Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Creationists causes scientist to retract parts of paper

Israel Barrantes linked to this news in a comment over at ERV, and I thought it interesting enough that it should get mentioned.

NY Times reports that professor Homer Jacobson is retracting his 1955 paper, “Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life”, published in American Scientist.

The reason he is retracting it, is that he came across references to it, while ego-googeling his name. Those references where all from Creationist sites that used it to support their unscientific claims., for example, says Dr. Jacobson’s paper “undermines the scenario that life could have come about by accident.” Another creationist site,, says his findings mean that “within a few minutes, all the various parts of the living organism had to make themselves out of sloshing water,” an impossible feat without a supernatural hand.

“Ouch,” Dr. Jacobson said. “It was hideous.”

Of course, those sites completely misunderstands the paper, but they made Dr. Jacobson take a look at the paper again, and he found some bad mistakes in it.

Things grew worse when he reread his paper, he said, because he discovered errors. One related to what he called a “conjecture” about whether amino acids, the basic building blocks of protein and a crucial component of living things, could form naturally.

“Under the circumstances I mention, just a bunch of chemicals sitting together, no,” he said. “Because it takes energy to go from the things that make glycine to glycine, glycine being the simplest amino acid.”

There were potential sources of energy, he said. So to say that nothing much would happen in its absence “is totally beside the point.” “And that is a point I did not make,” he added.

Another assertion in the paper, about what would have had to occur simultaneously for living matter to arise, is just plain wrong, he said, adding, “It was a dumb mistake, but nobody ever caught me on it.”

So, Dr. Jacobson decided to retract the paper, since it was flawed, and misused by Creationists.

Of course, the Creationists claim that Dr. Jacobson is retracting it because looking pro-creationist can cause a scientist trouble. Never mind that in the intermediate 50-odd year, Jacobson wasn't even aware that his paper was misused, and it obviously didn't cause him any trouble.

Of course, the truth is much more simple, and shows the strength of science. Jacobson realized that he had written something that was wrong, and took the necessary steps to correct it.

As a note, I should perhaps say that while the NY Times article makes it sound like he is retracting the whole paper, he is in reality on retracting parts of the paper - those parts that contained the errors (which interestingly enough are the parts referenced by Creationists).

In his letter to American Scientist, Dr. Jacobson states:

In January 1955, American Scientist published my article, "Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life" (Vol. 43, No. 1). I ask you to honor my request to retract two brief passages,

The letter also makes quite clear that the misuse of the paper by Creationists is the direct cause for him to ask for such a late retraction.

Retraction this untimely is not normally undertaken, but in this case I request it because of continued irresponsible contemporary use by creationists who have quoted my not merely out-of-context, but incorrect, statements, to support their dubious viewpoint. I am deeply embarrassed to have been the originator of such misstatements, allowing bad science to have come into the purview of those who use it for anti-science ends.

Personally I applaud his decision.

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Blogger Isra said...

Thanks for the mention.

I know this may sound like some sort of scientific tabloid but I'm always looking forward to unmask fake science, like what happened recently with some papers in Nature Genetics that were supposed to demonstrate the epigenetic inheritance in humans, but in the end they were retracted.

November 01, 2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger Jesse Wiedinmyer said...

Hey Kristjan... How's things?

Know anyone that might feel like jumping into the middle of this mess?

November 03, 2007 9:03 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Hey Jesse - life is busy at the moment, which is why I'm not that active on the 'net.

Regarding your link, I think Greg Laden would be the right person to ask - recently he wrote a relevant blogpost about the question of IQ etc.

I might use the thread as a starting point for a post on the subject, since I've been meaning to write one, but it's unlikely it will happen the next few days.

November 03, 2007 10:04 PM  

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