Monday, October 22, 2007


An Odyssey for Truth

Homer Jacobson, a Brooklyn College chemistry professor emeritus has a couple of corrections he'd like to make to an article he had published in American Scientist. Nothing much new there ... except for the fact that the article was published 52 years ago!

The passages Jacobson wants retracted appeared in the article "Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life" in the January 1955 American Scientist (Vol. 43, No. 1):

On page 121: "Directions for the reproduction of plans, for energy and the extraction of parts from the current environment, for the growth sequence, and for the effector mechanisms translating instructions into growth—all had to be simultaneously present at that moment [of life's birth]."

On page 125: "From the probability standpoint, the ordering of the present environment into a single amino acid molecule would be utterly improbable in all the time and space available for the origin of terrestrial life."

Why does he feel the need to make corrections now? First of all, there were some errors of omission:

For the first passage, use of the requirement of simultaneity was a conjecture, unsupported by any proof. Separate developments of partial structures might well have occurred in an environment of randomly reacting molecules, eventually to join into one or more self-reproducing structures.

The second passage refers only to an attempt to calculate the probability that a single molecule of a particular amino acid could spontaneously form from its components. The calculation was irrelevant, as it was based on an endothermic change during an imaginary spontaneous conversion of a mixture of component atoms and molecules into glycine under adiabatic and standard conditions, with no external source of energy. Such changes cannot spontaneously take place. Molecules of increased complexity have been found, however, when necessary components are available, with the aid of ambient energy from natural or experimental systems, e.g. electrical discharges, substantial temperature gradients or contiguous compounds or elements whose chemical reactions produce free energy. All of these could have existed under early Earth conditions, and thus this passage is completely inapplicable.

Few people would blame any scientist for not bothering to correct such relatively minor failures of complete accuracy in a very old article. But Professor Jacobson's incentive was:

... 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.

In an accompanying editorial (unfortunately not online) Rosalind Reid fills out the story a bit. It seems Jacobson, who is retired, in a bit of indulgence Googled himself, finding close to a thousand hits. But, to his dismay, many of them were creationist sites quote mining his article in support of their claims of the impossibility of naturalistic origin of life.

As Reid correctly describes what happened next:

Jacobson responded in the noblest tradition of science. He examined the quoted statements carefully, realized they were in fact wrong ... and decided, 52 years after the original publication, to admit his error and retract the statements.

And Reid gets the lesson to be taken from this almost perfectly right:

Jacobson's letter speaks for itself, as do the fundamentalist tracts. If you listen closely to the dialectic between them you will hear something crisp and clear: the distinction between a scientist who cannot let error stand no matter the embarrassment of public correction and those who under the same circumstances cling to dogma.

I'd only quibble that Jacobson has little cause for embarrassment ... unless because of all the cheering.

Thanks to Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education for alerting me to this story.

And here is the New York Times article on Professor Jacobson.


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