The Island of Doubt

New Scientist‘s recent cover that heralded the stunning news (not) that “Darwin was wrong” has generated an enormous amount of antipathy in these parts. Bora’s keeping notes, and the feature article’s author, Graham Lawton, surely doesn’t deserve the vitriol. (Although with the umbrage he takes in return via blog comments, he is hardly doing himself any favors).

I understand the reaction among those who live, eat and and breathe evolutionary biology —;;;; perhaps Lawton’s interpretation of a few issues is questionable —;;;; but stand back and take a deep one, folks. This is journalism we’re talking about.


New Scientist (for which I have written, and hope to write again) is forever putting such headlines on the cover. They did it to Einstein twice this past year, I think. It’s just about attracting attention and selling copies. The actual article always takes great pains to qualify the exaggeration, which is really about modifying, not overturning, some great theory.

From the article in question, Lawton writes

Nobody is arguing – yet – that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants. While vertical descent is no longer the only game in town, it is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another – a tree of 51 per cent, maybe. In that respect, Darwin’s vision has triumphed: he knew nothing of micro-organisms and built his theory on the plants and animals he could see around him.

The accusation that the cover and article amounts to an ethical violation of journalistic principles is just plain silly. As for the argument that this sort of thing will only provide fodder the creationists, well, should creationists be running the editorial meetings of every science publication? Here’s what New Scientist‘s editorial that accompanies the feature said:

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that “New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong”. Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.

Nor will the new work do anything to diminish the standing of Darwin himself. When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn’t see the whole picture either, but he remains one of science’s giants. In the same way, Darwin’s ideas will prove influential for decades to come.

So let’s just chill out. I’ve been reading Lawton for years. He’s a fine journalist and doesn’t deserve to be hung, drawn and quartered for writing what amounts to a “state of the art” piece on a subject that remains very much in flux. There was no real attempt to portray it as breaking news.

And Lawton —;;;; Buddy: I feel your pain, but you’ve got to be able to handle the blogosphere’s wild side with a little more grace.


  1. #1 Trent911
    January 26, 2009

    James – were you bored this weekend? p.s. you forgot to add a lame quote in italics from some unknown poet.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    January 26, 2009

    “….should creationists be running the editorial meetings of every science publication?” This is the third instance (all from very smart people) today that I see this put upside-down. The front page was designed as if Creationists were running the meeting, not the other way round. Where does this misunderstanding come from?

  3. #3 Trent1492
    January 26, 2009

    I am hoping at some point that our troll/moron will learn to read the article before doing his verbal vomit routine. I live in the same hope of this occurring, as I do that a pot of gold will appear on my table kitchen; that is none.

    Day 59, of the failure of the Sock Puppet failing to find out the difference between weather and climate.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    January 26, 2009

    Trent, why are you talking about yourself in 3rd person? And it’s worrying that you refer to yourself as troll/moron no matter how much self-awareness on your part this reveals.

  5. #5 James Hrynyshyn
    January 26, 2009

    Coturnix laments that “The front page was designed as if Creationists were running the meeting.”

    That may be how many an evolutionary biologist sees it, but it’s not how journalists see it. Iconoclastic headlines are a staple of the business. Yes, it’s not news to biologists, but the headline was chosen because it would appear iconoclastic to many non-biologists.

  6. #6 Coturnix
    January 26, 2009

    Which was the point of my post – things that are a norm in journalism, even called by journalists “journalistic ethics”, are both unethical and wrong and, thus, journalism needs a long introspection session to figure out how come they are doing stuff wrong, getting blasted for it, and yet they consider it to be an ethical norm.

    The entire blogosphere was born (including the very first, hand-coded blogs) as a means to counteract the egregious practices of MSM that were, by journalists, defended as “that’s the way journalism is done”. The sensationalist covers are just a small part of the un-ethics of corporate journalism. Graham’s fault is that, as an editor, he was present at the meeting and did nothing (thinking it was ay-oh-kay) so his defense that writers write and editors make headlines does not hold water – he WAS in a position to change it and he thought that it was fine. He was wrong. And everyone in traditional media who thinks this practice is OK just because that’s how it’s always been done, is wrong. This is why blogs exist – to point out and showcase why the J-school dogma is wrong and needs to be unlearned if journalism is to be respected and can thus survive.

