New Scientist ignores its own story.

| 71 Comments

The kerfuffle over New Scientist’s recent story – “Darwin was wrong about the tree of life” – has stirred the science blogosphere. The author of the article, Graham Lawton, has popped up on various critical blogs attempting to defend (sort of) the title and content of his article. (See John Pieret’s directory to the critical posts, and Bora’s similar directory and snark).

In that linked post Pieret points out that the New Scientist article has already apparently been cited by a creationist Texas Board of Education member in support of her proposal to weaken the Texas science standards (see here for the original story):

Barbara Cargill, a Republican who supported the weaknesses requirement, said there have been “significant challenges” to the theory of evolution and she cited a recent news article in which a European scientist disputed Darwin’s “tree of life” showing common ancestors for all living things.

What’s even more entrancing, Pieret notes that New Scientist reported on the same creationist proposal, but somehow neglected to mention Cargill’s implicit citation of Lawton’s “Darwin Was Wrong” story as support for her proposal.

Where is Graham Lawton these days? Busily showing that Galileo was wrong when he thought there were just four moons of Jupiter, or that the earth isn’t really round but is an oblate spheroid?

Added in edit: Reading Pieret’s post more carefully, I find that he borrowed the directory of critical posts from Adrian Thysse, to whose post and blog I commend your attention.

71 Comments

Unless I’m misunderstanding something, this reaction may be a bit excessive.

The “Darwin Was Wrong!” teaser here seems to be along the lines of an “Einstein Was Wrong!” type teaser.

All of the readers are expected to fully accept Darwin as a major figure in legitimate science, and that’s what makes it a hook.

This doesn’t justify a shabby article.

But the fact that creationists pounce on anything that can be interpreted in any way to say “Darwin was wrong” is commentary on creationists, not an author who uses this cliched and tacky, but not unusual, rhetorical trick.

Darwin was wrong on some things, and completely lacking in knowledge about the majority of modern evidence for evolution, due to the time he lived in.

Creationists project “Darwinism” as an inflexible authoritarian ideology subservient to a sacred text that can only be interpreted by a ruling elite. But that’s because that’s what creationism is.

If Graham Lawton is and ID-swallowing dope he should be fired as a science journalist, but Graham Lawton didn’t run for the Texas School Board with the secret plan of violating the rights of students by teaching secular dogma and calling it science.

Perhaps when science journalists run article like that they should point out in the article (perhaps in a sidebar) that Darwin died over a hundred years ago, we’ve made vast progress since then using his ideas, and that of course he was wrong on many points, as were Newton and Galileo, but that doesn’t mean apples will start falling away from the Earth or that the Earth is the centre of the Universe and the Sun revolves around the Earth or that creationism is right. A science journalist actually interested in educating her audience might note that science doesn’t rely on the work of giants like Einstein, Darwin, Newton and Galileo as revelation handed down from another realm and never subject to revision but uses their work as a base to build on and modify as new evidence and theories come to light.

If a science journalist objected to doing this in a ‘Giant of Science Was Wrong!’ article on the grounds of space, I’d point out that it shouldn’t take more than a paragraph as above. I’m sure a trained journalist could put more simply and succinctly what I’ve suggested above.

I prefer the way that National Geographic (I think it was NG) put it on their January cover “What Darwin Didn’t Know”.

The whole cover thing is a guess by a publisher about what readers will find interesting. But its not much more than an educated guess, and its based on the assumption that magazine readership is dumb.

Who knows, maybe they could have titled it “Exploring the Roots of the Tree of Life (Subtitle: Horizontal Gene Transfer”) and gotten even more readers. But we’ll never know, because they were unwilling to take the chance that people buying a magazine titled “New Scientist” might be interested in, you know, science.

I believe National Geo had a “Was Darwin Wrong” cover a few years ago. There’s also a (very good) website using that rhetorical phrase as its title.

It was National Geographic that did “What Darwin Didn’t Know” and it was an interesting article describing the development of evolutionary theory since Darwin’s time. Especially talking about genetics and how that has expanded what we know of evolution. Not terribly in depth which is to be expected in a magazine article but world’s better than the New Scientist article.

