New Scientist defends bad science

Last week I highlighted a pretty dreadful piece in New Scientist, “The chaos theory of evolution,” written by paleontologist Keith Bennett, which pretty much deep-sixed the modern theory of evolution in favor of a buzzword-y evolution that was all about being “fractal,” “chaotic,” and “nonlinear”.  Bennett relegated the role of natural selection to that of a bit player—if even that.

Coincidentally, the magazine asked me for my take on an unrelated issue.  I used the occasion to tell the editor that I wasn’t interested in helping a magazine that was more or less the National Enquirer of science reporting, gleefully touting every misguided objection to neo-Darwinian evolution that came down the pike. He responded by saying that Bennett’s article was after all taken from a talk at the last International Paleontological Congress, and therefore had a modicum of respectability.  The editor then suggested I write a piece for the magazine critiquing it.

I responded:

Thanks very much for your email.  I am in Colombia for two weeks and wouldn’t be able to do anything until I return.  Perhaps I should just let my blog post be my reply.

But really, is there nobody on your staff who can vet these things for content? Or is a well known scientist allowed simply to say whatever he wants?  Even if that scientist questions the power and ubiqity of natural selection? That’s like a chemist coming to your magazine and doubting the existence of atoms.

If you think my own take on Bennett’s piece is unique, simply read the comments after my post. There are many people, including myself, who think that New Scientist has lost a lot of credibility because of its penchant for “Darwin-is-wrong” kinds of sensationalism.

The editor responded, saying that the blame rested not on New Scientist, but on the field itself. If such bad ideas could past muster among respected paleontologists, well, that’s not New Scientist’s fault. And he again invited me to respond:

Thanks for getting back to me.

On the whole we're confident that we can vet content ourselves, with the
proviso that the peer review process is working. Perhaps some of your
ire should be turned on your scientific colleagues - if Bennett is so
hopelessly wrong, why was he ever invited to give that keynote
(alongside Niles Eldredge)? Why did the symposium even take place?
Bennett wasn't the only one to question the primacy of natural selection
in macroevolution. Why does the Royal Society support his work?
Similarly, if the tree of life concept is unimpeachable, why is there
such a large literature questioning its validity and a major project on
it at a leading UK biology department?

As a weekly science magazine (not journal) we can only report what we
see and hear going on around us. And we're always going to look for new,
potentially game-changing ideas (it's the news, stupid).

I was at Bennett's talk; the room was full of learned and eminent
people. He took a few questions but there were no howls of protest like
yours. What am I to make of this? I'm genuinely baffled.

Perhaps you could blog about this. It's very easy to shoot the messenger
but science itself isn't blameless. 

Also, please consider my invitation to write something to be an open
one. Perhaps when you're back we could run a piece arguing that there's
not a lot wrong with the theory of evolution as it stands and scientists
who claim there is are misguided.

I’m going to pass on this invitation. After all, I already did a long post taking apart Bennett’s views, and if I had to go after every piece of Darwin-is-wrong-ism, I’d never get anything else done.  And I’m not sure whether Bennett’s views on the vacuity of neo-Darwinism really do characterize most paleontologists. If they do, then shame on paleobiology.  But that doesn’t absolve New Scientist from a responsibility to report that views like Bennett’s are controversial, even if there’s a large slice of misguided paleobiologists who accept them.

What I won’t do is help New Scientist sell magazines by fanning the flames of controversy. I wash my hands of this rag, and I’d advise readers to do likewise until it cleans up its act.

60 Comments

  1. Galwayskeptic
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I see your point Jerry, but that seemed quite a fair response. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of people buy NewScientist under the impression that it’s a reliable source for scientific information. I think you should do the article (IF you could squeeze in the time, that is).

    For my part, I’ll be ignoring NewScientist, unless that is, you do decide to write a reply…

    • Rory Kent
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Aww, I was going to type my own response, but you said everything I was going to.

