Well, in all modesty the feathers on this particular journalist seem to ruffle quite readily, so readily in fact that he’s been tousling them on several different science blogs during the past few hours. He’s posted comments and rebuttals on Evolving Thoughts, Evolutionary Novelties and where I happened to bump into him, at Larry Moran’s Sandwalk.
I guess a life of servitude to the public media can be stressful, at least for New Scientist writer Graham Lawton whose recent article “Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life” graced the most recent cover of New Scientist titled “Darwin was Wrong.”
I’m really quite astonished at Lawton’s parrying and thrusting all over the blogosphere; it seems to me that any biology or science enthusiast could have predicted a little fallout resulting from the phrase “Darwin was Wrong” being placed on the cover of a popular science magazine. Indeed - I’d be shocked, if I were to discover that the generation of such hype was anything less than the premeditated goal of the magazine’s editorial staff.
In point of fact, Lawton himself states in the comments section of Sandwalk,
“I'm acutely aware that it is 50% journalism, 50% sales pitch”
So, why is Graham so glum? He’s clearly aware, as are most readers, that the cover is little more than a publicity stunt aimed at selling copy. He may be missing the very important point that although everyone recognizes the pitch, not everyone approves of the tactic.
Lawton, as well as the editorial staff of New Scientist, may think that sacrificing accuracy for the sake of profit is a respectable endeavor; however I would venture to guess that much of the magazine’s readership does not. In part, it may be that readership’s response to the cover that contributed to the comparatively apologetic tone of the article’s subsequent editorial (Editorial: Uprooting Darwin's tree tone).
At any rate, regardless of the profit margins involved in misrepresenting important biological contributions through creative cover making, why does Lawton continually assert that the article’s content somehow remedies the cover page?
I’ve read the article. It seems abundantly clear to me that Lawton’s goal was to firstly create an artificial dichotomy between Darwin’s branching tree concept and genetic studies involving horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and then, after accomplishing this, to pummel Darwin’s idea through literary biased language.
A few examples of Lawton’s biased language:
1. Speaking to the Tree of life project - “But today the project lies in tatters, torn to pieces by an onslaught of negative evidence”
2. “Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded”
3. HGT - “[This] bombshell has even persuaded some that our fundamental view of biology needs to change”
4. "For a while, this allowed evolutionary biologists to accept HGT without jeopardizing their precious tree of life”
5. Darwin’s concept - “We now know that view is wrong”
“Meanwhile, those who would chop down the tree of life continue to make progress”
6. "Having uprooted the tree of unicellular life, biologists are now taking their axes to the remaining branches”
Comparing Darwin’s tree (based on natural observation and inference) to modern molecular genetics may be stretch, but I’ll refer to the above listed blogs and their accompanying comments as opposed to laying out the arguments here…
Rather my point is very simple, popular science periodicals, as well as science journalists should strive to master the arts of clarity and accuracy; they should compose and present the resultant works in a creative and informal way that is both informative and enjoyable to the science enthusiast who partakes of them. To pursue the agitation of the informed readership and to encourage fundamentalists is – plainly and simply – wrong.
Science Journalism - “Journalism tends to have a stronger bias towards sensationalism and speculative theories than science, whereas science focuses more on fact and empirical measurement.” Lawton’s balance is askew...
As to my originally posed question at Sandwalk, “So, is the title an outright media ploy - pandering for profit – or, does Lawton lack some fundamental understanding of scientific progress?” This wasn’t a personal assault; it’s a critique of the New Scientist’s pandering and the article’s inability to distinguish between historic foundations and modern remodeling.
“Oh, and Johnny: sorry to disillusion you but I've got a pretty good understanding of scientific progress. You, however, lack a fundamental understanding of how the media works.” (Lawton)
Thanks for the disillusionment Graham, but you’ve made it abundantly clear how the media works with your comment at Evolving Thoughts,
“I really ought to make a sarcastic comment here about "really bad" bloggers, but that would be an oxymoron. (Only kidding - it's soooo much fun being rude to people on the internet, isn't it, and so much easier than being rude to them in person!)”
I do have a suggestion for the next New Scientist cover:
They’ll sell like hotcakes!
Update: Also a conversation at EvolutionBlog
Update 2: also at Pharyngula