Just the latest example of how the majority of the scientific community, as well as the larger literate population, refuse to take the evolution denial campaign seriously. They might have a vague understanding of creationism, but refuse to pick up a single book. There is little to no understanding of why its important to pay attention: its impact on science education as a whole. Instead, most assume that the only issue of importance is constitutional law, and the ACLU will take care of it.

In case you don’t know, Graham Lawton visited Jason Rosenhouse’s Evolution Blog, was challenged by Rosenhouse, and decided to depart quickly. I suppose he’s gone AWOL.

I tried sending a ‘howler’ to New Scientist when the publication came out with that title on the front cover! I did mention that the actual article might be a valid and well crafted result of good research full of valid points…but that it will be totally dismissed and forgotten in the kafuffle over the title…which condemned the article to being a secondary aspect if that… I also mentioned that it would undoubtedly be quote mined and conclusions twisted by the not so honest from the Creationist hive. It is without doubt that the Editor in charge of New Scientist has allowed a title of one of their published articles to be used by the old enemy as proof of a godwotwentandgoneanddidit.

The ‘Howler’ was returned 4 times before I gave up…the reason for the return being “Recipients E-mail in-tray full”

What a very stupid and totally pointless act by a Science magazine…I hope they might learn something but I fear that they are so isolated from the ongoing war in the classrooms in America and so fixated on circulation figures that they have not a clue to what they have done…

I was simply somewhat annoyed over the matter until Mr. [Enable javascript to see this email address.] showed up on JR’s blog and actually tried to defend the matter in such a way that it was hard to think he honestly was trying to placate anyone – it was more like he was saying “go hang”.

I was shocked. I spent a couple of decades in the corporate environment, and when some silly flap like this goes over, the relevant management quickly goes into “damage control” mode – and if they don’t, their bosses are going to be VERY annoyed with them. But Mr. [Enable javascript to see this email address.] seemed determined to pour napalm on troubled waters.

Cheers – MrG / http://gvgpd.proboards.com

midwifetoad Wrote:

I believe National Geo had a “Was Darwin Wrong” cover a few years ago. There’s also a (very good) website using that rhetorical phrase as its title.

That’s Gert Korthof’s book review site. I have been meaning to look at it, as it has been months since the last time. This is the site I recall, but it appears to have a new title. Maybe not enough people got the joke.

Authors seldom choose their titles. Professional headline writers do, they mean to catch a reader’s eye for sales purposes. New Scientist commonly uses overly dramatic and sometimes misleading titles for sensible articles. Graham’s point is that early organisms exchanged genes across species. How valid that is I don’t know, but it was interesting and sounded plausible. New Scientist has carried a great quantity of material regarding the creationists antics; all are entirely sympathetic to science and scientists. If somebody has an issue with Graham’s ideas, please explain, I’m curious.

Last week on the History Channel, there was a show about “the hobbit” discoveries on an Indonesian island. The narrator talked of animals deliberately evolving to be smaller or larger. That is pretty bad. With a little care they can get it right about evolution and still have the lay public understand.

I didn’t get too much into the issue of how shabby the original article was, though people whose opinions I respect felt it was written with too much of an eye towards sensationalist, “gee-wizz, this changes everything” statements about ideas that have been floating around for decades. For example, Larry Moran thought that it should be re-titled “More evidence that Charles Darwin didn’t know everything there is to be known about evolution when he published his book in 1859,” to which I thought “Duh” should be appended at the end.

As to it being the creationists who abused the article rather than Lawton and New Scientists giving comfort to creationists, I would have bought that (though, like Colin Patterson later lamented, they might have been wiser to consider their words more carefully) until Lawton showed up in the blogosphere and basically admitted that selling magazines was more important than giving their readers a really accurate (but boring) picture of the state of the science. At that point you have to wonder if sales to creationists might not have crept into their calculations. But, still, that would just be a suspicion on the part of an old world-weary cynic like me.