      Good comment 😛

  2. J.J.E.
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The editor is guilty of the worst case of cowardly journalism: the “there are two sides and they are exactly equal”. One might just as well as say:

    “If the idea that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear weapon is so hopelessly wrong, why did Colin Powell give that address to the U.N.?”

    A clue to the New Scientist. If you fancy yourselves as journalists, try doing some research. Not every person in who gives a talk or publishes a paper in science represents a mainstream view. In fact, people who can get their “work” noticed can very well be crackpots. Stop being lazy and start doing the difficult work of actually trying to understand an issue. The fact that someone could present crap in a public forum is a lazy person’s response. And it is a response from someone who has no understanding of journalism.

    • Galwayskeptic
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Does he explicitly say they’re equal? The article seemed to me to be an admission of ignorance. It’s likely that the editor is not an expert on evolution and in that case, can he be expected to be able to tell the wheat from the chaff?

      If the chaff happens to be a keynote speaker at a respected paleontology society’s conference, then it might be even more difficult.

      For the same reason, your point about them not doing their research is moot. On one hand, they have a peer-reviewed article supporting a more ‘traditional’, Darwinian view of evolution. on the other hand they have a peer-reviewed article that doesn’t! Unless you’re an expert, it’s very difficult to make the distinction, I feel.

      Evolution is not an area of expertise for me, though I’m very interested in it and though I would regard any radical challenge to Darwinism with great skepticism, I don’t know if I would have the facts at hand to explicitly challenge it…

      • Galwayskeptic
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        *for article, I meant the editor’s reply!

      • Galwayskeptic
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        *accidently typed article, what I meant was the editor’s reply.

      • gillt
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        “On one hand, they have a peer-reviewed article supporting a more ‘traditional’, Darwinian view of evolution. on the other hand they have a peer-reviewed article that doesn’t!”

        OMG! Truth is relative unless you’re an expert in everything!

        I don’t buy it. If you’re not already an expert in the field you read review articles and use that as a basis for a consensus. If for no other reason than the fact that you don’t have the background to weigh the merit of stand-alone articles.

        Scientists do this all the time and so should science journalists.

        • Galwayskeptic
          Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          It reminds me of the case of the former medical journal, ‘Medical Hypotheses’. It was designed to be a journal where new, highly experimental, somewhat speculative theories were first thrown out there for the science public to tackle. Its speculative nature meant that it lacked the solid empirical base that other journals lacked, and sadly, towards the end it was highjacked by woo-meisters.

          However, I think there is room for a publication of that nature, if only to provoke debate and to sharpen the teeth of more established theories. There would have to be, of course, some kind of minimum requirement, some tentative evidence, something to justify its publication. It would have the potential to be quite thought-provoking and entertaining in that capacity.

          I understand the distinction though. Readers of NewScientist have not, in the main, the critical faculty to distinguish between more speculative articles and they’ve committed some terrible crimes against physics. If NewScientist would be more open about the amount of evidence that supports a given article and some context as to its place in the larger scheme of scientific discourse (e.g. for a new area of study, such as epigenetics), then I think it would be permissible.

          People should be excited about science and there are some earth-shattering possibilities to the things being researched today. The challenge lies, I suppose, in communicating these possibilities and conveying this excitement, responsibly.

          • gillt
            Posted November 9, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

            “If NewScientist would be more open about the amount of evidence that supports a given article and some context as to its place in the larger scheme of scientific discourse (e.g. for a new area of study, such as epigenetics), then I think it would be permissible.”

            Exactly! The editor’s response was to shirk all responsibility for the accuracy of the article and then play stupid about any consensus in evolutionary biology.

      • winwar
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        The editor has no excuse for ignorance. Talks and presentations at scientific meetings are not peer reviewed. They are not remotely the same as publishing in a journal. Keynote speakers are chosen to drive attendance. These are basic concepts.

        I suspect the editor is well aware of these facts but chooses to ignore them. Good journalism requires effort and costs money and most people can’t tell the difference. If he isn’t aware of the facts, I don’t know how he became an editor.

        But these are the reasons that I read web sites like this. Journalism in traditional media has pretty much ceased to exist.

        • Galwayskeptic
          Posted November 9, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          “Similarly, if the tree of life concept is unimpeachable, why is there such a large literature questioning its validity and a major project on
          it at a leading UK biology department?”

          The above isn’t exactly referenced to my satisfaction, but I thought it implied that the presentation was derived from articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

          I agree with you in the main, though. Journalism has lost all credibility as a discipline. The problem is, I think there is a great need for a popular science magazine. I know I used to read NewScientist when I was younger, as did a few of my nerdier friends 😛 Though the articles are/were somewhat speculative, you wouldn’t hear us arguing against stem cell research, for instance! (e.g. ‘are you joking, don’t you realise that in a few years, they’ll be able to grow you new limbs from those things!’)

          There is a need to keep ‘the public’ on side or at least to present a reader-friendly version to the less scientifically educated. Otherwise, where will people get their science from? Actually, I think we know the answer…

      • J.J.E.
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        You eloquently express the very perspective that I find so pernicious. You are indirectly supporting an argument from authority (you are dealing with a special case of conflicting authorities). Journalism should be in the business of challenging authorities, not simply taking them at their word. Given that this was a commissioned piece authored by someone with a conflict of interest (not inherently wrong) a responsible publication should have at least written a perspective piece to put it in context. The context isn’t very salutary to the thesis of the piece, so spoiling the narrative…

  3. MosesZD
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Just because someone gives a speech on a subject, doesn’t mean that it’s right… It doesn’t mean that it’s accepted within the discipline…

    Further, even if it is supported by an institution and is based on something that was peer-reviewed, it doesn’t actually mean it’s correct….

    As we all know, many things get through peer-review and are just flat-out wrong. Sometimes it’s bias. Sometimes its negligence. And, sometimes, sadly, many scientists play the peer-review lottery with substandard work with erroneous conclusions.

    After all, it only takes one bad journal to get something published.

    Something my wife knows well about as she tried-and-tried to get off of a bad cellular-modeling paper for which she merely provided data. She didn’t do the modeling and was embarrassed by the crap paper (which her opinions and suggestions were completely ignored by the author/modeler).

    She didn’t want her name sullied by the rejections, though at the time she was pretty sure the paper wouldn’t be published because it was “pure excrement.”

    Alas, it was. And with her as “second author.” All because the author submitted time-and-time-again to fourth-rate journals.

    Fortunately it was on mathematical modeling of cell adhesion and published in some fourth-rate rate Brazilian mathematics journal. Hopefully nobody in biology will hold it against her…

    Anyway, I think New Scientist is wrong and I think Jerry’s response is fairly good. New Scientist isn’t really thinking it through and is jumping on whatever bit of sensationalist tripe that comes down the pipe…

  4. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Lets hear from some paleobiologists. Do they think along the same lines as Bennett?

    I am currently reading When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of all Time by Paleontologist Michael Benton who is a firm supporter of Evolution by natural selection (deduced from his writing).

    • Dominic
      Posted November 10, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      When you read David Raup & Niles Eldredge etc you see a gap between palaeontologists & biologists, & I am not sure how much they speak to each other. Eldredge for one is very anti gene-centrism (Reinventing Darwin). I would be interested in what Benton has to say.

  5. littlejohn
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    You think Darwin wasn’t wrong? He predicted the Yankees would win the Series this year!
    At least Nostradomus got that right, although it requires some interpretation. The “dragon from the west” obviously was Houston.
    Where’s my drink?

    • Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Although the race isn’t always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor the World Series to the Yankees, in the absence of any other information, that’s the way the smart money bets. I’m with Darwin on this one.

