Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Email from Zywicki

***There is an update at the bottom of this post with yet another email and response***

I received an email this morning from Todd Zywicki, the person I criticized yesterday for making false and inflammatory accusations against PZ Myers and then, in Orwellian fashion, attempting to make them disappear as though they’d never happened. Here is the text of that email:

“Frankly, I suspect that what really happened here is that Zywicki used the term without knowing what it meant. I suspect he thought that “Lysenkoist” was just a Russian word for “Darwinist” when, of course, the opposite is true. And when caught saying something really boneheaded, rather than admit that he now seeks to wish it all away. It’s not very good behavior for a scholar.”

You can pop off about ill-informed suspicions all you want, but there is only one person here who doesn’t know the meaning of the term “Lysenkoism” and it is clear that it is you.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism

“In a broader context, Lysenkoism is often invoked to imply the overt subversion of science by political forces. Lysenkoism has also been known as Michurinism or Lysenko-Michurinism.

Today, the term “Lysenkoism” survives as a metaphor for other beliefs challenged by empirical evidence but preferred for ideological reasons. Carl Sagan compared American creationists to supporters of Lysenko.”

Why don’t you read the definition before you accuse others of failing to do so.

-Todd Zywicki

My reply:

I’m well aware of that usage of the term, but it does not apply to Myers any better than any other usage of the term. Do you have actual evidence that Myers has engaged in “the overt subversion of science by political forces” or that he holds “beliefs challenged by empirical evidence but preferred for ideological reasons”? It seems to me that when you make such a public accusation, you should either back it up or retract it and apologize. To just erase it as though you’d never said it, and remove the comments criticizing you for it as well, is absolutely the worst way to handle it. And I find it especially ironic that you want to take me to task for my accusations – which I will happily defend publicly, and will not engage in Orwellian history erasure to make go away – given your behavior in this circumstance.

He then sent a second email, continuing to try and shift the focus from his behavior to mine:

You provided your personal definition of the term which was an inaccurately narrow definition. You then “suspected” that I didn’t understand what the term means. That is plainly wrong. You may believe that term does not apply in this particular context, but you are simply wrong, however, in “suspecting” that I didn’t know what the term means.

And my reply:

It is certainly possible that my speculation is wrong and I knew that it might be. That’s why I said it was a suspicion, rather than a firm conclusion. But the fact still remains that even with the alternative definition you’ve provided, you have not attempted in any way to provide any support for your inflammatory accusation (and surely comparing someone, particularly a scientist, to a man responsible for sending many scientists to the gulag or to their deaths is, by any standard, highly inflammatory and offensive). Given that, I think you have a responsibility to support that accusation or retract it and apologize. Those are really the only two acceptable options. Deleting it in silence, along with the comments criticizing the claim and then banning all subsequent comments is not an acceptable way of cleaning up the mess created by your false and offensive characterization. It is, in fact, quite Orwellian. And it’s not the sort of behavior that a scholar should be engaged in.

Update: Round 3 with Professor Zywicki. He writes:

Let’s try again, from Wikipedia:

“Lysenkoism”:
In a broader context, Lysenkoism is often invoked to imply the overt subversion of science by political forces. Today, the term “Lysenkoism” survives as a metaphor for other beliefs challenged by empirical evidence but preferred for ideological reasons. Carl Sagan compared American creationists to supporters of Lysenko.

“Metaphor”:
In language, a metaphor is a rhetorical trope defined as a direct comparison between two seemingly unrelated subjects. In a metaphor, a first object is described as being a second object. Through this description it is inferred that the first object has some of the qualities of the second. In this way, the first object can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second object can be used to fill in the description of the first.

Since you indicate that you have read the definition, perhaps the word you are actually getting hung up on is “metaphor”. Are you familiar with that term? I don’t think Wikipedia is suggesting that American creationists want to send people to the gulag.

And my reply:

Prof. Zywicki, you seem to be intent on ignoring the only thing here that really matters – whether your accusation, whether metaphorical or not, is justified. You have not justified it; you have not even attempted to justify it. In order for your accusation to be accurate, even as a metaphor, you need to make the case, by the very definition you are offering for the term, that Myers either has engaged in “the overt subversion of science by political forces” or that he holds “beliefs challenged by empirical evidence but preferred for ideological reasons.” You made that accusation publicly; it is therefore your responsibility to either justify it, or retract it and apologize. You seem to want to go to great lengths to distract attention from that central fact, making a big deal out of someone else engaging in speculation (clearly labelled so) as though it was terribly unfair to you, while dismissing your own unjustified conclusions as no big deal at all. That strikes me as both highly hypocritical and highly convenient for you.

Imagine for a moment that I wrote the following on my blog:

“I see that Mr. Myers has had the misfortune to cross paths with the blogosphere’s most infamous fascist, Todd Zywicki.”

