Pharyngula

Spanking New Scientist

If you open your latest issue of New Scientist (unless, of course, you threw away your subscription), you’ll find a nice little letter from three luminaries — Dennett, Coyne, and Dawkins — and one other guy explaining that Darwin was actually mostly right, contrary to a certain recent cover. Here’s a taste:

What on earth were you thinking when you produced a garish cover proclaiming that “Darwin was wrong” (24 January)?

First, it’s false, and second, it’s inflammatory. And, as you surely know, many readers will interpret the cover not as being about Darwin, the historical figure, but about evolution.

Nothing in the article showed that the concept of the tree of life is unsound; only that it is more complicated than was realised before the advent of molecular genetics. It is still true that all of life arose from “a few forms or… one”, as Darwin concluded in The Origin of Species. It is still true that it diversified by descent with modification via natural selection and other factors.

The flagellation continues.

Comments

  1. #1 Scott
    February 20, 2009

    That one other guy… I haven’t heard of him ;)

  2. #2 Jackal
    February 20, 2009

    I just want to know how the 4 of you managed to collaborate on the article. Did you compose it in a chat room? Did you get on a conference call? Did you write 4 different letters and then merge them with WinMerge?

  3. #3 Desert Son
    February 20, 2009

    Well written, PZ, and with thanks to you and Drs. Coyne, Dawkins, and Dennett,

    My own suspicion is that, in an effort to head off real (or imagined) flagging sales, New Scientist hoped that something inflammatory might draw attention, possibly as they’re worried about losing the attention of readers, especially with so many competing media out there, including the Web with its hits (Pharyngula, Dr. Dawkins’ site, Dr. Coyne’s, etc.) and its misses (the Ray Comforts, et al., of the Intartubes).

    Sensationalism is nothing new in media, and will probably never go away. Letters (and media outlets) like yours, and indeed, those of us who can contribute as well, from profession to profession, area of interest to area of interest, are needed now more than ever.

    Thanks again.

    No kings,

    Robert

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    February 20, 2009

    How did we write it? Well, as you all know, once you reach a certain level of enlightenment, your consciousness merges with the One Great Atheist Mind. It’s sort of like the borg, only with less obtrusive hardware.

  5. #5 Richard Harris
    February 20, 2009

    It sure made my day when I saw that letter. They needed to be told, by such luminaries as the signatories.

  6. #6 www.10ch.org
    February 20, 2009

    Logically speaking, how could one define somebody as being “wrong”? Perhaps one could define it to mean that somebody is wrong if they have uttered or writ at least one sentence that was incorrect: that, if I have ever writ “1+1=3,” then I am wrong. By this definition, I doubt that anybody is ever able not to be “wrong,” unless somebody here always gets a 100 on their tests.

  7. #7 Pete Moulton
    February 20, 2009

    PZ, is that before or after you reach the point of levitation?

  8. #8 damnedyankee
    February 20, 2009

    It’s sort of like the borg, only with less obtrusive hardware.

    Well, shoot. The obtrusive hardware is half the fun. Who do I have to go to in order to get that? The computer engineers?

  9. #9 The Science Pundit
    February 20, 2009

    Well deserved!

  10. #10 Anonymous Coward
    February 20, 2009

    damnedyankee @ #8:
    Slashdot.

  11. #11 TechSkeptic
    February 20, 2009

    Great spanking.

    What is it with new scientist? Its gotten truly to be the National Enquirer of science. I reference it sometimes, but I find I can never use the article itself (a lesson I should stick to, since I was probably underinformed on a recent post). I always have to tryu to find the underlying study that the rarely mention by name.

  12. #12 damnedyankee
    February 20, 2009

    A.C. @ #10: Thanks! I love the work you do there, by the way. Where do you find the time?

  13. #13 John Phillips, FCD
    February 20, 2009

    But PZ, I want the hardware, especially freaking great big auto creotard-sensing lasers set to educate mode. Though genuine scientific knowledge is probably lethal to most creotard brains.

  14. #14 Sclerophanax
    February 20, 2009

    Find a longer version of this letter online.

    Wait, what? It’s on a website. I thought I was online already.

  15. #15 NewEnglandBob
    February 20, 2009

    PZ said:

    How did we write it? Well, as you all know, once you reach a certain level of enlightenment, your consciousness merges with the One Great Atheist Mind. It’s sort of like the borg, only with less obtrusive hardware.

    Phew, for a minute there I thought you were going to say you did it via faith. I was hoping for Vulcan mind melding.

  16. #16 SLW13
    February 20, 2009

    I love the taste of flagellation in the blogosphere. Tastes like victory. And, oddly enough, like chicken.

  17. #17 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    February 20, 2009

    I see one of the letters was written by Paul Myers of Minnesota? Is that a relative, PZ?

  18. #18 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2009

    That’s all well and good, but it’s still pretty much a tempest in a teapot. It won’t cause many problems, really, and although it was cheap sensationalism, that’s a common phenomenon in the media and in New Scientist.

    It may even slightly harm creationism, since it raises false hopes, only to thoroughly reaffirm evolutionary theory.

