Pharyngula

There are science crackpots, and then there are journalist crackpots. Suzan Mazur is a strange writer who runs about trying to convince the world that there is going to be a revolution in evolutionary biology…but her sources tend to be fringe figures like Stuart Pivar, or she relies on mangling quotes from people like Massimo Pigliucci or Richard Dawkins. Her theme, as you might guess from her fondness for Pivar, is that structuralist tropes are going to replace genetic/molecular explanations for development.

That is complete nonsense.

Apparently, she reads Pharyngula (hi, Suzan!), where, to her delight, she discovered Vincent Fleury, a fellow crackpot. She scurried off to procure an interview with Fleury, which turns into a weird complaint session about me mixed with boosterism for overhyped flaky science.

Suzan Mazur: PZ Myers, the Howard Stern of sciencebloggers, recently reviewed your paper Clarifying tetrapod embryogenesis, a physicist’s point of view, which was published in The European Physical Journal: Applied Physics. It appears Myers is increasingly doing a pas de deux with the physical approach to evolutionary science, trying to reposition himself now that a paradigm shift is afoot. In essence, so he can maybe say, well I knew it all the time.

Last week he praised D’Arcy Thompson and Brian Goodwin, saying he found Goodwin’s work “thought-provoking”. What is your response to Myers tactics?

Oooh, “the Howard Stern of sciencebloggers”…I’m going to have to renegotiate my contract with Seed so I can get $100 million/year, and once I do, I’ll start live-blogging strippers!

As usual, though, Mazur gets the science all wrong. There will be no paradigm shift. I am confident that there will be a gradual integration of more developmental biology into evolutionary theory, a process that is going on right now, but that this will require no radical re-evaluation of theory — evo-devo is exciting and opens up new areas of productive research, but it doesn’t turn the world upside-down. It’s a specific subset of evolutionary theory, not a replacement. As for structuralism, it has its place, too, and this isn’t some sudden ploy by me — you can find me writing about it in 2003 and 2004, for example. Again, it will not replace the molecular/genetic approach to development, but it can supplement it.

Look at this bit of amateur psychologizing:

Vincent Fleury: Well that’s fine. But I have a problem with this fellow. He uses a very rhetorical technique. He starts off with some smooth positive statement and then progressively trashes the paper. I’m not so sure it’s sincere.

Suzan Mazur: It’s his way of saying I love you. He knows he can’t maintain his present ground, so he’s increasingly introducing the newer evolutionary science, however he can. He projects himself as a bully so he won’t look like a sissy when he has no choice but to go with the flow.

There’s a simpler explanation than some strange conspiracy theory where all of evolutionary biology is trembling on the verge of collapse and I’m trying to dance on the edge of the avalanche. How about this one: Fleury’s paper was very poor. It proposes a mechanism that he does not support with any evidence, and implies that we need to throw out a huge and useful body of knowledge. It was far too long, and larded with superfluous information that he largely ignored in his conclusion. He relied on the fact that he published a paper on biology in a physics journal, where he could bamboozle a body of reviewers with no knowledge of the scientific discipline being discussed.

That’s why I trashed the paper — because it deserved to be trashed.

It’s really that simple.

And no, Fleury’s work does not represent the “flow” of modern biology. It’s more like a small stagnant eddy far from the major currents of research. If I were trying to position myself in the vanguard of science, I guarantee you that I wouldn’t be trying to cozy up to the likes of Fleury or Pivar or Mazur. That’s the crackpot club.

(via Wilkins, who is clearly angling to be my Baba Booey)