Imagine then that someone challenged me to provide some evidence of your fascism and, rather than doing so, I simply deleted the original accusation, along with the comments challenging me to support the charge, and then banned all further comments on the subject. Imagine further that I then posted something clearly implying that while I’m not retracting the charge, I really don’t feel like debating it right now, so while I can’t be bothered to justify it, I also refuse to retract it and apologize for it. I suspect your attitude would be quite different if the shoe were on the other foot.

The difference between you and I, it appears, is that I would not just go back and try and erase what I said. If I believed I was right, then I would offer the evidence that supports my accusation. If I didn’t believe I could justify that accusation, then I would leave it in place but update the post to issue a retraction and an apology. I think that’s the only honorable way to handle it. I think that’s the way a genuine scholar would handle it. We all make mistakes. We all say things we shouldn’t say from time to time, and we all are called upon from time to time to correct those misstatements. It is in how we handle such situations that we show our essential character, and I would strongly suggest that the Orwellian manner with which you’ve handled this one, and your continued refusal to do the honorable thing, are speaking rather loudly on that subject at the moment.

Sincerely,

Ed Brayton

Final Update: Prof. Zywicki emailed yet again, not to answer my criticism but to complain that I had published his emails and to tell me to take them down. When I pointed him to the disclaimer on the right sidebar of my blog, which states that all emails may be published by me in their entirety, he grudgingly replied, “Fine. Bully for you and your email policy.”

Comments

  1. #1 Ginger Yellow
    November 22, 2005

    What a schmuck. The hilarious thing is that he accused PZ of being a Lysenkoist, metaphorically or not, in a post linking to Scott Adams, who claimed that evolutionary biologists have no more credibility on the subject of evolution than creationists. I think you might want to look elsewhere for your Lysenkoism, Todd.

  2. #2 Car Pundit
    November 22, 2005

    It has long been my impression that Zywicki is the weakest of the Volokh Conspirators. I am not here disabused of that idea. His resume is impressive, but -in my opinion- not his VC work.

    By the way, help out a guy who’d never heard of Lysenkoism before this thread: as I understand the definition, wouldn’t it be more usefully applied to an opponent of objective science than to a proponent like Myers?

  3. #3 Aaron M
    November 22, 2005

    I can’t help but suspect that “Lysenkoism” is going the way of “judicial activism”. Rather than its original, meaningful definition, it risks becoming shorthand for “a scientist with political beliefs I don’t like.” Perhaps it’s already there.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    November 22, 2005

    carpundit writes:

    By the way, help out a guy who’d never heard of Lysenkoism before this thread: as I understand the definition, wouldn’t it be more usefully applied to an opponent of objective science than to a proponent like Myers?

    Absolutely.

  5. #5 raj
    November 22, 2005

    I’ve heard of Lysenko and Lysenkoism (in the narrow sense) as described in the Wikipedia article, but not to the “broader context” referred to in the article. Regardless, it strikes me as somewhat odd for Zywicki to associate PZ Myers with Lysenkoism.

    Two other points. One, I wonder why Zywicki didn’t respond directly in the comment thread of the other post here, instead of replying by emails.

    Two, I suppose that blogging can be interesting, but the ability of a blogger to rewrite history, by erasing portions of a post and/or replacing portions of a post strikes me as being downright Orwellian. Zywicki’s actions make me wonder if he isn’t emulating Winston Smith.

  6. #6 maurile
    November 22, 2005

    Ed’s absolutely right on this one. Professor Zywicki hasn’t attempted to justify his metaphor, perhaps because he realizes it is unjustifiable. (Note my use of the word “perhaps,” indicating speculation. On the other hand, if he doesn’t realize that it is unjustifiable, that’s even more disturbing.)

  7. #7 Jillian
    November 22, 2005

    I think what Zywicki’s trying to do is say that Dr. Myers’ liberal political views are like Lysenko’s take on inheritance of traits – inaccurate and not supported by scientific evidence.

    The problem with him saying that is that I can’t really recall any instances off the top of my head where Dr. Myers has claimed that science supports liberalism. Maybe in a couple of specific instances, like dealing with environmental policy or criticizing some of the more racist/sexist (mis)applications of ev psych, but that’s really it. Dr. Myers is a scientist and a liberal, but I can’t think of anything he’s said that makes it seem like one of those is in any way contingent upon the other.

    If Dr. Myers peddled bad science to support his liberal positions, this accusation would make sense. But, based on his writings, I get the feeling Dr. Myers would sooner chop off his own arm than push bad science for any reason at all.

  8. #8 spyder
    November 22, 2005

    ” I wonder why Zywicki didn’t respond directly in the comment thread of the other post here, instead of replying by emails.”

    Given his request that Ed not post them or the contents therein, i “suspect” that the Z-man is further attempting to cover up the textual trail of his dysphemic attack on PZ Myers. He ‘may have’ pre-supposed that the email exchange would not show up online where others may continue to question why he posted what he posted, why he then took down what he posted, why he replaced it with revisionist apologetics, and finally why he wanted Ed to not post his emails.