  6. Screechy Monkey
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I can just picture the issue cover if you did write a response for them:

    “The Empire Strikes Back: Darwin’s Embattled Defenders Lash Out at Critics”

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      “Shrilly”

    • Posted November 9, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Ha! I think Screechy Monkey wins the thread for that one. 🙂

  7. Ken Pidcock
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    New Scientist has never claimed to provide a summary of scientific consensus. It is, by tradition and by reputation, raucous and prone to provide a forum for all kinds of crazy nonsense. (Be glad you’re not a physicist!) NS is not a vehicle for communication from the scientific community to the general public, as some scientists seem to think it should be. It’s a science entertainment rag, and Bennett’s bit is right up its alley. At the same time, nobody does a better job of conveying the edge.

    Please forgive the rant. I’m still pissed off with self-righteous response of Jerry and others to the whole Darwin Was Wrong cover of Januray 2009.

    You have made a lot of extra, unpleasant work for the scientists whose work you should be explaining to the general public. We all now have to go out and try to correct all the misapprehensions your cover has engendered.

    I dunno. I hear Miss Shields.

    But those who designed this cover know their blame, and I’m sure that the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive.

    Then Dennett recommends National Geographic as a role model. Christ.

    • Josh Slocum
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Why are you more pissed off at Jerry’s “self-righteous” response than you are at the very real misunderstandings NS provokes with its “Darwin Was Wrong” schtick? I’m genuinely puzzled by that. Simply stating that NS is an entertainment rag isn’t enough. OK, so it is. But it is contributing in a very real way to the public misunderstanding of evolution.

      Why doesn’t that bother you as much as you’re bothered by Jerry noticing it and calling it ou?

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        The relevant cover story discussed the impact of horizontal gene transfer and symbiogenesis on the evolutionary process. One can argue that the writer over-stated that impact, and the letter that Jerry (along with Dawkins, Dennett and Myers) issued did address that. However, the main thrust was to hold New Scientist accountable for the possible use of the cover by creationists and intelligent design advocates, who might cite it as evidence for “weaknesses of evolution.” (Indeed, they offer an example of this. Texas, natch.)

        But you know what? That’s not New Scientist’s problem. Look, the trolls are already wide awake and vigorously searching for bits of information with which to deceive the public. When, in 2004, Carl Woese proposed that there may not be one universal common progenitor, Stephen Meyer couldn’t contain his joy, as if a serious contribution to our understanding of biogenesis was proof that it didn’t happen. That’s just the way these folks interface with science; I’ve no doubt that people who think the moon is made of green cheese are avid students of lunar geology. But the DI fellows’ interest in finding things to distort shouldn’t mean that science journalists have to filter everything they say or write to ensure that it cannot possibly be distorted. Constantly asking ourselves What Would Jerry Do? is no way to enjoy biology nor to convey that joy to our students and the public. I say of the ID crowd, let them enforce their orthodoxy. We have none to enforce.

        • Posted November 9, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

          The IDiot crowd is a lost cause, agreed.

          The problem is that the lay public sees a “respectable” science publication trumpeting that Darwin got it all worng and then reaches the obvious conclusion that the other side of the controversy they’ve been taught must therefore be right. Especially when the door-to-door Jesus salesmen show it to them.

          It’s like going into a crowded theater and proclaiming, “Get your red-hot FIREcrackers here!” It’s shameless sensationalism designed to get the most vigorous reaction possible, and to Hell with the consequences.

          The notion either simply wouldn’t have occurred to a responsible science journalist to report on horizontal gene transfer like that, or it would have come out of a drunken, “If we were a bunch of major-league assholes, how would we go about fucking over our readers the way that Fox news does?” session.

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Thanny
          Posted November 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

          So you’re saying it’s not valid to criticize the rag for publishing an article under the heading “Darwin Was Wrong”?

          Even though the article itself showed nothing of the sort, but in fact was about something that Darwin got pretty damn right?

