to reach the masses that never read the primary literature.”

“The translation of this is, ‘I can’t publish lies, so I show them to the public instead,’” Farina immediately countered.

When an audience member said that the debate had strayed from the original topic and asked each debater to summarize their arguments, Farina said that there are many prebiotically plausible pathways for abiogenesis demonstrated by research and reiterated how he believes Tour is misrepresenting the latest research.

“We certainly would never say we know exactly how life began — that would be ridiculous — but we are far from clueless. We have a mountain of research,” Farina said. “Will we ever figure out exactly how life began? Maybe not — honestly, probably not — but it’s only because we have so many ways it could’ve happened.”

Tour said that the lack of Nobel prizes given to origin of life research demonstrates that scientists have not been able to determine if abiogenesis is valid.

“You can’t answer this, you can’t answer that, that, that, that,” Tour said. “So I say we’re clueless.”

Simon Yellen, a Duncan College sophomore, attended the debate in person and said that, in a sense, both Farina and Tour “lost” the debate. Yellen said that Farina’s weaknesses came from his sarcastic comments and lack of familiarity with the literature. Meanwhile, Yellen said that Tour used “disingenuous debate tactics” like sidestepping Farina’s questions, interrupting frequently and asking for irrelevant details.

“While neither [Farina] nor Tour behaved well,” Yellen said, “Tour’s behavior has made it very clear he cannot engage in a productive conversation with those he disagrees with and has caused me, and I hope the university, to seriously question if that behavior is healthy in an academic environment.”

When asked to comment on the outcome of the debate, Farina said that while the debate was “complete chaos,” he had anticipated the aftermath.

“[Tour] planned to write ‘clueless’ in front of prompts on the chalkboard no matter what was said, and he baselessly denied all research presented that proved him wrong, knowing that the stacked audience in his rows of reserved seats would cheer on the dishonesty,” Farina wrote in an email to the Thresher.

In his response, Tour apologized for shouting over Farina and said that Farina could not answer questions without referring to a script.

“Real chemistry is discussed at a blackboard,” Tour wrote in an email to the Thresher. “Too bad [Farina] could not show any organic reagents of mechanisms for his explanation.”

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