  9. #9 Roger Tang
    November 22, 2005

    I think this is once again an attempt to introduce a postmodern take on science. Zywicki is trying to assert that all sides (at least in the ID/evolution case) have some claim to validity. And thus, using good science to support your case IS a case of subverting science to politics.

    What he forgets is that science argues on a different plane. Evidence counts more than rhetoric or logic; the two sides DON’T have claim to validty if the weight of the evidence supports one side above another. And evidence in science is a lot weightier than it is for the legal or political circle….

  10. #10 raj
    November 23, 2005

    spyder at November 22, 2005 06:40 PM

    You are probably correct. However, emails are not confidential communications (unless possibly between attorney and clent), and Zywicki should have known better, regardless of Ed’s disclaimer.

    Ed can do whatever he wants with an email that he receives, regardless of the disclaimer. It is courteous of him that he provides the disclaimer, but it is hardly a requirement.

  11. #11 Doctor_Gonzo
    November 23, 2005

    (Idle speculation, but I’d bet real money that Zywicki didn’t visit Wikipedia until after this little dust-up began.)

    Here’s hoping that Volokh & Co. are sufficiently embarrassed by “Prof” Zywicki’s puerile conduct that they invite him to leave.

  12. #12 jpf
    November 23, 2005

    I can’t help but suspect that “Lysenkoism” is going the way of “judicial activism”. Rather than its original, meaningful definition, it risks becoming shorthand for “a scientist with political beliefs I don’t like.” Perhaps it’s already there.

    If it hasn’t, it’s almost inevitable that it will. All technical/specific terms that carry a strong rebuke, like “Lysenkoist”, “judicial activist”, or “fascist”, once they become known outside their original context eventually end up being generalized to the point of meaninglessness by people who are iffy on the specifics or history behind the terms but really want to strongly rebuke their opponents (or aren’t so iffy but just like rhetorical hyperbole).

    (I think that might be some sort of corollary to Godwin’s law, or vice-versa. Anyway there’s a relationship there somehow… anyone who says otherwise is a damn dirty Nazi.)

    The process builds on itself as others follow the lead, only ever hearing the term in its metaphorical use but not realizing it, until, like a linguistic photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, the details get lost and you just end up with a smudge that only slightly resembles the original.

    Thus: Lysenkoist = a scientist with a political opinion — a powerful term appropriate for use against any scientist who disagrees with your political opinions. Feel free to throw it around wantonly! (Suggestion for further metaphorical use: doctors, like scientists, wear long white coats. Consider accusing doctors with bumperstickers for candidates you don’t like of Lysenkoism too — metaphorically, of course.)

    Metaphorical use like the above results in linguistic entropy (a term that, I think, has to do with rooms getting messy or something, but need we sweat the details?), which would I guess make Zywicki the blogosphere’s most infamous Clausiusist… well, a Clausiusist anyway.

    (Note to Ed: If he complains about the accusation of Clausiusism, which I haven’t the desire to defend beyond providing a link to the definitive Wikipedia article on Clausius, please delete this and all following comments. And if you could manage to send out some ninjas to assassinate anyone who read them, that would be just super. Thanks!)

  13. #13 Ginger Yellow
    November 23, 2005

    “The problem with him saying that is that I can’t really recall any instances off the top of my head where Dr. Myers has claimed that science supports liberalism. Maybe in a couple of specific instances, like dealing with environmental policy or criticizing some of the more racist/sexist (mis)applications of ev psych, but that’s really it.”

    Jillian, there’s a post on Crooked Timber which claims that PZ and Zywicki had a spat a while back over Larry Summers’s comments, and that’s probably the source of this current smear. Of course, PZ wasn’t claiming that science supported liberalism, he was saying there’s no hard science that supports Summers’s position, and Summers shouldn’t have been spouting off on a subject he knows nothing about. Which is a very different thing.

  14. #14 decrepitoldfool
    November 24, 2005

    Science doesn’t “support liberalism” or any other ism that I know of. If a majority of scientists are liberal (an assumption for which I have no evidence) that would be very interesting indeed. It would suggest something very positive about liberalism.

    “All technical/specific terms that carry a strong rebuke, like “Lysenkoist”, “judicial activist”, or “fascist”, once they become known outside their original context eventually end up being generalized to the point of meaninglessness…”

    And that is sad. Hail the pedantics among us who keep our rhetorical tools and keep them oiled and clean, ready for use!

  15. #15 Red Right Hand
    November 24, 2005

    “…there’s a post on Crooked Timber which claims that PZ and Zywicki had a spat a while back over Larry Summers’s comments, and that’s probably the source of this current smear.”

    If you read through the comment thread of that original Myers/Zywicki spat

    in July, you’ll notice a Zywicki defender, “sciencegal”, accusing Myers of Lysenkoism. I suspect that’s the source of Zywicki’s use of the term.

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