But to report on the goings-on at the Texas SBOE and tut-tut over what Cargill did and not even mention their magazine’s role, innocent or not, in what transpired, just shows that any claim New Scientist has to journalism is a sham.

I haven’t yet seen any reference to the New Scientist’s cover on 1 November 2008. Guess what! “Why Einstein was wrong about relativity”! It strikes me that science journalism has two and ultimately (perhaps) only two special routines for arousing their readership. One is – as in the NS case – to argue that a certain (usually dead) scientist or scholar was wrong (Occasionally the reverse is used: NS 3 November 2007: “Was Einstein right about quantum theory?” (my emphasis). The other strategy, usually employed when it comes to results of scientists who are still active, is to claim that those results leave the scientific world totally at a loss and that a fundamental paradigm shift is therefore imminent. New Scientist is exceptional in the frequency with which it indulges in both strategies. The crux of the matter may be that science journalists, creationists, and large sections of the general public do not realize that relevant, inspirational professors will specifically train their students on the basis of the adagium “Prove Me Wrong!”. Of course they will not always be immediately happy when the students succeed, but it is the way science proceeds to an open future.

John Pieret said:

Larry Moran thought that it should be re-titled “More evidence that Charles Darwin didn’t know everything there is to be known about evolution when he published his book in 1859,” to which I thought “Duh” should be appended at the end.

I commented there that it was like saying “The Wright Brothers Were Wrong” because they didn’t know how to build a helicopter. Mr. [Enable javascript to see this email address.] expended a bit of his ammunition on me – he was using liberally on a large number of targets – essentially saying: “Why are you picking on me, when the Darwin-bashers are the real enemy?” To which I thought: You hand them a stick to hit us with, and you think we’re going to thank you?

I had suggested early in the feud that NEW SCIENTIST, operating out of the UK, didn’t understand that the Darwin Wars in the USA have a serious legal component, the fighting is bitter, and people here are touchy about the subject. NS, possibly understandably, just wasn’t sensitive to the issue. Then I went from “slightly irritated” to “seriously annoyed” when Mr. [Enable javascript to see this email address.] came on board and charged ahead as if such concerns weren’t worth consideration. The article was forgiveable – the headstrong display of tactlessness less so.

I didn’t see Colin Patterson’s comment but that was spot on. NS was clearly not signing up with the Darwin-basher camp, they just said some tactless things, with the writer then antagonizing unhappy people instead of placating them.

Cheers – MrG / http://gvgpd.proboards.com

I didn’t see Colin Patterson’s comment but that was spot on.

It was in the last edition of his textbook, Evolution, published shortly before his death, in which he laments some of the things he said that were intended to be provocative (particularly at the famous AMNH lecture) but which made him a favorite of creationist quote miners ever after.

Well, it seems to have worked wonders…when is the last time anyone has had a discussion about “New Scientist”?

Dr. J said:

Well, it seems to have worked wonders…when is the last time anyone has had a discussion about “New Scientist”?

Actually I think it did both ways. Most Darwin-war feuds are pure noise, but I think that if NS was insensitive about such matters, they aren’t now and will consider matters slightly more carefully in the future.

Sometimes I’ve lit into people who stepped on my toes thoughtlessly. When they protested I told them: “I may not be able to stop you from stepping on my toes, but I’ve at least ensured that you’ll give it some thought before you try it again.”

Cheers – MrG / http://gvgpd.proboards.com

Graham Lawton acknowledges that the title was a sales tactic - but refuses to admit that there’s anything wrong with such pandering.

He’s still posting arguments on my blog - doesn’t seem as though anyone can get through to him.

http://ecographica.blogspot.com/200[…]itiqued.html

I believe National Geo had a “Was Darwin Wrong” cover a few years ago. There’s also a (very good) website using that rhetorical phrase as its title.

I remember this issue, particularly that phraseology on the cover.

I flipped right to the first page of the article.

There, on the left hand page, in 30 point type, was the title question “Was Darwin Wrong?”.

