Wednesday, 18 March 2009

So why did New Scientist pull that article?

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Now that some of the hysteria has died down over the removal from the New Scientist website of a piece on how to spot hidden religious agendas in science books, it's worth taking another look at the story.

News of the article's removal earlier this week triggered some strong reactions in the blogosphere, with many suggesting the magazine had caved in to creationist complaints. At the time I suggested that bloggers ought to stop and think for a moment – New Scientist had clearly received a legal complaint about the article, and had therefore had to remove it while that matter was addressed. This was surely a far more plausible explanation than them trying to avoid offending creationists.

And so it proved. Later on Monday New Scientist changed the message on the pulled article's URL, confirming that it had indeed been removed for legal reasons. Apart from that, the magazine has remained silent on the matter, no doubt because they're restricted by Britain's shockingly litigant-friendly libel laws.

So now the big question is who exactly has taken legal action against New Scientist? Fortunately, the internet means nothing ever really disappears, so the original article has been preserved for posterity in various places – here and here, for example. In the piece Amanda Gefter, a member of the magazine's editorial staff, simply describes the tell-tale signs that help you spot when a "science" book has a religious agenda. For example, use of a phrase like "scientific materialism" is a big give-away, as is the use of the words "Darwinism" and "Darwinists".

There's nothing anyone can sue for there – you need to be mentioned in the article for a start, and only two people are actually named at all. One is Denyse O'Leary, a Canadian writer and blogger who defended Intelligent Design in her 2004 book By Design or Chance, and the other is James Le Fanu, a British GP and writer who, while he is not a creationist, has criticised the theory of evolution and scientific "materialism". The only other thing mentioned specifically in Gefter's piece is the preposterous pro-ID documentary Expelled, and thankfully you can't get sued for implying that films are rubbish.

So, by a process of elimination, either O'Leary or Le Fanu must have taken action against New Scientist, and since O'Leary personally pointed out on Monday that it wasn't her who complained, it would appear the complaint came from Le Fanu. The article suggests he has "religious motives" for criticising science in his latest book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, a book which has received uncomplimentary reviews by none other than Amanda Gefter in the New Scientist, and New Scientist editor Roger Highfield in the Daily Telegraph.

I wouldn't like to speculate as to the exact nature of Le Fanu's complaint, but since a reading of the New Scientist article shows that there's nothing in it that's libellous or even particularly controversial, I imagine the truth will come out soon enough. We'll certainly report it on here when it does.

On another note, now we know that New Scientist wasn't just pandering to creationists, will all the bloggers who said it was be coming forward to retract? Of course, we know the answer to that one, and for that reason I think this controversy has highlighted a fundamental problem with the blogosphere – it makes it very easy for people to jump to conclusions, and for those conclusions to be spread around the internet, without any real requirement for bloggers to admit when they get things wrong. Some very good blogs with very large readerships launched unwarranted attacks at New Scientist on Monday, which meant "news" of a respected science magazine caving into creationism spread very quickly. Something like this wouldn't be quite as bad if bloggers were as quick to admit they're wrong as they are to claim they're right. I think this is something all bloggers (and I do include myself in this) should bear in mind.


Christopher said...

Accepting this advice, online publishers should also very seriously consider posting as much information as they can about their actions, particularly those that might *appear to be* motivated by what some might consider to be questionable reasons.

It's the old 'rights and responsibilities' thing again. Online magazines need to be aware that their actions are scrutinised hourly by thousands, and it simply fuels conspiracies if they are lazy about declaring their motives.

Any website content management system can easily incorporate a 'reason for removal' notice that would be at least a temporary barrier for conclusion leapers.

foolfodder said...

I wonder if some people were more likely to jump to conclusions regarding New Scientist because of the "Darwin was Wrong" headline^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H own-goal-for-anti-anti-evolutionists.

Kevin said...

I agree with both commenter's - without providing the context, and given the recent front page, the rational response was indeed a leap to defense.

But is that so wrong? Whether the cause was an external legal one, or internal to the publication - censorship has been attempted. It deserves an outcry, if only to act as a warning to other idiots attempting the same.

Mandrellian said...

I reckon Le Fanu knew what he was doing.

He knew that he could get the article pulled with little more than a tantrum, much less a credible legal threat. He knew science-friendly bloggers would automatically assume some creo idiot had forced NS into a temporary retraction and he had a good idea of what their reaction would be. Now he's going to milk it until such time as noone gives a shit anymore. I give it a week or two before the article's back up. Not that it will matter, as (a) NS looks weak (b) Le Fanu will look like a brave soldier for Jesus (or martyr later on when the article's restored) and (c) the article's everywhere anyway.

Of course, to any observant person, it's just one more example of a creationist futilely stamping his foot because of hurt feelings. It will come to nought, but Le Fanu will have some new fans among the idiots.

AT said...

Why should the new scientist have to explain in detail why they pull an article every time they do so that they can pre-emptively calm every trigger-happy blogger? Anyone looking with half a grain of sense would recognize the new scientist is unlikely to pull an article in order to save face with creationists. What an absurd, overblown response.

Mike said...

I suspect you're right about who is behind the legal action. However, I just thought I'd mention one other possibility that wasn't included in your process of elimination: A published article can fall under legal attack over copyright issues.

trog69 said...

First I'd like to thank you for bringing this information out for those, like me, who've taken no real side in this issue, due to lack of info.

As to your second point, on the blogosphere's duty to announce just as loudly when their views are shown to be wrong as when they first posted the erroneous info. I agree wholeheartedly with you, and it reminded me of the court case won by Fox News Corp, which basically said they had every right to lie about the information presented to viewers. I'm sure that there was other reasoning by the judge/s, other than just, "hey, who cares if they lie?", but I'm still flummoxed as to how that turd got so shiny.

Muscleguy said...

It is not actually required that you just roll over and remove something the minute someone complains. You are allowed to stand up for yourself. That is why many of us complained to NS that they had not stood up behind the article.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! Investigation, analysis, credible conclusion.

NS has it's rep. appropriately if not completely restored and we now have a much clearer view of the colours of the protagonists. Now I know to look more carefully at publications carrying articles by Gefter and Le Fanu although for different reasons.


EricTheHalf said... Gefter appears to have been hitting the nail square on.

Anonymous said...

I think you are letting NS off the hook, bit time. They caved and ran (hell, they could have simply blanked out the names if that's what they were worried about).

No, what appears in this article does NOT suggest that it's all ok and understandable.