Wednesday, 20 May 2009

"How to spot a hidden religious agenda" piece reinstated to New Scientist website

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You may remember that back in March there was a brief internet controversy over the removal of a piece on the New Scientist website entitled "How to spot a hidden religious agenda", in which their book reviews editor Amanda Gefter explained the key signs she looks out for when deciding if a "science" book is in fact a creationist tract. At the time bloggers queued up to accuse New Scientist of caving in to pressure from creationists, with leading atheist blogger PZ Myers writing that he hoped "New Scientist isn't going to be catering to the whims of popular, uninformed nervous nellies."

Analysing the situation at the time, we pointed out that in all likelihood New Scientist had removed the piece because there had been a legal complaint – removing an article would be the standard response of any publication in such circumstances (hence the fact that you can only currently read Simon Singh's Guardian piece on chiropractic via a Russian website). Looking at who was mentioned in the New Scientist article, we worked out, largely by a process of elimination, that the legal complaint was likely to have come from the British GP and writer James Le Fanu, who the article suggests had "religious motives" for criticising science in his book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves. Funnily enough, that book had recently received uncomplimentary reviews from both Amanda Gefter and New Scientist editor Roger Highfield.

The article has now returned to the New Scientist website, and the accompanying editorial notes confirm that we were right about Le Fanu being the source of the complaint. Here's what it says at the top of the piece:

This article was temporarily taken down on legal advice after New Scientist's editor, Roger Highfield, received a letter from a law firm on behalf of James Le Fanu, the GP and author of the book Why Us? Following discussions, New Scientist has now reinstated the article accompanied by a comment from Dr Le Fanu.

There are now a few paragraphs at the end from Le Fanu in which he argues that Gefter's "specific allegation against myself of covertly promoting ‘pseudoscientific concepts' in pursuit of a hidden religion agenda is unfairly prejudicial to my reputation." He then goes on to state:

"Ms Gefter's supposition that there is a genre of science books written by creationists ‘disguising their true views' is, I would suggest, a mirage invoked to condemn by association those like myself who draw attention to the limits of science and its exclusively materialist explanations and theories. I believe that the New Scientist should do more to examine such ideas to promote the spirit of open and intellectual enquiry."

So that's the end of that, then. Here's hoping that next time a respectable publication like New Scientist has to pull an article in this manner, bloggers aren't quite so quick to jump to unlikely conclusions. I think it's safe to say New Scientist wont be catering to creationist whims any time soon.


Richard Carter, FCD said...

"I think it's safe to say New Scientist wont be catering to creationist whims any time soon."

You're joking, right?

Paul, UK said...

Your conclusion makes no sense whatsoever. In what way does the recently revealed reason for the removal of the article not fall into the category of "caving in to pressure from creationists" or "catering to creationist whims"?

Anonymous said...

I have seen many of these mirages of which he speaks. Dawkins i believe calls them fleas.

Mirage in fact is a good word for them. All image, no substance.