On the facing page, the first sentence in the article - in 80 point type - was a single word, “No.”

The article went on to quickly affirm that Darwin, though he didn’t know everything, got the gist of evolution remarkably correct 150 years ago, and none of the so-called “controversy” of the last 150 years has so much as dented the theory.

At least the article got right to the point, and I realize that NG has to sell magazines, but I still felt the headline was too gimmicky.

stevaroni said:

At least the article got right to the point, and I realize that NG has to sell magazines, but I still felt the headline was too gimmicky.

Yeah, but the big NO that jumps out ensured that the Darwin-bashers couldn’t get any real leverage off the article. The editors were clearly sensitive to the issues, and the Darwin-bashers spent their time denouncing the article.

I wouldn’t be surprised, incidentally, if Mr. [Enable javascript to see this email address.] shows up here and continues to refuse to budge an inch on the matter. Geez, he might as well just say “go hang” and then go home.

Cheers – MrG / http://gvgpd.proboards.com

veritas36 said:

Authors seldom choose their titles. Professional headline writers do, they mean to catch a reader’s eye for sales purposes. New Scientist commonly uses overly dramatic and sometimes misleading titles for sensible articles. Graham’s point is that early organisms exchanged genes across species. How valid that is I don’t know, but it was interesting and sounded plausible. New Scientist has carried a great quantity of material regarding the creationists antics; all are entirely sympathetic to science and scientists. If somebody has an issue with Graham’s ideas, please explain, I’m curious.

Lawton is on the editorial board that picked the title and made the decision to publish.

For what’s wrong, read the linked critical posts at the blogs I linked in the OP. Or merely consider Moran’s alternative title: “More evidence that Charles Darwin didn’t know everything there is to be known about evolution when he published his book in 1859,” followed by “Duh!”

Yeah, but anyone who has ever read new scientists knows that they are, bar none, one of the worst science magazines. all hype, very little substance. The only thing I liked about it was their artwork.

Which, btw, does anyone know a good science periodical that is very general, kind to laymen, and gives a detailed analysis of what’s new in the world of science without adding all this extra hype and tripe?

JimmyJ said:

Which, btw, does anyone know a good science periodical that is very general, kind to laymen, and gives a detailed analysis of what’s new in the world of science without adding all this extra hype and tripe?

AAAS SCIENCE is the best if you want the hard scoop. Not the technical papers – they’re typically for the specialists, fine as far as that goes, but not really for everyone else. However, the front sections of the magazine are “newsy” and have sometimes really superb articles for the general science readership.

Of course there’s SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, which is kind of a mixed bag these days and not quite the serious publication it used to be, but it’s still worth reading.

I’ve just discovered the LIVESCIENCE website online at:

http://www.livescience.com/

It’s 100% lightweight candy pop science, it seems to be the place where general news sites like MSNBC get their science article feeds, but given that caution it has some value. I just picked up an article from it on “stellar runaways” that was very interesting, with some nice Hubble images.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

I can fully understand the problems New Scientist generated for those in the US, but to trash it as “…bar none, one of the worst science magazines” is surely going right over the top (hmm, “bar none.…one of.….”, does that actually even make sense?).

I don’t have time to trawl through the dozens of journals for all the very latest in all the sciences, and it gives a decent summary of what’s going on across the whole scientific spectrum. It has also, as expected, always been a staunch defender of Evolution (I still have the copy which exclaims “Evolution - What a Beautiful Theory” on the cover from not all that long ago).

This particular cover was a silly idea, period. However for scientifically minded and literate lay-people (well, whose profession is not directly related to the sciences) like me, it does a pretty good job.

Blithering morons do not generally read New Scientist. The blithering morons who are now using the cover story as a “weapon” will have walked past it on the news-stand, or will have stumbled across it through sensationalised news reports. And I’ll lay money they didn’t even read the whole article. Hence why I say the cover was a dumb idea.

Sheesh. Chill.

Mike of Oz wrote

This particular cover was a silly idea, period. However for scientifically minded and literate lay-people (well, whose profession is not directly related to the sciences) like me, it does a pretty good job.

