Friday, January 23, 2009

Why’s Graham so Glum: Lawton Critiqued

Only 24 days into my blogging career and already I seem to have ruffled the feathers of a professional science journalist – not real sure if that’s a bad thing or not…

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


  1. He also left a comment on Pharyngula, but I don't know if there's been dialog like there has on Sandwalk and Evolutionblog. (I'm not sure how to subscribe to comment threads over at Scienceblogs and PZ's comment threads get way too long to wade through.)

    That cover was grossly irresponsible (IMO). I like yours MUCH better. ;-)

  2. I think I would definitely buy New Scientist if it had that cover. Maybe there's something to this sensationalism stuff after all.

  3. Maybe something like...
    "How to keep your Bunsen burning: Heat Shock Protein-90 Defies Evolution"

    With a special editorial:
    "Clothing Optional: Critical Analysis of Social Dynamics in the Laboratory Setting"

  4. ROFL!!

    I think Gram just discovered the internet.

  5. I agree with you. I posted a rambling affair on Sandwalk in the original thread before I realised Larry had started a second thread on the same topic (*sigh*).

    You have to say "what's with the Bunsen burner" on looking at your cover :-) And the "instrument" rates the cover a "ten". Or is it her that it is rating? Hmm, I am looking at this too closely...

    ERV: no resemblance? ;-) Just kidding. Must be still recovering from looking at that cover too closely.

    More seriously, about your comment at Sandwalk, I agree with people leave out viruses. What's with that? I have my own wild (read grandiose) ideas about their role in evolution of eukaryotes.

  6. My eye sight's no good, is your New Scientist suggestion headlined The Science of Boom and Bust?

  7. Why am I posting all over the shop?

    I’m defending myself against scurrilous accusations spread by you and other hysterical bloggers. I’m not going to sit back and let you drag my name through the mud based on some flimsy and lazy supposition about the content of my article.

    Let me set the record straight one more time. I wrote an article saying that many biologists now argue that one important aspect of the theory of evolution needs modifying in the light of new evidence, Whether you like it or not, that is true.

    See for example:

    True. Truth. Remember it?

  8. "True. Truth. Remember it?"
    I certainly remember Robert Armstrong. Why not "Darwin Overhauled" or some such? We all know why, don't we?

  9. Muhamad: Good one, apparently your sight isn't too bad after all.

    Graham: They may sting a little bit, but these critiques are not intended to be personal insults. They’re merely an expression of aversion to media hype and sales tactics – and yes, I realize that without such tactics you’d be out of a job and the New Scientist wouldn’t reach as many folks with truly informative and quality pieces.

    So, unless you approve and endorse the cover and its corresponding insinuation 100% - just relax, this shall pass.

    Look at the bright side – your name is all over the web, your page at NS’s website is getting a lot of hits and people are reading your work. Bad publicity is good publicity!

  10. Graham Lawton -- if you had merely covered what was true, as opposed to going for artificially inflated sensationalism, you wouldn't be facing all this.

    You fucked up. Deal with it.

  11. Years ago I used to complain to New Scientist when they did this stuff. I gave up after some exasperated editroid there gave me an honest answer -- he wrote back that New Scientist is "an entertainment magazine, not a science magazine" and that defines their criteria for accuracy.

    I still read'em. At the library. But I'm ashamed of them all the same.

  12. PS, no, I don't blame the science writers there.

    I blame the lack of a firewall between Marketing and Editorial -- the cover and headline are typically not chosen by the writer in any print medium I know of.

  13. Graham,

    You may have been "all over the shop", but he has managed to studiously ignore this point made by John Pieret at Sandwalk:

    I wonder how Mr. Lawton feels about his article and its marketing, given that it has already been used by creationists in support of changes they've gotten into the Texas science standards that are harmful to science education not just in Texas but, because of the marketing of textbooks, potentially throughout the United States?

    So Graham, how do you feel about this? I feel rather angry.

    PS - your refusal to address the substance of Johnny's argument has not gone unnoticed.

