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Colin Macilwain  News Editor for Nature  Web  GBS

Like sausages being made, or legislation being passed, the process that turns scientific developments into headlines and into radio and television reports isn’t pretty to observe. Nor is it optimal.


One of the main jobs of the AAAS meeting is to parcel up original research that has already been published, and often publicized, into digestible chunks.  These then reappear as news stories in papers and broadcasts around the world, turbocharged by quotes from the scientific luminaries attending the meeting.  This at least marks a change in tempo from the weekly routine, which converts original scientific findings, via a production line of embargoed press releases from journals and universities, into a steady stream of largely uncritical stories.     Calling science to account  Nature  February 18 2010  p. 875 


There was a time when I thought that the outcome of this process didn’t matter much: the public would grow wise, and the stories about ‘cures for cancer’ would fade away.  Well the public is growing wiser – but the stories aren’t fading. Propped up by the specious authority of their jargon and, most of all, by their cheapness to report – which stands in stark contrast to proper investigations of issues such as public corruption, corporate malfeasance or instructional health and safety – essentially silly stories about science continue to fill newspapers and news broadcasts.


Some science reporters are uneasy about this situation, but most accept it. Dumbed-down media coverage has bred mistrust among some scientists, leading them to withdraw from what they regard as a media circus. Most, however, seem to be largely content with a system that disguised the very human process of scientific discovery as a seamless steam of ingenious and barely disputed ‘breakthroughs’. Like other elites, researchers feel no great yearning to be held to account by the press.     Calling science to account  February 18 2010 


The machine prospers because it serves the short-term interests of its participants. Editors get coherent and up-to-date copy. Writers get bylines. Researchers, universities and funding agencies get clips that show that their work has had ‘impact.’ And readers get snippets, such as how red or white wine makes you live longer or less long, to chat about at the water-cooler.


None of these groups is benefiting strategically from the arrangement. Science is being misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings,’ each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of scientific process, and as a result is beginning to adopt a weary cynicism that can only rebound on science in the long run.     Calling science to account  February 18 2010 


It is hard, given the parlous financial state of newspapers and broadcasters, and the continued onslaught of the public-relations industry, to see what will reverse these alarming trends. One possible approach would be the unilateral abandonment, by writers and editors on influential publications, of the embargo system and the pack mentality that goes with it. Another would be far more willing and constructive engagement by scientists themselves in the public airing of the strengths, weakness and missteps that characterize scientific progress.     Calling science to account  February 18 2010 


Joao Magueijo  (b. 1967)  Reader in Theoretical Physics at Imperial College  Web  Amazon  LoC  GBS

Peer review is an unpaid and usually anonymous activity. Perhaps for this reason the average referee report is sloppy and sleazy. Reports usually reveal that the referee has not read the paper. Acceptance of rejection often reflects the personal relationship between authors and referee. Publishers have always been reluctant to open their files to historians of science and sociologists. Clearly they are embarrassed to reveal how little science, and how much sociology, there is in their files.    Electronic Archives and the death of journals 


Jonathan Marks  (b. 1955)  Professor of Anthropology at Yale, Berkeley, and UNC  Web  Amazon  GBS

The Piltdown affair should be of considerable interest to us as a community of scientists and as a community of physical anthropologists, but to focus upon it simply as a docudrama is to lose sight of the real significance of the episode. What Piltdown raises, as the archetypal scientific fraud, are questions about the scientific process How does fraud work? What structures exist in science to prevent its detection? Is the critical eye that gives science its vaunted "self-correcting" feature efficient enough? Do the media work in the best interests of the Scientific community when they publicize conclusions that may be poorly supported, and then inflame anti-intellectual sentiment by publicizing its debunking, as it they weren't the main part of the reason it needed to be debunked?    American Journal of Physical Anthropology  March 1992  p.377

The great paradox of modern science is that scientists are not trained to think about science; they are trained to do it, to carry it out. They are trained to use the machines with the flashing multicolored lights, often in creative ways, to collect data -- but not to think about where knowledge comes from, or the relationship between science and technology, or between scientific and nonscientific modes of thought, or even about the growth and development of their own field of science. These all fall within the domain of the humanities; generally a scientist is expected to pick them up osmotically, informally, passively. We all know about the ongoing explosions in science and technology, but we rarely hear about the quieter revolution that has been going on in the humanities about science. Sometimes scientists are vaguely threatened by the knowledge that someone is out there, studying them and thinking about them -- as if they were the Yanomamo of the Amazon Basin or the !Kung San of Botswana.    What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee  2002  p.266-7