  7. #7 Orac
    January 26, 2009

    The entire blogosphere was born (including the very first, hand-coded blogs) as a means to counteract the egregious practices of MSM that were, by journalists, defended as “that’s the way journalism is done”. The sensationalist covers are just a small part of the un-ethics of corporate journalism.

    As opposed to the “that’s the way the blogosphere is” that has been thrown at Lawton when he complained about being ganged up on? Bora, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in blogs that is as bad or worse than the MSM. Outrageously and intentionally provocative posts to get traffic are certainly not unheard of here, now, are they? No science blogger ever jazzed things up a bit to try to make it more interesting to readers, has he?

    Quite frankly, when I start seeing you and some others on ScienceBlogs who have a tendency to do so get all high and mighty and self-righteous about how great blogs are compared to the MSM, I start to wonder what you’re smoking. Certainly, I’ve been incredibly critical at times of how the MSM covers science and medicine, particularly the false “balance.” I may indeed be doing a piece on that very topic tomorrow. But I don’t labor under the delusion that the blogosphere is so much more full of fantastic awesomeness than the MSM that we can afford to be that triumphal in our commentary. The blogosphere has problems and shortcomings, some of them quite serious; they’re just different problems and shortcomings.

    In any case, the “holier than thou” attitude doesn’t become you. Come on down off of that cloud. (Or should I say, “Hey, you, get off of that cloud.”)

  8. #8 Coturnix
    January 26, 2009

    I never claimed that all of blogosphere is awesome. But the thoughtful bloggers, for alsmot 12 years now, have been pointing out and demonstrating by example, why some accepted journalistic practices are unethical and wrong. This is citizen journalism. Read Jay Rosen’s blog, or Jeff Jarvis, or Ed Cone, or Dave Winer – they are journalistic pros that have been using blogs to show why entrenched journalistic practices, taught in j-schools as ‘the way to do it’, are actually wrong and have a really detrimental effect on society.

  9. #9 Friends of Coturnix
    January 26, 2009

    Exactly. Which explains how sarcastic pseudobiologists are doing it all wrong.

  10. #10 Trent1492
    January 26, 2009


    Please pay attention to pseduonyms. I am Trent1492, while the troll-sock puppet-moron assigns himself Trent911. If you post here long enough the fool will pull the same stupid stunt with you too.

  11. #11 Pierce Bannorama Butler the Third Esquire
    January 26, 2009

    It’s just that some people want, no, it’s more of a need for something like AGW (OMG!) in their pitiful life. It truly is pitiful. And if they don’t play it up, then, once again, woe is me unto my pitiful life because I don’t have a good fight to fight. Sense-of-purpose kind of stuff for you laypeople like biologists. Very Freudian. Now excuse me, I need to go check on my Trust Fund.

  12. #12 Bwah Haha
    January 26, 2009

    hahaha. The Global Cooling denier is now posting under multiple pseudonyms. James – didn’t you take a bloggin and floggin class on pseudonyms at your Star Wars convention?? hmmmmm….. Trent and James – same number of letters. Same tone……So, that’s what you meant about Ass Toot? Now I get it.

  13. #13 John S. Wilkins
    January 26, 2009

    I did not attack Lawton as such in th eoriginal post, but he decided to take offence at my tone or something and came into my blog all guns blazing. This, in itself, indicates exactly what is wrong with science journalism – the majority, excluding Carl Zimmer and a few excellent examples – are overly precious about their ability to order and frame the news, or even to make the news sometimes. Lawton ought to have known that people have been discussing lateral gene transfer for at least half a century. Framing it as a challenge to common descent is a category error. Genes are not species.

    Granted, he was being misled by the rhetoric of the scientists and philosophers he spoke to, but the whole justification for journalism is that it can cut through rhetoric, isn’t it? (He asked rhetorically)

  14. #14 Trent1492
    January 26, 2009

    To: Trent the cowgirl: Pay attention, this is a hard question – almost as hard as your question: If the moon was made of head cheese, would you eat it then for $100? And wash it down with your own bodily fluids? I’ll bet you would.

  15. #15 Coturnix is da man Trent is NOT
    January 26, 2009

    James, please let Coturnix take over your blog. He can put an obituary up for you and let you guest blog every now and then to get your sarcasm and insults out of your system.

  16. #16 Malcolm
    January 26, 2009

    President Obama’s first official act as President was to help the terrorists. His first formal TV interview was with the Arabic cable TV network Al-Arabiya. President Barack Obama has set an example for all of us. As James says in his most recent post we all need to “just chill out.” James is following the President’s lead when he says that we all need to learn to handle the wild side of the internet a bit better. We all need to be more open to ideas that we don’t initially agree with. Like he is.

    We all need to keep and open mind and consider what each person is saying. After all, each person in their diversity has something special that we can learn from them and take away from the discussion. When we come together with open minds and sit fairly around the table, we can each focus on the areas where we find common agreement and reach a mutual understanding on a place of common ground. This is a long held Liberal ideal, and I surely am glad to see it practiced here on the internet, in this modern electronic forum, where we can each bless each other and share our opinions freely.


  17. #17 Frasque
    January 26, 2009

    I just started reading this blog. Is the comment section always so choked with jackassery?

  18. #18 Trent1462
    January 26, 2009

    Frasque, are you one of them geologists?

    If so read here:

  19. #19 Invader Xan
    January 27, 2009

    Alas, I fear the “war on evolution” has made everyone a bit oversensitive. The slightest possibility that someone disagrees with evolution, particularly from a scientific context, and people jump on them like rabid dogs (even if closer inspection shows this to be a false assumption).

    Journalists, being journalists, often take advantage of such situations (sensationalism sells, after all). Perhaps they don’t all necessarily realise the enormity of the beehive as they poke it with their proverbial stick.

    The bottom line is though — We’re scientists, right? Surely we should examine the evidence before we draw our conclusions!

  20. #20 Pierre Caron
    January 27, 2009

    New Scientist isn’t the only mag to do this. National Geographic a few years back issued a bold “Was Darwin Wrong?” title page, which was answered in the article with: “NO”.

    It does get everyone’s attention, doesn’t it?

  21. #21 jake
    January 27, 2009

    RE: Pierre Caron

    And, if I remember correctly, the answer “NO” was the very first word of the first sentence of the article.

  22. #22 Charles Wickhammer
    January 27, 2009

    It would be the most frightening thing in the world for me, if Darwin were wrong. I would feel totally lost. It’s not just heresy to suggest that. It borders on terrorism. I suspect that is why anytime it is tried everyone quickly pounces on the heretic like a pack of angry wolves. To end the vertigo.

  23. #23 Jim Thomerson
    January 27, 2009

    What I don’t understand is the timeing of the article. Horizontal evolution has been known for decades. I lectured about it many years ago in biology for music majors classes. Remember the early arguments about not feeding antibiotics to livestock because their E. coli would be selected for resistance genes and then transfer these genes to pathogeic bacteria? When was that? This is about like someone saying, today, the discovery that DNA is the genetic material proves Darwin wrong.

  24. #24 naught101
    January 27, 2009

    Charles, dude. You need to get out more. There are things much more scary that darwin being wrong. That would be exciting. Something new to think about!

    People being wrong, but acting like they are right is what’s really scary. Especially if they hold any kind of power. Texans, I pity you.

  25. #25 Anne
    January 30, 2009

    Hi James – BBC is coming out with a special on Sunday related to this issue. It’s bound to be just as controversial, I think: host David Attenborough calls the effects of Genesis “devastating” for the natural world. I have referenced this post of yours in a new entry about it on my own (new) blog, “100 Days of Science.” I’d be honored if you’d check it out:

  26. #26 sohbet
    August 19, 2009

    Thnak you

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