Saturday, 20 March 2010

The case of the controversial evolution article by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian

Yesterday I saw an article on the front page of the Guardian website that caused widespread anger and controversy.  Under possibly the worst headline of the year, "Why everything they told you about evolution is wrong", the piece was a review of Fodor's latest book 'What Darwin got Wrong' (only slightly less a disingenuous title).

The piece drew a lot of instant criticism, from Adam Rutherland's Comment is Free piece published the same day on the Guardian site (kudos for that) and, rather more extensively, by Coyne's great blog on Why Evolution is True.  The criticisms drew on the numerous scientific inaccuracies and the muddled, unenlightening way that Fodor's arguments were presented.  The title in particular seemed to vex many who commented.

Unfortunately, in my desire to vent spleen having read through the rather lengthy review, I had a rant on the Today in Sport blog of the Guardian site, only to be banned a few minutes before comments opened on Burkeman's article.  I contacted the editors and copied Burkeman in which, to his credit, he replied to.  I have decided to publish those emails here because I feel that, given the vitriol that the article created, it needs more context and a fair hearing of Burkeman's side of things.

Here is the email exchange in full:

I read all the way to the end just so that when it came time to write my damning comment clarifying the whole matter I wouldn't miss out any of the absurdities.... only to find there are no comments at the end!

How do these people get published? Fodors argument is absolute nonsense, the fallacy of 'selecting for' meaning design is one that High School children are taught. And as for the fucking title the sub-editors gave it! Thats a title the Mail would be happy with.

Honestly, when I read bollocks like this it makes me so angry about 1) someone getting a book published that even I could debunk and 2) someone seemingly utterly incapbale of grasping the matter being paid to write a review about it!

FFS! A couple of interesting studies that needed to be expanded upon are merely touched on at the start (not even clear if they have anything to do with Fodors book) and then, to back up Fodors claim turns to that well-known expert on evolution, right-wing fundamentalist Anne Coulter, the woman who thinks Jews need to be 'perfected'.

I mean, Anne Coulter? I can't believe I just wasted so much time on something so utterly worthless.


Dear Ben:

Thanks for your thoughts, however contemptuously expressed.

To respond to your points: 1. My piece made amply clear, several times, that Fodor's argument is thought by many to be absolute nonsense, and 2. I can't see how anyone cojld read that piece and not see that I was bringing up Ann Coulter to criticise her and point out that her argument was rubbish.

Still, thanks for reading!


You say that despite coulters record, her argument is persuasive.
That's only if you have no idea about evolution. It had no place in
the article. And what on earth did the missing day BS have to do with
anything? With a topic such as this you need to be aware of the
dangers of misinformation. People are already using your article as
evidence seemingly based on the title alone.

Have you nothing to add regarding the title? Absolutely shocking
behaviour. Designed to get hits and advertisers?  Did you seek an
expert opinion on anything? Are the two PhD students who looked it
over studying Art?


I am honestly astonished that anyone could read that piece and not see that the hilarious Creationist urban myth about Nasa was included because it is so comically ridiculous.

And as I make completely clear, Coulter is *wrong*. Of course she is — she's Ann Coulter!

It's very strange to me, this position that holds that you're somehow helping the forces of irrationalism by *mentioning* the fact that people believe these things, even if you point out (several times in a row) that they're wrong.

I do (sincerely!) wish you an excellent weekend, nonetheless.


Thanks for the reply. The tone you intended for Tue piece didn't come across at all well. Such a long article on such a contentious book is hardly the place for it though. 

Chalk it as a lesson learned. A long piece on a serious matter needs proper accuracy and understanding else you will get this sort of reaction. Too many people do not know, or want to know, about evolution enough to be able to read between the links so to speak.  It sorely needed fact checking.

Also I really want to know about that title. It has really given the guardian some bad press, and rightly so. Are you not pissed about it? 


And thanks for your reply.

For the record, I firmly believe that it isn't a viable approach to journalism to spend one's time worrying how a piece might be used by people who utterly misread it either wilfully or out of ignorance.

Provocative headlines is an interesting question — feel free to raise it with our readers' editor if you wish. It is entirely outside my role at the paper, so I'm not in a position to say much more than that. In general, though, I think a headline coexists with the piece, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to critique the headline in a stand-alone way.

I guess this is all coming down to the same basic point: I don't think anyone of average intelligence who reads my whole piece could possibly come away with the misimpression that it's somehow pro-irrational-thinking, and I'm not prepared to start writing pieces in order to please people who can't be bothered to read them all the way through (and in good faith) — it would make the journalistic enterprise essentially impossible!

All best


That doesn't excuse the gross inaccuracies as shown in coyne's piece,
that a simple cross-check with an expert couldn't correct.  These
things matter since science rarely get mainstream coverage and leaves
those doing hard work educating the public exasperated.