    Probably the worst of it is simply that they’re treating an old story as if it were news. And no doubt raising their sales figures slightly by provoking a reaction.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  19. #19 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    February 20, 2009

    One of the writers of the letter, rather. I swear I’m not drunk yet.

  20. #20 tubi
    February 20, 2009

    How come folks aren’t fired up about the February 2009 National Geographic cover?

    “What Darwin Didn’t Know”

    It’s not as explicit, but it still could be misinterpreted. Or am I nuts?

  21. #21 woody
    February 20, 2009

    The banyan, not the oak.

    Yup.

  22. #22 Sven DiMilo
    February 20, 2009

    I got your obtrusive hardware right here.

  23. #23 Paul
    February 20, 2009

    Darwin didn’t know plenty of things, tubi, especially by virtue of the time he lived in. He wasn’t aware of Mendelian inheritance, for one. Nor could he couldn’t operate Windows XP. That’s a whole different story compared to saying he was wrong, especially since devoid of explanation many people will equate “Darwin is wrong” to “Evolution never happened, praise Jaysus”.

  24. #24 pray11342
    February 20, 2009

    National Geographic did a much better job with their November 2004 cover. – -
    “Was Darwin Wrong?” splashed across the cover in a huge colorful font.
    Inside, at the first page of the article, in the same font – -
    “NO!”
    Often wondered how many anti-evolution types bought that magazine and took it home, only to find that they had been pwned!

  25. #25 Paul
    February 20, 2009

    s/couldn’t//;

  26. #26 Mosasaurus rex
    February 20, 2009

    Thank you for spanking the media whores who thought that cover was a great way to sell a lot of copies.

  27. #27 Sastra
    February 20, 2009

    While “Darwin Was Right” would indeed make a fine cover for next month’s New Scientist, I think we would all feel pretty soothed and comforted if they made it up to us with an upcoming cover saying “Creationists are REALLY WRONG!”

  28. #28 Strangebrew
    February 20, 2009

    20*

    ‘”What Darwin Didn’t Know”‘

    Well it is fairly harmless…did Darwin know about molecular genetics?…or DNA and RNA?…it is pretty reasonable to assume that the dude had not a clue…so yep there were facets of the debate in which he was snookered behind the eight ball but tis a tad different then saying ‘Darwin was Wrong’….methinks…

    And the New Scientist damaged itself by trying to be to clever…or naive …well done to the ‘New riders of the Apocalypse’…it needed saying by respected scientists…pity a few more have not jumped on their stupidity…

    One does wonder how the editor managed to smile the day he got his product lambasted by such eminent folk…serves the fool right…I have a suspicion he might have spluttered on his morning coffee!…at least one can only hope he did…might encourage deeper thought next time!

  29. #29 Bert Chadick
    February 20, 2009

    What’s a guy to do? For a weekly shot of the hard stuff, New Scientist really can’t be beat, but their lurid covers could use a little toning down. Science News is good, but a bit flimsy. Scientific American is always good, but once a month has me jonesin’ for a hit of good science. Seed is great, but quarterly? On the downside New scientist is expensive, but on the upside, where else are we going to see Peugeot ads in the USA?

    Creatos are going to pick out any bit of change in evolution theory as proof that it is wrong. I would say that any scientific theory that has lasted a hundred and fifty years virtually unchanged is pretty robust. Sure Darwin was off on a few things, but this was an era when science was only beginning to become the route to truth.

  30. #30 Sili
    February 20, 2009

    Is the blogospheric flagellation irreducibly complex?

  31. #31 Curt Cameron
    February 20, 2009

    Bob Park once referred to “an obscure physicist” who had testified to congress about some matter. I followed the link to confirm my suspicion that he was referring to himself.

  32. #32 CatBallou
    February 20, 2009

    Strangebrew…does your keyboard…have…

    an ellipsis key?…’Cause if it does…consider having it…

    disabled.

  33. #33 CalGeorge
    February 20, 2009

    Suggestion for the magazine’s next cover:

    Darwin was Wronged.

  34. #34 DrBadger
    February 20, 2009

    While “Darwin Was Right” would indeed make a fine cover for next month’s New Scientist, I think we would all feel pretty soothed and comforted if they made it up to us with an upcoming cover saying “Creationists are REALLY WRONG!”

    Any backpedaling would go completely unnoticed (or more like, ignored) by the people who need to see it. Once the “Darwin Was Wrong” statement is out there, the creationists don’t care what else follows, they’ve got their ammo already.

  35. #35 Screechy Monkey
    February 20, 2009

    “Once the “Darwin Was Wrong” statement is out there, the creationists don’t care what else follows, they’ve got their ammo already.”

    No kidding — we’re talking about people who don’t care what the rest of a sentence says if they can quote-mine the first half.

  36. #36 Sven DiMilo
    February 20, 2009

    Mad Libs!
    Darwin was [adjective] !!

    hirsute
    perspicacious
    puce
    knobby
    noisome
    phlegmatic

    Your turn!

  37. #37 Greg Peterson
    February 20, 2009

    “Darwin…is out there…ammo ready.”

    Thanks, Screechy Monkey. You just did it again.