          It’s an entertainment rag, and the editors are liable to use false and sensationalistic headlines to sell paper. I don’t think anyone’s shocked at this, but I do find it a bit shocking that you seem to believe that we’re not allowed to find this state of affairs appalling.

          The “Darwin Was Wrong” headline was rubbish. The article was almost rubbish. This latest article is complete trash, and not the least bit scientific. I don’t care what the stated and actual goals are for New Scientist. Any magazine with a variation of “science” in the title must be held to certain standards.

  8. Posted November 9, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Evolution’s strength as a scientific theory is supported by an interlocking and interdisciplinary foundational matrix, with paleobiology as just one of the support pegs. From that angle, yes, there should be some science editor on the staff that would have an understanding that just one wobbly peg (if indeed it is wobbly) is no big deal to the edifice of evolution via natural selection.

    New Scientist will never be mistaken as Gnu Scientist.

  9. locutus7
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    And many, if not most, of the anti-evolutionists imply the consequence of their assertions: Darwin is wrong, THUS there is a god.

    • Galwayskeptic
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Well there is a distinction to be drawn here, yes? They aren’t quibbling over whether evolution happened, just the mechanism by which it occurred. The crazies have no more rope to work with than they ever did, except that they might exploit this perceived ‘schism’ to anyone who’ll listen. Except nobody will listen. Their own crazy choir will at least have a different tune to listen to. 😛

      • Posted November 9, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that only a tiny fraction of people who encounter that New Scientist headline will even pretend to bother to go on to read the article — let alone understand it.

        Instead, they’ll see a “respectable” science publication headlining news that Darwin was worng and conclude that the “alternative” must therefore be right.

        I’m sure the door-to-door Jesus salesmen are well stocked on photocopies of that cover. Every time they encounter somebody who seems more inclined to believe in science than Jesus, they’ll bleat, “But don’t you know? Even scientists don’t believe in Darwin any more. Here’s the cover of New Scientist!

        Talk about Not Helping™….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Ken Pidcock
          Posted November 9, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

          Talk about Not Helping™….

          You, madam or sir, hit the nail on the head. This is YNH for those who don’t get the irony.

  10. Kevin
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I think I have to point out that a presenter at a meeting — even an “eminent” one, can spout off any crackpot thing he cares to.

    Presentations are not peer reviewed.

    So, we actually have no idea, as in zero idea whatsoever, what the rest of his colleagues think of his ideas. Or whether if he tried to present his concepts in a “real” journal (of which New Scientist most definitely is not), they’d get any play.

    There’s a difference between science magazines and science journals. The latter is where credibility is gained, the former is where credibility goes to die.

    I think it behooves people to learn the difference.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      Or whether if he tried to present his concepts in a “real” journal (of which New Scientist most definitely is not), they’d get any play.

      Judging solely by the titles in this bibliography, I’d say he has yet to do so…

      http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/gap/Staff/AcademicStaff/ProfessorKeithBennett/?ns=xMlsz2lbxt%3D%3D&page=publications

      (Interesting that the New Scientist article is included there!)

      • Kevin
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        Again, there is a difference between “publications” and peer review publications.

        One can say damn near anything in a science magazine. Not so much in a science journal.

        And if you check the titles of his peer-review articles, they make no such bold claims.

        So, he’s using a non-peer-review magazine as a stalking horse for his frankly idiotic hypothesis. One that he doesn’t present in peer review, because he knows he’s going to get his hat handed to him.

        Peer review vs non-peer review. Different.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    What I won’t do is help New Scientist sell magazines by fanning the flames of controversy. I wash my hands of this rag,

    Exactly, while it is a magazine and can write dreadful stuff that sells, there is a point where any interest dies on the point of the painfully obvious not-even-wrong.