  14. Graham, you are not defending yourself, you are just being defensive. You have not answered ANY questions posed by bloggers and their commenters yet - and those are people with expertise (scientists) that you (indoctrinated into Bad Journalism Practices by j-school) don't possess.

    As for The Truth, several bloggers wrote all those posts in order to tell you that it is not the Truth, that is is actually quite Wrong, and that most scientists in the field have known for quite a long time now that what you wrote in the article is Wrong.

    You need to go around the blogs crying, apologizing and posting mea culpas. Then learn from what happened to you and try not to make the same mistake again, because your career is at stake.

  15. SteveF
    Hello again.
    I share your anger, but I'm no more responsible for what is going on in Texas than anyone else who has ever been quote-mined or taken out of context by creationists.

    You may have noticed that we wrote an editorial to accompany the article saying, explicity, that the controversy over the tree of life concept (which is, Coturnix, true, whether you lot choose to believe it or not) is no danger to the theory of evolution and no comfort to creationists.

    If you're arguing that the first cover line of the magazine (there's a second part to it, even if you want to pretend there isn't : "cutting down the tree of life") cancels out everything else, you're doing what the creationists do: quoting selectively to bolster your "argument".

    (On a related point, Johnny, the editorial is not subsequent to the article; they were published simultaneously. I know it suits your rhetorical purpose to pretend that we wrote it after the fact but we didn't.)

  16. Thanks for the inside scoop Graham,

    So, the fallout from the informed readership was predicted by the NS staff, and the apologetic tone of the editorial was a weighed countermeasure perpetrated as a defense.

    NS knew what criticism the cover would create and moved forward accordingly…


  17. Graham -- And you thought that "Darwin Was Wrong: cutting down the tree of life" would provide less creationist ammo than "Darwin Was Wrong", huh.

    You have GOT to be kidding me. Go on, pull the other one, it has bells on.

  18. As posted elsewhere, suggestion for the headline/cover writers:

    "Tree of Life: Aspen Grove, Not Mighty Oak"

    I'd love to raise my expectations about New Scientist. There's nothing better -- but I'm looking hard, all the time, because of stuff like this.

    Main problem: we know you don't convince people by repeating bad information even to deny it.
    You can look up the studies on this, you know how.

    Doing it on a cover and headline -- like that Newsweek piece on global warming not long ago -- is pure pandering hoping to get people to pick it up off the newsstand who will count for the advertisers, rather than hoping to educate them.

    Why do we know this? Because repeating bad information just reinforces it.

  19. Graham Lawton, you curmudgeoned yourself. That is our problem with us. You actually believe what j-school profs taught you and thus think that what you and NS did is ethical. It is not, it is wrong, and when you get called on it, you respond by showing complete lack of understanding that your "journalistic ethics" are unethical.

  20. 'I really ought to make a sarcastic comment here about "really bad" bloggers, but that would be an oxymoron.'

    Psst... Mr. Lawton, that's actually a compliment. I think the word you're looking for is "redundant," not "oxymoron." But that's okay... we understand that, as a real journalist, you're not as good at sarcasm and rudeness as us Internet scoundrels.

  21. If anyone here is interested in taking a look at the science behind my article, I've put together a list of some of the key papers I used as my source material.

    As you'll see, there are many papers and reviews in reputable journals stating very clearly that the basic ToL concept - that the history of life can be represented as an ever-bifurcating structure - is being strongly challenged, both for prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

    It's a lot of reading, but I'm at a loss as to how else I make it clear that this is really happening whether you like it or not.;284/5423/2124



  22. This is like watching Israel and Palestine fight. It feels inevitable and totally unnecessary at the same time. As a science journalist, I must say I'm embarrassed. Not by the cover line (New Scientist is notorious for this kind of sensationalism, but I read it anyway - no one else covers science with as much fervor, as measured in sheer word count, as they do) but by the ensuing cat fight. Here is an indisputable fact, all other matters aside: journalists wishing to protect their reputation should not behave in this way.

  23. Well Christopher you've put your finger on something there. When this sort of thing breaks over your head, do you studiously ignore it, or do you try to defend yourself?