You say the title and the piece should be regarded as one falls down
when they bare no resemblance to one another.  Such a juxtaposition is
deserving of a parody piece and is getting the ridicule it deserves.
It smacks of trying to get the hits up.  Neither is this the first
time. It is becoming a running joke with the guardians readership,
something that needs to be flagged with the superiors.

You either overestimate your readership or, judging by the comments
section, failed to get across your intended tone for the piece. Since
it wasn't clearly a comic piece, due to the subject at hand, the
length of the piece, the admittance of its complexity and subsequent
attempt to explain, it was treated as a science piece.  This is where
the criticism stems from.


I think these emails reveal important context within the wider questions of mainstream reporting of science and the limitations of the textual medium.  I don't doubt Burkeman when he says that bringing up Ann Coulter was a joke, though I seriously doubt if starting a new paragraph with the line, "This argument, perhaps uniquely among all arguments ever made by Coulter, feels persuasive, not least because it is a reasonable criticism of some pop-Darwinism" is the best way to go about creating comic effect.   

He says that, "I am honestly astonished that anyone could read that piece and not see that the hilarious Creationist urban myth about Nasa was included because it is so comically ridiculous". I too would be astonished by that.. had I included it in a clearly scientific review context.  The problem comes in the fact that it had no serious counter-balance.  See, this is what it boils down to.  I believe Burkeman is sincere when he says that these references, through their tenuousness to the subject matter, are meant as a joke.  But where does the joke end and the science begin?

This is a very lengthy piece reviewing a contentious book about very interesting science.  Now, I wouldn't have any problem with jokes (given the level of fallacy in Fodor's book) had it been included within a proper and clever rebuttal.  Yet even where the jokes ended according to Burkeman, for people with proper knowledge of evolution they simply kept on coming.  As seen in Coyne's piece, there is an awful lot wrong here.  Oliver, correct me in the comments if I'm wrong, but I get the feeling that you read the book and took a little too much of it at face value, relaying mistakes from the book as fact.  Had you got an expert opinion, your attempts at humour wouldn't have blended so seemlessly with the rest of the article.

For any journalist out there: If you contact any scientist, I can guarantee that 95% of them would drop everything at being asked to look over an article pre-publication just in the hope that it might actually lead to an accurate depiction.  When Burkeman says, "For the record, I firmly believe that it isn't a viable approach to journalism to spend one's time worrying how a piece might be used by people who utterly misread it either wilfully or out of ignorance" he misses the point entirely.  People do not need to misread his article, it was factually inept in reality.  Had it been looked at by an expert, had it been accurate, I would agree 100%.  There are people striving all the time to try and educate the public: it is immensely frustrating for those experts to see such a mainstream platform get science wrong time and time again.  All for the lack of a quick email.  The article appeared 'pro-irrational thinking' simply on the basis that a feature writer had written it and not got any expert opinion (pretty irrational).  The Guardian claimed that two PhD students looked over it, to much hilarity from commenter's with biology backgrounds.  Not. Good. Enough.

 "It is entirely outside my role at the paper, so I'm not in a position to say much more than that. In general, though, I think a headline coexists with the piece, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to critique the headline in a stand-alone way."

This is important.  It must be a source of constant frustration that the title of articles isn't chosen (or necessarily even run-by) the person who wrote it.  As suspected, Burkeman wasn't responsible, though neither does he seem too bothered.  As for co-existing with the piece, this is nonsense.  He just said it's chosen by someone else, and besides, what if the title bares absolutely no relation to the article?  What if, say, the story of a bake sale in a village hall had the title "Grannies in cake orgy scandal!"?  The title of Burkeman's piece was a travesty and it gives the Guardian a bad name.  The only way that title could be excused was if Charlie Brooker was writing the review, it was 600 words long and featured nought but Coulter and 'missing days'. 

By making the article an attempt to explain, by making it seem an outwardly science-like piece, it merely smacks of trying to cheaply generate controversy and hits to sell to the advertisers.  At last looking it was the second-highest read piece.  Strange that the Guardian sees large viewing figures for it's most shameful pieces as a success.  
Oliver, I don't hold it against you.  Your not alone in all of this.  There are serious deficiencies in the way in which mainstream press covers these things and you have to admit that getting a feature writer (which I often enjoy) to cover such a complex and contentious topic is just asking for trouble.  It is so easy to fact-check today.  There is absolutely no excuse.


As quite a humorous aside, if you type 'Burkeman evolution article' into google, the first hit hows this:

Why everything you've been told about evolution is wrong | Science ...

19 Mar 2010 ... I can see it for myself thankyou) on evolution is wrong'. Shame, shame, shame. P.S To Mr Burkeman: Are you Happy with the title? ...

 For some reason the search result for the article itself has a snippet of a comment left early on in the message board on my behalf (I had recently been banned remember).  Does someone choose that?    For the life of me I can't imagine what determines the text in the search result, but I love the fact it's my comment (that has over 150 recommends at last viewing) there as well as my blog being fourth. 

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