What's a "leading evolutionary biologist"?

The Guardian just announced that it's brought on four new columnists. These particular columnists are unusual, in that three of them are working scientists, and the fourth is an ethicist specializing in science and medicine. All in all, I think this could be a good move. The coverage of science by the mainstream media has not been outstanding of late, and giving working scientists a platform to talk about science might just help.

If I sound less hopeful than you expected, there's a reason. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian is describing their new columnists in glowing terms. Unfortunately, one of the descriptions was not quite accurate:

Finally, the leading American evolutionary biologist, PZ Myers, joins us. PZ is based at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and is the author of the ever-amazing Pharyngula blog. A glance through his recent posts reveal musings on the love songs of mosquitoes, a spat over a poll about the afterlife and an electron micrograph of a truly terrifying beetle phallus, which does indeed look like a medieval torture instrument.

PZ Myers is a lot of things. He's a genuinely nice guy. He's dedicated an enormous amount of time to science popularization, and he has a real gift for explaining science. I'm really happy that he's getting this opportunity. But he's not what I'd consider a "leading American evolutionary biologist."

That's in part because I view an "evolutionary biologist" as a scientist who is actively researching evolutionary biology. Paul is a developmental biologist. There's a considerable amount of overlap, but they're not entirely the same thing.

The other part of my opposition comes from the word "leading."

A "leading" scientist, in my mind, is one who is publishing lots of new research findings that expand our knowledge of the field. Here, too, the definition fails to match the reality of PZ. He's got a small lab at a small school that's primarily focused on teaching, and he's not publishing in the peer reviewed journals at anything like a blazing rate.

I don't have any particular problem with the Guardian's use of the word "American", if that's any consolation.

None of my objections should be taken in any way as an insult to Paul. (And I'm not just saying that because I'm afraid that he's going to unleash his hordes on me.) PZ is a very good popularizer of science. In fact, I'd go so far as to call him one of the leading American popularizers of science.

I also wouldn't want to imply that I see "popularizer of science" as being somehow less than "evolutionary biologist." It's not. Popularizing science is extremely important, both as a means of getting people to understand how science impacts their day-to-day lives and as a way to inspire the leading scientists of the future.

It's simply that talking about evolution in public a lot does not make you an evolutionary biologist. If that was the criteria, we'd be calling Mike Behe and William Dembski evolutionary biologists. After all, they might not discuss it honestly, but they discuss it quite a lot.

The Guardian's desire to hype their new columnists is entirely understandable. After all, people are far more likely to read a column by a "leading scientist" than one written by "some dude who teaches at a small school in a place most Americans couldn't find on a map". But no matter how beneficial hype can be, we've got to reserve a place for the facts when we're talking about science. Hype should not come at the expense of accuracy.

Fortunately for the Guardian, there are ways to describe Paul that are both accurate and far more complementary than "some dude who teaches at a small school in a place most Americans couldn't find on a map"

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So...I've been reading PZ's blog under the wrong assumption for all these years.

By Gerardo Camilo (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

PITCHFORKS!! TORCHES! COME AN' GET 'EM WHILE THEY'RE HOT! TORCHES! PITCHFORKS!

By Amadán (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

I disagree with you on the "leading" part. PZ is a leader...of thought and outreach and science communication and yes, even the political stuff is leading. He's indubitably a biologist and deals a lot with evolutionary topics. The description fits.

I kinda see what you are saying and it could be misleading. But I don't think that is such a big deal. I'm not a big fan of the occasional sniping that breaks out about "real working scientist" versus any other kind of scientist. I just don't find these distinctions, in anything other than a purely descriptive sense (which is rarely the case), useful.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

Hi there - Just dropping in from the Guardian.
I overstepped the mark describing PZ as a leading evolutionary biologist. I do agree that he's a leading populariser though. Incidentally, the phrase wasn't used to hype the new columnists to readers, I thought it was a pretty accurate description when I wrote the piece. I hope you'll agree that the other three writers aren't hyped up, so no reason why I would give only poor PZ that treatment! One thing I'm really happy about is that the four who've agreed to write are the top four names we hoped listed. I'm afraid it's a genuine attempt to stimulate more exciting debate than currently exists in the humdrum world of newspapers and their websites. I've covered the broad motivation in the blog though, so won't bore everyone again...once again, apologies for the PZ mistake!

By Ian Sample (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

Drugmonkey - That's an awfully strained parsing. PZ may be a leader, and an evolutionary biologist, but that doesn't make him a leading evolutionary biologist. "Leading" describes "evolutionary biologist" in that phrase, not PZ in general.

I don't think 'a leading' would be out of the realm of possibility, but 'the leading' would almost certainly be wrong.

By Robert Thille (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

Judging by PZ's post on the topic I think he himself is agreeing that he's not a "leading evolutionary biologist", so nothing terribly controversial about that. And expecting newspapers not to hype up their new columnists is a bit too much. If they can keep the hype out of the actual reporting that would be fine.