It wasn’t just the cover. Again, read the critiques linked in the OP. The story itself was pretty problematic.

Mike of Oz said:

I can fully understand the problems New Scientist generated for those in the US, but to trash it as “…bar none, one of the worst science magazines” is surely going right over the top (hmm, “bar none.…one of.….”, does that actually even make sense?).

I’ll break it down for you:

Bar none = Including all

One of = one out of an assumed multitude of similar stuff

Put together, In means that although there are a lot of science magazines, if you lined them up and found the worst ones, new scientist magazine would definitely be among them. I made this conclusion long before they every published this article.

I define worst by too much unverified fluff, assumptions, and too many artistic liberties taken by the writers. Serious, the only thing that’s good about the magazines is the artwork. Most of their headlines are, for the record, inappropriately titled - one that comes to mind was a relatively recent cover on genetics, stating how our entire assumption about heredity was wrong. It went on to explain in the article that diet and environment might have an effect on our DNA, and sited honey bees and queen jelly as an example, followed by empty-headed speculation on the merits of Lamarckism.

To put it bluntly - they sacrifice too much decent science for entertainment.

Which, btw, does anyone know a good science periodical that is very general, kind to laymen, and gives a detailed analysis of what’s new in the world of science without adding all this extra hype and tripe?

Scientific American is pretty good. I think it’s aimed more at the scientific-literate-but-not-expert crowd.

It does a good job at explaining complicated things that aren’t in my field to me, at least. Lots of pretty pictures and clear diagrams, which never hurts.

RBH said: It wasn’t just the cover. Again, read the critiques linked in the OP. The story itself was pretty problematic.

Well to be fair, the critiques linked in the OP do say the article raised some valid points, and they do criticise the cover/title far more than the content. And I agree with the general thrust of the critiques. However I have my doubts that this is now going to lead to sweeping Creationist victories right across the US.

It clearly hit raw nerves on the opposite side of Pacific to where I am. It hasn’t made so much as a ripple over here, as far as I can tell.

Just to be clear, I’m not defending the sensationalistic title, nor the author, nor whoever approved the cover. Some reactions just seem a bit over the top to me.….sorry.

Gary’s post was great, and was what I was mulling and fretting in my mind over when I saw the New Scientist thing.

I think a debate is a poor structure though. They have many advantages, including no reputation to defend, ever, and the ability to lie like crazy. Oh, and the ability to contradict yourself. Etc.

Seriously, whenever scientists and denialists debate, it’s usually bad news for the scientists.

I would propose that denialist would-be SCIENTISTS have to debate in writing with scientists.

Alternately, have people that specialize in advocacy do it.

Scientific language is very thin beer compared to debate language.

Mike Elzinga said:

From now on ID/Creationism and pseudo-science are synonymous. They may try to scrape the crap off themselves, but they can never get the smell out. And we can make sure the public gets to sample the stench.

What do you mean “(f)rom now on ID/Creationism and pseudo-sceince are synonymous”? They’ve been synonymous for decades and decades and decades.

Aren’t there people who hold other pseudo-scientific ideas without holding to Creationism? If so then the two aren’t really synonymous.

Henry

Stanton said:

Mike Elzinga said:

From now on ID/Creationism and pseudo-science are synonymous. They may try to scrape the crap off themselves, but they can never get the smell out. And we can make sure the public gets to sample the stench.

What do you mean “(f)rom now on ID/Creationism and pseudo-sceince are synonymous”? They’ve been synonymous for decades and decades and decades.

Thanks for the correction. I guess I really knew that.

Henry J Wrote:

Aren’t there people who hold other pseudo-scientific ideas without holding to Creationism? If so then the two aren’t really synonymous.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that ID/Creationism is a proper subset of pseudo-science. But other pseuso-science hucksters also use religion to pry open the wallets of trusting rubes.

Marion Delgado Wrote:

I would propose that denialist would-be SCIENTISTS have to debate in writing with scientists.

