Self-exposure – a journalist out of depth

Book Review: The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry by Suzan Mazur.

Price: US$16.50; NZ$35.oo
Perfect Paperback: 376 pages
Publisher: North Atlantic Books (February 9, 2010); Scoop Media Publishing
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1556439245
ISBN-13: 978-1556439247

Journalist Suzan Mazur created a small flurry several years ago with articles on a planned scientific meeting (The 18th Altenberg Workshop in Theoretical Biology Toward an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, ” July 2008. Organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller). She managed to interview some of the participants, but then got offside with the science community because of the way she presented these interviews, and the nature of the meeting, in her articles.

Massimo Pugliucci, a key organiser of the meeting who had provided an early interview, roundly criticised her. He criticised journalists who “make up stuff out of their fertile imaginations, like Suzan Mazur has most outrageously done with her inane “Scoop series.”” Several other evolutionary scientists were also critical (see for example PZ Myers comments in “Journalistic flibbertigibbet” and Pigliucci’s Is there fundamental scientific disagreement about evolutionary theory?). At the same time her articles and this book have been warmly welcomed by creationists as being anti-Darwinian. At the blog Uncommon Descent O’Leary wrote Darwin skeptic Suzan Mazur is one fine journalist and William Dembski promoted the book in The Altenberg 16 — coming to a bookstore near you February 9th.”

The Altenberg Workshop – normal science

The Altenberg Workshop: From left to right: Sergey Gavrilets, Stuart Newman, David Sloan Wilson, John Beatty, John Odling-Smee, Michael Purugganan, Greg Wray, David Jablonski, Marc Kirschner, Eörs Szathmary, Günter Wagner, Werner Callebaut, Eva Jablonka, Gerd Müller, Massimo Pigliucci, Alan Love

The Altenberg Workshop brought together 16 evolutionary biologists and philosophers. They discussed the current status of evolutionary theory, including some recent exciting empirical and conceptual advances.  The new ideas included evolvability, developmental plasticity, phenotypic and genetic accommodation, punctuated evolution, phenotypic innovation, facilitated variation, epigenetic inheritance, and multi-level selection.” (From the Workshop’s final statement – approved by all participants).

Like any healthy science, evolutionary biology and philosophy is living and healthy. Research produces new information. Scientists come up with, and promote, new ideas. There is active debate about these. However, scientific debate leads to advances, not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This active discussion and new research is not a sign that evolutionary theory is dead and needs replacing. It’s not a sign of a “new evolutionary theory to replace natural selection.”

But, of course, that is how many creationists, and some less ethical journalists, try to represent the science. Creationists latched on to the workshop as evidence for the death of Darwinism – much to the chagrin of the workshop participants. And Suzan Mazur effectively played this creationist ball – to the disgust of many of the scientists she had interviewed.

An “industry” exposed

The title’s reference to “exposé” and “evolution industry” gives you some idea of the books orientation. The response from scientists and creationists confirms it.

The book does not even try to describe an “evolution industry”, let alone expose it. It implies that because funds are invested in evolutionary research and many papers and books result this somehow produces an establishment orthodoxy – a self-perpetuating “industry”. That somehow evolutionary scientists refuse to look into or consider new ideas. They are stuck in a “Darwinist” mould of natural selection.

This is a common fall-back for critics of science. For example, climate change deniers will accuse climate science as being a self-serving “industry,” citing government funding as evidence. A handy way of avoiding the real issue which upsets them – the scientific evidence produced by the research.

Of course society funds evolutionary research, just as it does other useful scientific research. That doesn’t make it an “industry” in the derogatory sense. However, there is an “evolution industry” – or more correctly and “anti-evolution industry”. Funded by conservative religious organisations and benefactors (as well as tax exemptions). Not involved in any research but concentrating on political and legal action. Producing tracts and books attacking evolutionary, and other, science. And even with a publicly declared aim of overthrowing scientific rationality (see wedge document). Now that is an industry journalists like Suzan Mazur, if they were honest, could usefully expose.