Science begins first with the perception of a problem, and then with a decisions about the kinds of information that might be appropriate to solving it -- both of which are ways that theory, from the outset, constrains and channels the collection of data.    Why I Am Not a Scientist  2009  p.51

The point is that until the Great Depression eugenics was neither unscientific nor even scientifically marginal -- it was mainstream. It was so mainstream that, if you criticized it, you were beaten over the head with Darwin and Mendel.    Why I Am Not a Scientist  2009  p.68

In the case of Piltdown Man, we have not only he nationalistic ideological power of "the first Englishman" but the social power of the academic hierarchy that was heavily invested in him. Three of the major students of Piltdown Man were knighted in the 1920s: Arthur Keith, Grafton Elliot Smith, and Arthur Smith Woodward. A fourth, E. Ray Lankester, had already been knighted by the time he participated in the Piltdown Man analysis. You'd have to be crazy to go up against institutional clout like that wish a charge that their favorite fossil was fraudulent.    Why I Am Not a Scientist  2009  p.170


Ernst Mayr  (1904 – 2005)  Professor of Zoology at Harvard University  Web  Amazon  LoC  GBS  QMP  AV

It is quite true, as several recent authors have indicated, that Darwin's book was misnamed, because it is a book on evolutionary changes in general and the factors that control them (selectivity, and so forth), but not a treatise on the origin of species.    Systematics and the Origin of Species  (1942)  p.147

The basic framework of the theory is that evolution is a two-stage phenomenon the production of variation and the sorting of the variants by natural selection. Yet agreement on this basic thesis does not mean that the work of the evolutionist is completed. The basic theory is in many instances hardly more than a postulate and its application raises numerous questions in almost every concrete case.    Populations, Species and Evolution  (1970)  p. 6 

The occurrence of genetic monstrosities by mutation, for instance the homeotic mutant in Drosophila,  is well substantiated, but they are such evident freaks that these monsters can be designated only as 'hopeless.' They are so utterly unbalanced that they would not have the slightest chance of escaping elimination through stabilizing selection. Giving a thrush the wings of a falcon does not make it a better flier. Indeed, having all the other equipment of a thrush, it would probably hardly be able to fly at all. It is a general rule, of which every geneticist and breeder can give numerous examples, that the more drastically a mutation affects the phenotype, the more likely it is to reduce fitness. To believe that such a drastic mutation would produce a viable new type, capable of occupying a new adaptive zone, is equivalent to believing in miracles.    Populations, Species, and Evolution  (1970)  p.253

The finding of a suitable mate for the 'hopeless monster' and the establishment of reproductive isolation from the normal members of the parental population seem to me insurmountable difficulties.     Populations, Species, and Evolution  (1970)  p.253

I am taking a new look at the Darwinian revolution of 1859, perhaps the most fundamental of all intellectual revolutions in the history of mankind. It not only eliminated man’s anthropocentrism, but affected every metaphysical and ethical concept, if consistently applied.    Science  June 2, 1972  p.981

Every anti-evolutionist prior to 1859 allowed for the intermittent, if not constant, interference by the Creator. The natural causes postulated by the evolutionists completely separated God from his creation, for all practical purposes. The new explanatory model replaced planned teleology by the haphazard process of natural selection. This required a new concept of God and a new basis for religion.    Science  June 2, 1972  p.988

The Darwinian revolution was not merely the replacement of one scientific theory by another, as had been the scientific revolutions in the physical sciences, but rather the replacement of a world view, in which the supernatural was accepted as a normal and relevant explanatory principle, by a new world view in which there was no room for supernatural forces.    Nature  March 22, 1974  p.285

Darwin produced embarrassingly little concrete evidence to back up some of his most important claims. This includes the change of one species into another in succeeding geological strata, or the production of new structures and taxonomic types by natural selection.    Nature  March 22, 1974  p.285

It is apparent that Darwin lost his faith in the years 1836-39, much of it clearly prior to the reading of Malthus. In order not to hurt the feelings of his friends and of his wife, Darwin often used deistic language in his publications, but much in his Notebooks indicates that by this time he had become a ‘materialist’ (more or less = atheist).    American Scientist  May 1977  p. 323

The real core of Darwinism, however, is the theory of natural selection. This theory is so important for the Darwinian becauuse it permits the explanation og adaptation, the design of the natural theologian, by natural means, instead of by divine intervention.     Darwinism Defended  1982  pp. xi-xii

