Who is Andrew Fabich?
tl;dr: Andrew Fabich is a creationist 'microbiologist' at Liberty University who isn't a great scientist.
Who is Andrew Fabich? This question has haunted me since I watched the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. One of Ham's favourite tactics in that debate was to name-drop 'creationist scientists', as though a parade of Ph.Ds would somehow disprove evolution in a blaze of authority. Most of his name-drops were typical creationists: engineers, medical doctors, and the like. But then came Andrew Fabich. In an attempt to discredit the awesome work done by Richard Lenski and his lab on the adaptation of E. coli to use citrate as a novel food source, Ham suddenly trotted out a microbiologist to take a swipe at Lenski et al.
Ham: There are those that say 'hey, this is against the creationist'. For instance, Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago says, 'Lenski's experiment is also yet another poke in the eye for anti-evolutionsts,' he says 'The thing I like most is that it says you can get these complex traits evolving by a combination of unlikely events.' But is it a poke in the eye for anti-evolutionists? Is it really seeing complex traits evolving? What does it mean that some of these bacteria are able to grow on citrate? Let me introduce you to another biblical creationist who is a scientist.
Fabich: Hi, my name is Dr. Andrew Fabich. I got my Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma in microbiology. I teach at Liberty University and I do research on E. coli in the intestine. I have published in secular journals from the American Society for Microbiology including Infection Immunity and Applied Environmental Microbiology as well as several others. My work has been cited, even in the past year in the journals Nature, Science, Translational Medicine, Public Library of Science, Public Library of Science Genetics, it is cited regularly in those journals and while I was taught nothing but evolution, I don't accept that position and I do my research from a creation perspective. When I look at the evidence that people cite of E. coli supposedly evolving over thirty years, over thirty thousand generations in the lab, and people say that is it now able to grow on citrate, I don't deny that it grows on citrate but it's not any kind of new information. It's .. the information's already there and it's just a switch that gets turned on and off, and that's what they reported, and there's nothing new.
Ham: See, students need to be told what's really going on here. Certainly there's change, but it's not change necessary for molecules to man.
I don't need to deal with Fabich's criticism of the E. coli work, for the simple reason that Lenski and his postdoc Zachary Blount have already crushed it over at their blog post. You can see it here, and I encourage you to do so. It's a great read for the biology alone, and it's pretty damning stuff for Fabich. As Zach says at one point:
Fabich went on to state that this “switch” is what we reported. That is emphatically not true. It beggars belief that anyone, much less a trained microbiologist, could actually read our 2012 paper, where we reported the genetic basis of Cit+, and come away thinking this.
So who is this guy? Who is this Ph.D. in microbiology that makes such obvious and simple errors, who presents himself as a creationist biologist and appears with Ham to misinterpret some great work?
Well, let's start with where he works. Fabich is an assistant professor at Liberty University, which is already ringing an alarm bell. Liberty University is a private Christian university located in Virginia, and its biology department openly teaches Young Earth Creationism (YEC). How about Fabich himself? He made a pretty big deal of his publication record during the debate, so I think that we should start by taking a look at it. Fabich has five publications listed on his profile, all dealing with E. coli and the most recent published in 2011 (a Google Scholar search shows the same thing, disregarding a couple of obvious false alarms). These articles have indeed been cited: 6, 56, 82, 16, and 12 in order of date of publication, but these are all large-team papers, with over a dozen authors for several of them and no less than four. This is not suggestive of a creative and robust scientific output on Fabich's part. Finally, the 2011 paper shows his affiliation as being with Oklahoma, which suggests that Fabich hasn't published a single thing since moving to LU. As far as track records go, it wouldn't get you tenure at Harvard (if that mattered to you). Hell, I have more than double the number of publications that he does.
If that was all there was to it, then I probably wouldn't be writing this blog post. But then, I came across this video. It appears to be another attempt to parade a 'creationist scientist' in front of a camera, but it's interesting for its content. In it, Fabich manages to revise the history of scientific thought, bag on the scientific method, quote-mine (incorrectly) a paper on evolution from the 1960s, and from this conclude that evolution is false. A choice highlight from the middle of the video:
The science is not the issue. When you look in the scriptures, even Jesus acknowledges this when he says in Luke 17 that 'the kingdom of God comes not with observation'. Why would you impose that worldview on me? Even Jesus says that you can't do an experiment to prove God or who God is. So, what is the scientific method. Actually, one of the points that I want to make here, right up front, is that modern science had its foundations in the Bible, in Christian Europe. Okay, there are some exceptions, like some people out in India and Turkey, they're isolated and rare exceptions. But the scientific method is based on Biblical presuppositions. I'm not going to go into all of those, but the scientific method, you realise it, you start out with an observation and then you go and you make a hypothesis, collect your data and then there's oh interpretation. You can't get rid of your bias. All scientists are bias [sic]. I'm guilty and so are you.
So, the problem with science that I have is that it never ends. Well, it might not be a problem, it's how I keep my paycheck. Okay, I get it. So one good hypothesis leads to another and so it goes on and on and on and it never stops. If you're not careful, you get trapped into worshipping the internal scientific method rather than the eternal creator of the scientific method who gave it to us so that we could receive it.