    I chose defence, as the attacks on me were so out of proportion. I'm happy to say that things appear to have calmed down; the flamers and bandwagon jumpers have moved on and many (most?) of my original critics have untwisted their knickers and are now grudgingly accepting that maybe there's something in the ToL story after all. Maybe that would have happened anyway. What's your experience of this?

    I'm mostly a commissioning editor btw, always on the look out for new writers. Happy to listen to pitches.

  24. "I chose defence"

    You chose insults and pomposity, and, oh yeah, occasionally dealt with the issues in a condescending manner. I don't think that the main problem was with the substance of the story, but rather how it was sold on the magazine cover, and how you arrogantly dismissed such concerns in the blogosphere.

  25. Graham, the first thing you'll notice if you bother to read the blogs that you accuse of not reading your article, is that we will be the first to say that the "tree of life" is oversimplified and inaccurate. I did an interview for my podcast two years ago that was focused on that.

    What we're talking about is the misleading way (You know how misleading it was) it was presented. It was intended to grab attention because the first thing that people would think when they saw that was "wrong about evolution?" and want to read why. It's sensationalist, misleading, and ultimately a harmful way to present it. And you have admitted that you were in favor of it. Moreover, you have said that the editorial board that was reviewing it knew they were courting with controversy, so you couldn't say this was unexpected.

    You behavior on blogs in response to this affair, though, that's another story. Who's up for a letter to the editor?

  26. Mr. Lawton,

    Who do we hold responsible when creationist quote your sensationalist article?

  27. I've put together a list of some of the key papers I used as my source material.

    Congratulations. The point is not that horizontal gene transfer roughs up the Tree of Life, it's that jumping from that very well-established and long-known fact to a cover trumpeting "Darwin was wrong" is lying to turn a profit. And I think you know it. We certainly do.

    Also, in running around to, apparently, every blog on the planet, insulting the bloggers, and acting like a spoiled git you are doing yourself and your profession a further disservice. If you're miffed about what you consider the "unfair" notoriety you've gained in the blogosphere, then you might have just an inkling of how we feel about your article.

    Please go on, though, the evolving train wreck is most entertaining. It may soon seem like "yesterday's news" to you, but the wired world remembers. Here's a hint: try Googling yourself right now. Many of the first page links are to science blogs that explain exactly why your cover is a lie, and as a bonus, most of them feature you making an ass of yourself in the comments! Have fun living this down.

  28. Graham, here's an example of the kind of comment that covers such as that published by NS attract:

    "I did not read the article, but it will be interesting to see if there are more cracks in Darwin’s armor."

    The writer didn't bother to read the article inside, but based their judgement entirely on the perception obtained by viewing a cover.

    Already they are convinced that there are more cracks to be uncovered, and they'll impart that "information" to every uninformed person they encounter, who will in turn propagate the same misinformation. It will spread - is spreading - like wildfire, thanks to the Internet. The percentage of people who feel that evolution in general is untrue will rise.

    It's not fair, it's not right, but it's the way things are today.

    With regard to the various camps that house those who are anti-Darwin, anti-evolution, anti-science, even anti-common-sense, if they are given even a fraction of an inch, they will take a hundred miles.

    We know this from past experience. It doesn't matter how often the misinformation they peddle is debunked, it still persists, and ironically, the more effort made to debunk it, the more convinced the anti- groups become that they've stumbled onto a genuine failure that scientists in general are trying to suppress.

    It's as if Pandora's Box is opened afresh every time something like the NS cover appears, and once the idea is out there, it doesn't die.

    I'm slightly surprised that you do not appear to see the damage the NS cover has caused and will continue to cause - it doesn't matter that there is an article inside the publication, nor does its quality matter so much, or even its list of references, because none of that will feature in quotes from now on.

    All that will be seen is the cover's text.

    I don't know who was responsible for approving the NS cover but it would help if they broadcast their understanding that it was a mistake, and that they intend to do their utmost to prevent it happening again. Slips like that are no longer as trivial as they once were, hence the furore that you don't appear to understand.

    Then you might get a more sympathetic hearing with regard to your article...