  38. #38 DaveH
    February 20, 2009

    There’s a discussion forum at the Open University (they’re part behind the BBC Darwin season, Attenbourough on “tree of Life” etc.)

    here

    At least half the threads have already had an IDiot posting waving the New Scientist cover and yelling “SEE? SEE?”

    btw it’s a really annoying forum; very few people have registered, so everyone is “Guest: unregistered” but it’s fairly new and there are rich fields of tard to pwn.

    Play nice, now :)

  39. #39 Jeff F
    February 20, 2009

    Sure the creationists have added this to their repertoire, and the Gish gallop can now go that much longer, but it’s just another thing they’re obviously wrong about with the slightest bit of research.

  40. #40 James F. McGrath
    February 20, 2009

    I have a tendency to look for the bright side. In this case, I think that there are at least two positive points related to the misleading New Scientist headline:

    (1) It shows that, contrary to accusations from the anti-science crowd, Darwin’s theory is not shielded from criticism by atheist conspirators.

    (2) The so-called criticisms are not something anyone in the ID crowd came up with. This nicely illustrates that it is possible to improve evolutionary theory. You just have to do actual genuine scientific research, something the cdesign proponentsists shun.

    More on my blog at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2009/02/darwin-was-wrong.html

  41. #41 amphiox
    February 20, 2009

    A question from a non-expert in this field:

    Since lateral gene transfer requires a shared common genetic code, isn’t it therefore absolute proof that the very root of the tree of life really is a single trunk, a single LUCA?

    As in one trunk, then banyan tangle on top, then several more roots rising up from the banyan for the more complex organisms?

  42. #42 gopi
    February 20, 2009

    Pete @ 8:

    PZ, is that before or after you reach the point of levitation?

    PZ has moved beyond levitation. His frame of reference is motionless; the rest of the universe simply moves to him upon his command.

  43. #43 MH
    February 20, 2009

    Did you write 4 different letters and then merge them with WinMerge?

    WinMerge?? Neither PZ nor RD would sully themselves with Winblows, and I suspect there’s a good chance that DD & JC wouldn’t either.
    :P

  44. #44 mothra
    February 20, 2009

    “I would say that any scientific theory that has lasted a hundred and fifty years virtually unchanged is pretty robust.”

    Of course, Newtonion physics was around for 250 years before it was supplanted by relativity and the Ptolomaic model of the solar system survived for well over a thousand years before its replacement by Copernicus’ heliocentric model. :)

    I doubt evolutionary theory will ever subsumed by a greater theory or replaced by a better one.

  45. #45 MH
    February 20, 2009

    While “Darwin Was Right” would indeed make a fine cover for next month’s New Scientist, I think we would all feel pretty soothed and comforted if they made it up to us with an upcoming cover saying “Creationists are REALLY WRONG!”

    I vote for “Creationists are RETARDS!”

  46. #46 Sherry
    February 20, 2009

    Peter Griffin is retarded.
    According to Seth MacFarlane’s scale, Creationists are below the retarded in mental capacity.

  47. #47 Scott Hatfield, OM
    February 20, 2009

    PZ:

    These rebuttals come none too soon. I’ve already found myself explaining why horizontal gene transfer does not in any way invalidate evolution to local ignorami. The editors of NS should apologize to the rest of the scientific community for misleading the world at large. Shame on them, and good on you guys for calling them on the carpet.

  48. #48 MH
    February 20, 2009

    According to Seth MacFarlane’s scale, Creationists are below the retarded in mental capacity.

    I stand corrected.

    XD

  49. #49 James F
    February 20, 2009

    gopi #42 wrote:

    PZ has moved beyond levitation. His frame of reference is motionless; the rest of the universe simply moves to him upon his command.

    PZ is a Guild Navigator?

  50. #50 ERV
    February 20, 2009

    The VERY FIRST thing John ‘I want to give Hitlers decomposed penis a blow job’ West brought up tonight:
    DARWIN WAS WRONG!

    Fuck New Scientist.

  51. #51 llewelly
    February 20, 2009

    PZ Myers | February 20, 2009 2:57 PM:

    How did we write it? Well, as you all know, once you reach a certain level of enlightenment, your consciousness merges with the One Great Atheist Mind. It’s sort of like the borg, only with less obtrusive hardware.

    I knew an Evil Conspiracy was involved somehow. I Just Knew.

  52. #52 June
    February 20, 2009

    WAS EINSTEIN WRONG?
    Scientific American’s latest cover.

  53. #53 DrBadger
    February 21, 2009

    @#47

    The editors of NS should apologize to the rest of the scientific community for misleading the world at large.

    Actually whoever push it through should be fired. They knew exactly what they were doing when they made that cover.

  54. #54 Elles
    February 21, 2009

    I got the wrong idea when I read “spanking New Scientist”.

  55. #55 jpf
    February 21, 2009

    TechSkeptic #11:

    What is it with new scientist? Its gotten truly to be the National Enquirer of science.

    You think the Darwin cover was shocking, but have you seen the latest issue?

  56. #56 Facehammer
    February 22, 2009

    That is both hilarious and the stuff of which nightmares are made.

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