    I stopped reading it ~ 2000, which is when I perceived it jumped the Coyne. ~~~/|~~~ *dun* dun* *dun* *dun* [leitmotif from “Jaws”]

    • Posted November 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      I also stopped reading New Scientist around 2000. And I used to be an avid subscriber at a time when it was both awkward and very expensive to subscribe in Australia. But a clear change in editorial direction took place around that time, and NS went from being a fantastic science journal for laypeople to a mouthpiece for controversy-seekers.

      The only reason I don’t dismiss NS entirely is its principled reporting on climate change and genetic engineering. But I would like to know why NS can do good journalism on these subjects (despite very obvious controversies) and yet continue to run overblown claims that undermine evolutionary theory.

  12. neil
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I guess I have some sympathy with the New Scientist editor on this. The theory of evolution is robust enough to survive wrong-headed articles in the popular science media. In fact, the popular science media are full of hare-brained ideas. They are often the most entertaining articles.

    Science, unlike religion, does not claim a pipeline to absolute truth so contrary views will always arise, some very wrong-headed. And evolution is different than chemistry in an obvious way–there is less ability to perform controlled experiments that shoot down the hare-brained ideas as they form, so they arise more often and they persist longer.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 9, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      Really?

      Less ability to perform controlled experiments?

      No kidding, you are so wrong, that it’s not even wrong.

      I’ve enjoyed your posts before, but you really need to re-think that position.

      I think Dr. Coyne and his team perform experiments proving evolution every single day. As do hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of other researchers.

      Please reconsider an ill-thought-out post.

      Kindest regards.

      • Neil
        Posted November 9, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

        Less ability of paleontologists to do controlled experiments than chemists? Absolutely true–I will not rethink. Even jerry has less ability to do controlled experiments than chemists, and I am sure he is the best. Jerry compares the questioning the natural selection evidence for the fossil record to the evidence for the existence of atoms. Convinced as I am about the importance of natural selection, this is simply not true. You cannot adduce the same evidence for, say, some morphological change in a fossilized species as you can for the existence of atoms.

        You rethink your position.

  13. Posted November 9, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    My first instinct, of course, is that, when the editor of a popular publication asks for help in doing a better job of presenting science to the public, one should leap to help.

    However…two small facts are sufficient to convince me that a boycott is, indeed, in order.

    First up is the editors first substantive sentence:

    On the whole we’re confident that we can vet content ourselves, with the proviso that the peer review process is working.

    As others have already pointed out, the source of the bad science in question is not a product of the peer review process. One can only conclude that the editor of New Scientist is either unaware of the purpose and function of the peer review process or has a profound misunderstanding of it. That’s understandable for a high school newspaper, somewhat excusable for a lower-division college journalism major, and incomprehensible for the editor of a fifty-year-old science magazine with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

    Combine that with the sensationalism demonstrated in the infamous “Darwin Was Worng” cover, and it becomes clear that the editorial staff of the magazine doesn’t give a flying fuck about science and is instead interested solely in selling eyeballs to advertisers.

    Mom has a subscription to Science News that I catch up on every time I have dinner with my parents. As best I can tell, they do an excellent job.

    Cheers,

    b&

  14. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    And here is more doubting:

    “Does Darwin’s theory hold up?”

    http://www.futurity.org/science-technology/does-darwins-theory-hold-up/

  15. Posted November 9, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I keep being dismayed at how people keep taking New Scientist seriously. It’s been running ridiculous stories for over a decade, and yet slashdot and the science bloggosphere keep linking to it. Why? Did they used to be reputable?

  16. MadScientist
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I like the editor’s argument from incredulity. I can imagine the editor asking Pythagoras:

    “If the flat earth model is so wrong, why do so many believe in it?”

    Or on a contemporary issue:

    “If there are no gods, why do so many people believe in them?”

  17. Puzzledponderer
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    Some people seem to think it’s somehow okay to get confused by controversial expert opinions when you’re a layperson or a journalist, who essentially is a layperson. I quite agree – when you’re trying to decide whether phenommenon x or phenomenon y caused event t in galaxy o. But we’re talking about evolution here, a subject that runs all over the public at the moment – which is probably the reason this article ended up in the magazine in the first place. It’s quite alright to expect of people running a public science magazine to have a clue about a few things that are of both scientific and major public interest.