No evaluation of Workshop

Mazur makes the Altenberg meeting the central part of her book. However, she makes no real attempt to discuss the Workshop or the ideas in her own words. I get the impression that her understanding of the scientific and philosophical issues involved is not enough for her to risk comment. Instead she relies only on transcripts of interviews, reproduction of her articles (often including extensive quotes from interviews), a few of her notes and other material like the text of the Workshop invitation and abstracts from the scientific contributions.

Strangely, there is no evaluation of the workshop, its concluding documents or the ideas and research involved. The material written after the Workshop ignores it and instead promotes the central theme of exposing an “evolution industry.” She even includes emails outlining her attempts (largely unsuccessful) to pitch her articles to various publication.  Vanity Fair specifically requested something describing the outcomes of the Altenberg Workshop and science community reaction. There is not hint she even attempted this.

One could imagine a collection of interview transcripts could be useful. However, Mazur conducted these interviews according to her agenda, seeking to find evidence for an ‘evolution industry” and the need for a “new evolutionary theory.” She tries to put words in mouths. Richard Lewontin remarked on her agenda in his interview telling her that “every time somebody says I have a new theory, I suggest you turn off your hearing aid.” Others had to correct her interpretations at times. Often she uses bold type in a transcript to stress comments useful to her cause. She has also extended her cast of interviewees to include a few real outsiders unconnected with the Workshop (and often considered cranks by the scientific community) who produce the text she needs.

I get the impression that she has thrown into this book everything she have ever written about evolution, not just material related to the workshop. So we get chapters like “Richard Dawkins renounces Darwinism as a Religion” and “The Astrobiologists.” Even abstracts from a different conference (“Biological facts and Theories” held in Rome, March 2009 under the patronage of the Catholic Church).

Where is the discussion?

But none of this involves a discussion of the new ideas, new research, or current controversies in evolutionary science. Just a collection of interview transcripts, workshop invitations, collections of abstracts provided by authors at the various meetings and brief newspaper articles (for Scoop in NZ) she produced from the material.

While this did provide me with a collection of all her writings on the subject in one place I can’t imagine what other value can be derived from the book. Except of course to be used as “evidence” by creationists there is an “evolution industry,” that natural selection is out-of-date, disproven, and a “new theory of evolution” is arising.

The material in this book was previously issued as an ebook (as well as the original published articles). The paper version may satisfy the author’s ego but I can’t understand the publisher’s motives. A collection of existing material, no discussion, no editing! What were they thinking of!

Science publishing needs effort

Perhaps I expect too much from a book written from the perspective of a non-scientist journalist, rather than a scientific perspective. Mazur’s approach is similar to that of a political journalist. Treating the interviewees as invariably dishonest and duplicitous. As the subject essentially about opinions rather than facts. And using a distrusting, hostile approach – aiming to catch people out.

This is not fitting for a book which is about science. Such writing should be about evidence and ideas, research and real personalities – not about opinions and beliefs. A science writer should  attempt understanding and write to communicate this at an appropriate level.

There is much interesting research and ideas in evolutionary science these days. Much of it is controversial and hotly debated within the community. I would love to have read a book describing this. Describing the research, the new findings, the hypotheses and interpretations. Mentioning the personalities involved and providing access to some of the debate

This is not that book.

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See also:

The Altenberg Workshop proceedings (published April 2010):  Evolution – the Extended Synthesis

Journalistic flibbertigibbet
Altenberg 2008: What Happened?
Is there fundamental scientific disagreement about evolutionary theory?
Notes from Altenberg, part I
Evolution at Altenberg
Altenberg 2008: What Happened?

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3 responses to “Self-exposure – a journalist out of depth

  1. I read some of her ‘articles’ on scoop and gave up on both as a result. Her weird interviews and ‘thesis’ indicate some sort of paranoid and emotional psychosis going on.

  2. Absolutely agree with pkiwi. The book is a mishmash of confusion, conspiracy theory and flagrant misrepresentation of scientists’ replies to (mis) leading questions. No wonder the creationists have latched onto it.

  3. Yes, scoop seems to have some sort of deal with her. They actually published her book! And even that was just a collection of her articles many if which they had already run. Makes me wonder about them.

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