Astroturfing the scientific databases: spamming the lobster eye

The Encyclopedia of Life is a cool tool which is a sort of wikification of taxonomy — it allows a large number of contributors to add descriptions of species with the goal of eventually documenting all 1.8 million known species in a single searchable source. Look at the page for my experimental animal, Danio rerio; lots of information in a standard format with links and references. Thumbs up!

However, there’s a problem here: the sources. To organize that much data, a large mob of contributors are needed, and that means some fairly open policies to allow contributors have been instituted, and that in turn means that there will be parasites on they system. And a reader sent me an example of a doozy.

Take a look at the page for the order Decapoda. It has an oddly random article on the reflecting superposition eyes of lobsters up top.

A lobster’s eye works on a principle of reflection rather than that of refraction…The most outstanding characteristic of the lobster eye is its surface, which is composed of numerous squares…these squares are positioned most precisely.

It’s OK — it seems to be a rough and unhelpful paraphrase of a section of Michael Land’s wonderfully informative book, Animal Eyes, and it’s correct as far as it goes — lobster eyes do have an array of mirrored light guides that are square in section. The surprise is at the end, where it names the author: Harun Yahya. That’s right, the Turkish creationist. This is taken straight from one of his creationist ravings, where he discusses some amazing detail of biology and concludes that it couldn’t possibly have evolved because he, a wealthy playboy and former mental patient and convicted criminal now representing himself as the Islamic source of creation science, could not imagine it so.

How did Harun Yahya become a source on EoL?

The page links to its source and holder of the copyright on the article: it’s the Biomimicry Institute, an entirely credible educational source, with a specific page, the Ask Nature reference, which is, again, an open source resource with multiple contributors. And yes, there’s Harun Yahya stuffing articles in there.

I did a google search on a few of the phrases in the text, and whoa — it’s everywhere. Harun Yahya’s organization has been dumping this same bit of text, and others, in various of their own websites and also in just about any legitimate source that allows them to open an account and create public content, including Ask Nature and EoL. It has also been picked up by numerous creationist sites as well, all echoing the same unwarranted conclusion: this eye works really well, therefore it couldn’t have evolved.

Try googling for information on lobster eyes. It’s a mess. There are a few credible sources that appear on the first page, like Wikipedia, but for the most part it’s a smear of creationist sites.

I know, this is a truism: don’t trust the Net of Lies, learn to vet your sources, watch out for anything on the net. But it looks to me like the Turkish creationists have been waging a successful astroturf campaign to infiltrate sources that we would normally regard as pretty good, and are thereby corrupting sources even more. It also allows them to pass casual review because their articles are very widely sourced.

I hope the editors of various scientific web sites that allow open submissions will take a look at their collections, and purge them of anything from Harun Yahya. He is not a scientific source, he has absolutely no background in the sciences, and he mangles the information to serve his ideological goals. What he’s doing here is using repetition to make his name widely known, and parasitizing on the good name of some websites to falsely elevate his reputation. There’s a hobo on the train, people, and he’s pretending he’s a railroad executive.

Just in case you are wondering about those lobster eyes, they actually are extremely interesting, using reflecting mirrors instead of refracting lenses to focus light on photoreceptors. It’s not hard to see how they would work: to focus incoming light on a photoreceptor surface, we need to bend light to a target, and refraction or reflection can do the job.

Here’s Mike Land’s summary diagram of the process (and, incidentally, Animal Eyes is an excellent survey of the diversity of biological optics):


I don’t see how you can argue that the one on the right is evidence of creation, any more than the one on the left. Both take advantage of ordinary physical properties to focus an image on a retina.

The interesting phenomenon is the transition: the eye on the left is almost certainly the ancestral state, since some crustaceans have both kinds of eyes, and also they may have the refracting eye on the left in the early stages of development, and it then transforms into the mirrored eye…and we don’t have good evolutionary examples of the historical transition. That the eye can switch between two forms during development at least implies that no magic is necessary, though, so this may be an open question but it is not a question that requires the invention of a supernatural designer to answer.