  18. John Simons
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    To me, the editor’s reply to you seemed reasonable,and your comments on them (uncharacteristically)churlish. Given the amount of time you can spare, apparently, to post on cat videos, footware, etc, etc, I am surprised that you cannot find time to respond positively to the editor’s request and write a paper that would probably serve a useful purpose. I expect more of the author of WEIT, which I have found an invaluable source of information on its subject.

  19. prasad
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I’m with a minority of respondents in thinking the editor’s response to you was actually quite reasonable. Do you really expect science journalists to be able to adjudicate betweeen Niles Eldredge and Jerry Coyne and get it right? And they’re literally inviting you to correct their previous article, since you say to them they goofed, and they respect you and your work.

    It seems to me a well-credentialed biologist from a good university giving a keynote address at a major conference emphatically does pass the smell test for a journalist at a popular science magazine, unavoidably so. (And if you disagree, consider only that the magazine covers not just biology but also chemistry and astronomy and materials science and physics and psychology and on and on. Would you – and you far surpass in scientific knowledge and competence the NS editors. They do have other things to know and do – be able to decide whether (say) Sean Carroll is right in his views about the arrow of time?)

    Why is a junk scientist (if junk this is) getting these prestigious invitations, and why isn’t THAT the real problem here?

    • Dominic
      Posted November 10, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Roger Highfield (the editor) is no fool. He has been a science journalist for years & is surely not really shocked by JC’s response, is he? Take this recent story for example –
      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/roger-highfield/8058542/The-evolution-of-altruism-selflessness-in-ants-Thats-fighting-talk.html
      I do think that he was being not unreasonable but JC’s response is understandable to me when you see where he is coming from from a scientific & educational (i.e. religion’s pervading influence) point. This is more fundamental – I said above, biologists & palaeontologists do not see eye to eye – synchronic versus diachronic disciplines broadly speaking.

      • Dominic
        Posted November 10, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        Oh sorry – not Roger Highfield – apologies.

  20. Posted November 10, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry – just to clear up any confusion I didn’t invite you to write a critique of Bennett’s piece, but something more general about the robustness of evolutionary theory. I’m sorry to hear (via this blog) that you have declined – but the offer still stands.

    On a different note, I’d like to ask those commenters who have been critical of Bennett’s piece whether you have actually read it, or whether you are basing your opinions on Jerry’s overblown “takedown”.

    For example, Jerry wrote:
    “Bennett has apparently decided that the entire corpus of modern evolutionary theory is simply wrong, and, in his genius, replaces it with what he calls the “chaos theory of evolution.” The entire edifice is rotten from ceiling to basement, argues Professor Bennett.”

    I don’t think this is accurate.

    If you would like to read Bennett’s piece to make up your own mind but are unable to access it because you are not a subscriber, please let me have your email address and I will send you a copy.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 10, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      If you check my last email, Dr. Lawton, you will see that I said, “Perhaps I’ll just let my blog post stand for my reply.” And that’s what I’m going to do. As I said, I think so little of your journal that I don’t propose to spend time helping you sell it. It’s not my job to correct the misconceptions that you let others purvey in your pages, despite your avowal that you don’t vet the science.

      I stand by my “Takedown” of Bennett’s piece; it was dreadful, ignorant, and absymal. And it demeans your journal to publish it. Just to take one example, Bennett get’s John Endler’s conclusions about natural selection completely wrong. Had anybody on your staff been familiar with Endler’s book, which is quite well known, that would have been caught.

      But of course, New Scientist doesn’t seems less interested in accuracy than in controversy.

      • Posted November 10, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Very well, thanks for considering it and taking time to respond.