What it comes down to here is, our theory has become one which cannot be refuted. You know who said that? It must be a creationist, some big creationist you all recognise and you've got your short list of who it said. Because we're just, we're uncompromising and we're not based on facts and data. You know who said that? It was Paul Ehrlich and L. C. Burch. They, the evolutionists, said 'our theory of evolution has become one which cannot be refuted by any possible observation'. Are you meaning to tell me that it's not based about facts? Whoaaa, so evolution's not based on fact.
There's so much wrong here that I barely know where to start.
- The history of modern science doesn't begin with the Bible. It is difficult to extricate Christians and their institutions from the matter, but to say that modern science started with the Bible is laughable at best. For instance, such a statement manages to ignore the entire history of scientific thought in Ancient Greece. Aristotle formed a significant, even commanding, aspect of scientific thought until the Scientific Revolution through the 16th to 18th centuries. It also ignores the important role that Byzantine and Islamic influences played, and grossly trivialises the achievements of civilisations in places like India and China. These are all recorded and established facts that Fabich blithely rolls over.
- The scientific method is a large part of what gives science its power. And far from being a problem, the recursive nature of scientific progress is one of its greatest strengths. The comedian Dara O'Briain said it well when he said 'Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop. But just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.'
- Yes, scientists are biased. We're all human. In fact, if Fabich cared to Google it, fields like the philosophy of science and the sociology of science exist to tackle exactly this question. But in general, the power of science is that it is self-correcting (though this is not without challenges, and needs constant work). And Fabich basically admits to paying lip service to the scientific method to keep a paycheck. I'll let you decide on how that reflects on him.
- And of course, what would a creationist be without a cherry-picked quote? The quote from Ehrlich and Birch comes from a paper published in 1967 and – despite what Fabich has implied by leaving out the following sentences – is not some sort of anti-evolution screed. In fact, the quote in his video goes on to say: 'The cure seems to us not to be a discarding of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology, but more scepticism about many of its tenets. In population biology, more work is needed in elucidating the general properties of populations, both those made up of one species of organism and those made up of two or more species without reference to dogmas or guesses about how they may have evolved.' So, in reality, the quote that Fabich has chosen is actually about a call for more empirical work to fill in the gaps in the data. And as anyone who's picked up a book in the last 50 will have noticed, they got what they were asking for. (For a longer fisking of this same quote and others, check out Peter Hutcheson from nearly thirty years ago. Way to stay current, Fabich).
So, who is Andrew Fabich? Well, the evidence suggests that he's a poor excuse for a scientist. It suggests that he's not an active member of the scientific community, and that he's interested not in helping the progress of science but in tearing it down to satisfy his worldview. And it suggests that we can safely ignore him.
But Fabich is only the symptom of a larger problem, one that Ken Ham exploited ruthlessly in his side of the debate. The problem is credentialism, or the over-reliance on credentials such as academic degrees. Ham was simply employing a time-honoured technique: parade out a bunch of 'doctors' and 'scientists' who are creationists in an attempt to get a pass simply because they have Ph.Ds. The problem with this is two-fold:
- When verified properly, credentials can be a useful tool in situations such as making hiring decisions (a Ph.D. minimum for a research position is probably a defendable, if not foolproof, criterion to use). But academic credentials are no proof of research savvy or even basic competence; anyone with a browser can surf their way to a Ph.D. at a diploma mill. And the problem with Ham listing scientists who happen to be creationists is that it misses the fact that the vast majority of scientists do not share their beliefs. In fact, Project Steve (of which I am a proud member!) was created to mock this very phenomenon of listing creationist scientists.
- Ham is essentially making an argument from authority, which is a logical fallacy. The fact that I have a Ph.D. in Biology doesn't mean that I'm automatically right about anything biology-related, even in my own area. What it signifies is that I've spent a long time studying and thinking about biology and related topics, and that my thoughts on the matter are probably more well-informed than the average person's. But if a precocious seven-year child wanders up to me and hands me a verifiable fossil of a Precambrian rabbit, then as a field we would have some serious re-thinking to do1. It doesn't matter that she's still learning to reliably write her own name, or that I have a Ph.D. The evidence is the evidence; we don't make the case for evolution based on our degrees, we make it based on our observations of the world around us.
You can see this at work with Fabich and the debate in general. Fabich shows up in the video, snows the audience under with his credentials, and then declares – based solely on his now-established authority – that Lenski et al don't know what they're talking about. If you watch the video, you'll notice that Bill Nye doesn't do any of that. What does he do instead? He presents evidence. He holds up physical objects, he shows records of observations of trees and ice cores, he discusses what we see in the Grand Canyon.
So why do Ham and crew do this? Because, unfortunately, it works. This is one of the great challenges of science communication: people don't have the time or inclination to become experts, so they rely on others to do it for them (a mental version of the division of labour). How is the average person to know who has a "real" Ph.D. and who doesn't, or which expert is trustworthy and reflects the broad scientific consensus? Creationists, climate-change denialists, anti-vaxxers: they all rely on the same method of inducing doubt. They agitate for 'balance' and 'teaching the other side', because they know that doing so legitimises the debate. In fact, it's one of the reasons that I don't support Nye's decision to debate Ham. I feel that he did a great job in the situation, but I still think that it was a mistake2.
Until we can find a better solution to this problem, though, we're stuck with how I started this post: we need to root out people like Fabich and bring them into the harsh light of good science. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go do some science of my own.