Yes, that’s the point RBH was making. The choreographed debate shtick was the ID/Creationists’ favorite turf. It avoided all the problems of peer review and testimony under oath and cross examination, and evidence and all that dangerous stuff.

When their arguments are in writing, they get their noses rubbed in it and it can be juxtaposed with reality.

Mike Elzinga said:

Marion Delgado Wrote:

I would propose that denialist would-be SCIENTISTS have to debate in writing with scientists.

Yes, that’s the point RBH was making. The choreographed debate shtick was the ID/Creationists’ favorite turf. It avoided all the problems of peer review and testimony under oath and cross examination, and evidence and all that dangerous stuff.

When their arguments are in writing, they get their noses rubbed in it and it can be juxtaposed with reality.

For example, see FL having been caught lying about a textbook he apparently neither owns nor has read, then immediately after was caught quotemining Davescot of Uncommon Descent quotemining Stephen Gould talking about Punctuated Equilibrium in order to make it sound like Prof. Gould was allegedly confessing that an apparent lack of transitional fossils is somehow a weakness of evolution.

Mike said:

Listen. Recently we’ve had the editor of “The Scientist” call for support of “teach the controversy” (critical analysis is good, isn’t it?), the editors of “Discover” proclaim that a Discovery Institute “fellow”, Forrest M. Mims III, is one of the 50 most brillant and influential people for advancing science and education, and “New Scientist” decide that playing on evolution denial themes is clever. And that’s just the science journalism.

There is some reason for nominating Mims, as he does have a knack for electronics and did a lot to popularize the hobby for a new generation with those kits and books. I agree they probably should have considered his anti-evolution stance a bit more carefully before slapping him into the final list. I hadn’t heard about the editor of The Scientist advocating TtC. I guess it’s not so bad I let my subscription run out.

I subscribe to New Scientist and was unhappy with the Darwin cover and story, but please! I think most critical readers will understand that the magazine is a POPULAR science magazine that needs to appeal to a broad audience, even if that means sensationalistic headlines. As an educator, I get more from my home subscription to New Scientist than I do from Scientific American, which I can read in the university library anytime I wish. I find it ironic that some of the same folks who decry the scientific ignorance we live with every day in Texas also turn up their noses at one of the few science magazines that someone without a PHD can read and understand. I read it to find out what’s going on, not to get the final word on anything. That’s what journals are for. If the mental midgets on the textbook committee want to trot out the offending article as evidence, great! (We should consider deliberate planting of such articles, really). I do think the author should show up in person to any such hearings, though.

Need a little help guys.

Read part of a article I think over a New Science written by a fellow nemed K. D. Kelinsky who was identified on as a scienties. The article was titled like evolution and design. He doesn’t google, Anyone know anyone like that?

Silver Fox said:

Need a little help guys.

Read part of a article I think over a New Science written by a fellow nemed K. D. Kelinsky who was identified on as a scienties. The article was titled like evolution and design. He doesn’t google, Anyone know anyone like that?

Never hoid of him/her/it.

Renier said:Now we sit with another friggen misquote/misrepresentation scenario that the creos are going to milk for all they are worth.

I don’t think we should excoriate people like this. Honestly, the creos have no shortage of material at all. They have books and books full of quote mines already, and if they can’t find a good one, they make it up anyway. This is just another drop in the ocean. I don’t think people should have to skirt the issue carefully for fear of creationists. Do not fear - just point, laugh and debunk!

Though I must say I don’t like this particular case much, either. The author’s belittling of the concerns of US science community is nasty.

Frumious Cath said:

Renier said:Now we sit with another friggen misquote/misrepresentation scenario that the creos are going to milk for all they are worth.

I don’t think we should excoriate people like this. Honestly, the creos have no shortage of material at all.

I do think we should excoriate crummy science reporting, not only because it gives ammunition to the cretos but also because it misleads and misinforms the general reading public. Good science writers are rare while uninformed and ignorant ones are more common, and we should praise and support the former and toast the latter every chance we get. Reinforce the behavior we want and punish that we don’t.

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