  21. Posted November 10, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Whilst NS can be sensationalist (it is pop science after all, not a journal)I don’t think science is served by apparent knee jerk reactions to challenges to orthodoxy. I read the article and didn’t come away with the impression that Darwinian evolution was being thrown out, just a suggestion that other mechanisms might be at work as well.
    There are other challenges from epigenetics and horizontal gene transfer that don’t sit well with a strict following of the neo-darwian synthesis either. Research will sort it out one way or another eventally. I’m with the editor, it’s news. Your rebuttal would make good reading and add perspective. I think you shoud do it.

    • Notagod
      Posted November 11, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      From your website:
      So I’ll still keep Christmas as a culturally Christian atheist

      So you’re selling the smelly shit without the poofy dressing then?

      Its the ‘Christian atheist’, how do you force your brain to do that?
      Or do you believe that it is just one of the ways to do the work of the christian gods?

      ROFLMAO, [C,c]omplete with a big ‘C’ and a little ‘a’, you christians must have thought all night to come up with that 🙂 (I’ll bet you toyed with being an atheist Christian? Maybe not christian Atheist, though right?

      From wikipedia:
      Beliefs
      Thomas Ogletree, an assistant professor of Constructive Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, lists these four common beliefs:
      1. the assertion of the unreality of God for our age, including the understandings of God which have been a part of traditional Christian theology
      2. the insistence upon coming to grips with contemporary culture as a necessary feature of responsible theological work
      3. varying degrees and forms of alienation from the church as it is now constituted
      4. recognition of the centrality of the person of Jesus in theological reflection

      So then you are all prepared to delete/reinsert some christian gods at your pleasure, when its convenient? You’ll be keeping the christian bibel?

      You can be better than jesus, seriously! The difference in the thought process is just as important as realizing the absurdity of the christian gods.

  22. Jeff Chamberlain
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    So what should I read if not NS to get straight and accurate science reporting at a level I can understand as a semi-sophisticated amateur?

  23. SAWells
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    A few weeks ago somebody wrote to the back page of New Scientist, Last Word, with a question about the shape of noses. BOTH the replies they published were pushing that aquatic-ape bullshit. I wrote to them asking why they were giving such favourable coverage to cranks, and have had no reply. I rest my coffee mug dismissively upon New Scientist.

    • Posted November 11, 2010 at 4:36 am | Permalink

      Oh please! The Last Word is a humorous column where readers ask and answer each other’s questions. If you want to argue the point why not vist the site? I’m sure your contribution will be valued.

      http://www.last-word.com/content_handling/show_tree/tree_id/2477.html

      • Notagod
        Posted November 11, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        So you are saying this wouldn’t be a good description of it:

        The last word is …

        the place where you ask questions about everyday science

        Answer questions, vote for best answers, send your videos and audio questions, save favourite questions and answers, share with friends…

        Oh Mr. Lawton what is the meaning of this, describing the page as being for laughs and giggles but not even warning that the answers are just jokes.

        • Posted November 12, 2010 at 4:03 am | Permalink

          humorous as in light-hearted, fun, not entirely serious. I don’t mean the answers are jokes and the page for giggles.

      • SAWells
        Posted November 11, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        I have visited the site, you condescending XYZ; I’m talking about a question and two answers that appeared in the print magazine, which means you guys chose to have those particular answers appear. Take some responsibility.

        • Posted November 12, 2010 at 5:41 am | Permalink

          How do you know they weren’t the best or at least the most entertaining answers given. If you are seriously suggesting that anyone goes to The Last Word for scientific facts you are missing the point of it altogether.
          For what it’s worth, I do agree in principle that cover stories like “why Darwin was wrong” etc are unhelpful, especially when the content of the story doesn’t actually imply that. But to attempt to castigate a whole magazine for a few errors of editorial judgment is crazy. Read Nature or other peer reviewed journals if you want pure science. NS is news and entertainment, it does that bloody well IMHO


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