In high school I read Haeckel's Weltratsel naively and avidly, not as a guide to evolutionary studies but to have ammunition in arguments about the Bible and religion!    The Evolutionary Synthesis  (1981)  p.413

Curiously, the so-called scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a movement largely confined to the physical sciences, caused no change at all in this attitude toward creationism. All the leading physical scientists and mathematicians – Descartes, Huyghens, Boyle, and Newton – were believers in a personal god and strict creationists. The mechanization of the world picture (Dijksterhuis, 1961), the dominant conceptual revolution of the time, did not require, indeed could not even tolerate, evolution. A stable, uniquely created world maintained by general laws made complete sense to one who was steeped in essentialism and who believed in a perfect universe.    The Growth of Biological Thought  (1982)  p.309

Since the shift from a strict belief in creation to one in evolution requires a profound conceptual -- indeed, ideological -- reorientation, one must consider Darwin's attitude toward Christianity. No fundamentalist can develop a theory of evolution, and the changes in the nature of Darwin's faith are, therefore, highly relevant for our understanding of his conversion to evolutionism.    The Growth of Biological Thought  (1982)  p.401

The theory of natural selection can describe and explain phenomena with considerable precision, but it cannot make reliable predictions, except through such trivial and meaningless circular statements as, for instance: “The fitter individuals will on the average leave more offspring."    Toward a New Philosophy of Biology (1988)  pp.31-32 

Among all the claims made during the evolutionary synthesis, perhaps the one that found least acceptance was the assertion that all phenomena of macroevolution can be ‘reduced to,' that is, explained by, microevolutionary genetic processes. Not surprisingly, this claim was usually supported by geneticists but was widely rejected by the very biologists who dealt with macroevolution, the morphologists and paleontologists. Many of them insisted that there is more or less complete discontinuity between the processes at the two levels—that what happens at the species level is entirely different from what happens at the level of the higher categories. Now, 50 years later the controversy remains undecided.    Toward a New Philosophy of Biology  (1988)  p.402

By cleverly employing mathematics and making numerous arbitrary assumptions, one can develop macroevolutionary models based on beanbag genetics. However, there is no way to test these models for their validity. At the present moment, unfortunately, the genetics of microevolutionary processes has been unable to provide a full explanation of macroevolution, nor has the analysis of macroevolutionary phenomena provided any answers as to the nature of the genetic processes characterizing macroevolutionary events.    Toward a New Philosophy of Biology  (1988)  p.405

In scientific controversies, there is rarely any argument about facts. It is rather their interpretation that is controversial.    Toward a New Philosophy of Biology  (1988)  p.489

Anything truly novel always seemed to appear quite abruptly in the fossil record.    Toward a New Philosophy of Biology  (1988)  pp.529-530 

Why did it take so long for evolution to be seriously proposed? And why did Darwinism face such an uphill battle after it was proposed? The reason is that Darwin challenged some of the basic beliefs of his age. Four of them were pillars of Christina dogma.    One Long Argument (1991)  p.38

There is indeed one belief that all true original Darwinians held in common, and that was their rejection of creationism, their rejection of special creation. This was the flag around which they assembled and under which they marched. When Hull claimed that “the Darwinians did not totally agree with each other, even over essentials”, he overlooked one essential on which all these Darwinians agreed. Nothing was more essential for them than to decide whether evolution is a natural phenomenon or something controlled by God. The conviction that the diversity of the natural world was the result of natural processes and not the work of God was the idea that brought all the so-called Darwinians together in spite of their disagreements on other of Darwin’s theories.    One Long Argument  (1991)  p.99 

The demarcation between science and theology is perhaps easiest, because scientists do not invoke the supernatural to explain how the natural world works, and they do not rely on divine revelation to understand it. When early humans tried to give explanations for natural phenomena, particularly for disasters, invariably they invoked supernatural beings and forces, and even today divine revelation is as legitimate a source of truth for many pious Christians as is science. Virtually all scientists known to me personally have religion in the best sense of this word, but scientists do not invoke supernatural causation or divine revelation.    This Is Biology  (1997)

Many biological ideas proposed during the past 150 years stood in stark conflict with what everybody assumed to be true. The acceptance of these ideas required an ideological revolution. And no biologist has been responsible for more -- and for more drastic -- modifications of the average person’s worldview than Charles Darwin.     “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”  Scientific American  July 2000  p.68

Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science -- the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.    “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”  Scientific American  July 2000  p.68

Another aspect of the new philosophy of biology concerns the role of laws. Laws give way to concepts in Darwinism. In the physical sciences, as a rule, theories, are based on laws; for example, the laws of motion led to the theory of gravitation. In evolutionary biology, however, theories are largely based on concepts such as competition, female choice, selection, succession and dominance, These biological concepts, and the theories based on them, cannot be reduced to the laws and theories of the physical sciences. Darwin himself never stated this idea plainly.    “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”  Scientific American  July 2000  p.69

Remember that in 1850 virtually all leading scientists and philosophers were Christian men. The world they in inhabited had been created by God... Such was the thinking of Western man prior to the 1850 publication of On the Origin of Species. The basic principles proposed by Darwin would stand in total conflict with these prevailing ideas.

First, Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.    “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”  Scientific American  July 2000  p.69

I hope I have successfully illustrated the wide reach of Darwin’s ideas. Yes, he established a philosophy of biology by introducing the time factor, by demonstrating the importance of chance and contingency, and by showing that theories in evolutionary biology are based on concepts rather than laws. But furthermore—and this is perhaps Darwin’s greatest contribution—he developed a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person: the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism.    “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”  Scientific American  July 2000  p.71


John McWhorter  (b. 1965)  Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute  Web  Amazon  GBS

I just read your book The Edge of Evolution from 2007 and I found it absolutely shattering  -- I mean this is a very important book -- and yet I sense from the reputation of reception of your book from ten plus years ago Darwin's Black Box that it may be hard to get a lot of people to understand why the book is so important.    Bloggingheads with Michael Behe  August 2009  0.15

What are the intermediate steps? And I always ask people this. And people start screaming at me that I'm implying that evolution is not responsible and that instead we're talking about God. And the whole discussion just gets derailed. Nevertheless, I think that it's a genuine question.    Bloggingheads with Michael Behe  August 2009  2.40

Every ten minutes there seems to be a book that comes out that you find in the science section at the store that purports to show that the sorts of questions that you're raising have been answered -- that we've got it all figured out how you get from an amoeba to Tom Delay... These books always seem to purport to show how these sorts of  things actually work and what they'll show is that there is a gene or set of genes that program for body segments or program for body parts and that if you alter one of these genes then you can make a leg grow out of something's head or something like that. And I have always waited for those books to prove to me that everything's been figured out. And I don't go into them skeptically, but they never really quite explain how you get from the amoeba to the triceratops.    Bloggingheads with Michael Behe  August 2009  8.14

I will definitely say that in reading your book  I came closer than I ever have, at the age of forty-three, to believing in God. I quite frankly do not, and never have, and think the world is a marvelous place anyway. And I never imagined that anybody could even begin to convince me that there was such a thing. Reading your book I thought to myself 'I can't think of what there would be that would create this kind of order out of chaos' and I suspect that many people, if they actually read the book all the way through, would have the same response. But the fact is, and I say this with full respect for your religious belief, I don't want to believe in God. I don't like change.    Bloggingheads with Michael Behe  August 2009  18.31

I can not believe that the typical view among scientists is such that they're not as fascinated by that question and this possible boundary to our knowledge as you are. It's so utterly fascinating.  And yet I remember when Darwin's Black Box came out I grabbed it. I was fascinated by this. It opened my eyes. And I had a scientist friend, eminent one, I will not name them or even give their gender, but I had that scientist over to dinner and when I gave that scientist your book and said 'Have you read this one?' That scientists literally, and they, yes singular 'they' were being kind of theatrical but they, literally, threw it across the room. They just could not entertain that this book, and it was gaining a reputation, could possibly be making any sense. But of course that wasn't a discussion -- I could not get this person to discuss what was so wrong with the ideas.    Bloggingheads with Michael Behe  August 2009  22.25

You have convinced me completely that the basic Darwin-with-the-beard story, the random mutations, that won't do. And the people who are you going to scoff at your work, I highly suspect (and this is a completely irresponsible and arrogant thing for me to say) as someone who is not a scientist, I don't think that they're reading you carefully enough. It sounds like these are people who are not thinking about what you are saying. And I regret it, because I really do believe that The Edge of Evolution is one of the most important books I have read in my entire life, and I hope that other people will actually take the book and read it all the way through.    Bloggingheads with Michael Behe  August 2009  42.39

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