But I have to say... I doubt anyone would be posting anything if instead a leading evolutionary biologist who didn't do much popularizing was described as a leading popularizer of science. Not that it matters much either way.

Employers are notorious for padding the resumes of people who work for them. For instance in the draft of my company's latest brochure, I was made to look like the guy who will revolutionize the industry. After the horror of it wore off, I decided they had a right to their opinion. So, take the Guardian with a grain of salt - it's reassuring PZ Myers does - and do the same with any breathless promotion.

By more of a tech guy (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

To be a "leader", all you need is to yell "follow me" and have someone do so. The questions remain of how large the following group is, what the character of the group is, and of course "is it the right direction"?

He's got a relatively large following for a blog, especially when they march on a poll. The followers probably are not mostly biologists themselves, so I'm not sure he would be "a leader of evolutionary biologists" as much as an "evolutionary biologist leading". As for the direction he's headed? Well, time will be the eventual judge of that. =)

Meanwhile, while not protesting overmuch he also doesn't seem to be buying into the resume padding provided. I wonder what he did with the stuffed codpiece?

Ian Sample,

Thank you. Thank you for your emphasis on science in your paper. Thank you for picking such good examples of science for your columnists. Also, thanks for the forthright acknowledgement of that small faux pas. I appreciate your approach.

I hope your scientist columnists do you proud.

By JohnnieCanuck (not verified) on 03 Mar 2009 #permalink

"some dude who teaches at a small school in a place most Americans couldn't find on a map"

Given the supposed inability of many USAnians to find North America on a map, some of us would take that description as high praise.

Heh. Seriously good on the Grauniad. I might just have to start taking a paper.

@8:

Employers are notorious for padding the resumes of people who work for them. For instance in the draft of my company's latest brochure, I was made to look like the guy who will revolutionize the industry.

I bet they forgot how incredible you were around the time for the annual salary review :D

My employers always seem to :(

Yes, I can see why you might object, but to be fair PZ did disagree with his enoblement.
I think it's great news, but then I'm a big fan and I get the Guardian (which also had Bad Science's Ben Goldacre)every day.
Seriously though, I think you should use his new handle to take the piss out of him, relentlessly. If you're too po-faced about it, it makes all you proper leading evolutionary biologists seem just a teensy bit...jealous.

Oh, boy...

THAT'S IT! RELEASE THE SQUIDS OF WAR!

[whispering and argument behind close doors]

Never mind. Seems Dagon PZ agrees.

I believe The Guardian -has- Bad Science's Ben Goldacre, but only Saturday, except for special articles. it's mainly of interest to British readers. And you can read it anyway at http://www.badscience.net/ where he complains from time to time about something the newspaper editors did to spoil the text. And you can comment. But you can't -smell- it.

By Robert Carnegie (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

PZ leads with his chin.

By william e emba (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

I'm glad that the Graun is boosting its already far better than average science coverage and is following Goldacre's advice on letting scientists talk about science in their own (edited) words. But I'm slightly disappointed by the PZ pick. I love Pharyngula, but it's already extremely widely read and, as he is perfectly up front about, he's not a leading researcher. He's already got a prominent platform for his views and interests. I'd have preferred a less publicly known, but more (for want of a better word and with no slight intended) active biologist.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

I would characterize PZ as a leading advocate of evolutionary biology. I think he will do well.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

Ginger Yellow, I don't think PZ is particularly well known over here in the UK. Besides, isn't it better to have someone who's more widely known than not, since people are then more likely to sit up and take notice of what this guy is saying?

By Alex Deam (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

Well, I think he's pretty well known to people who are into the Guardian's science coverage. He's featured in one form or another on the Science Weekly podcast relatively frequently and he's appeared in news stories several times over the last year. And, like I say, his website is the single most popular science blog by a considerable margin. Clearly, he's going to be much less well known among people who don't actively follow science, but then, he may not be the best person for reaching such people.

But my main objection, and bear in mind I'm not objecting particularly strongly, is that the vast majority of scientists don't often get a chance to be heard by a large audience in their (more or less) their own words. Yet it's enormously beneficial to the public understanding of science when they do. So, for instance, pretty much every non-abysmal episode of Horizon in recent years has been the result of giving the presenting duties to someone like Brian Cox or Jim Al-Khalili, ditching the ridiculous sensationalism and "human interest" spin that the producers normally put on things, and just letting them talk about their research and how cool the subject is. My point is that PZ already has a very prominent platform to do that, so there's not a huge marginal benefit to giving him one of these valuable columnist spaces. I appreciate the argument that public renown would increase the readership, but there are plenty of other fairly well known biologists who don't have such successful blogs other outlets for largely unmediated communication.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink