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When Scientists Become Demagogues

Twitter has a way of keeping important information in circulation. A tweet today by the journalist Dan Jones directed my attention to a blog post that he wrote last June, which I otherwise would have missed. The post is titled “How to be Completely Wrong about Radicalization: The Curious Case of Jerry Coyne.”

Let me introduce the two protagonists. In this corner, a freelance writer with an undergraduate degree in molecular genetics. In that corner, a distinguished evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and writer for the general public, whose blog, Why Evolution is True, has a large following. Both are squaring off on a topic that has nothing to do with their academic training.

The fight is no contest. Jones wipes with floor with Coyne. Here is a sample quote:

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Coyne is talking total bullshit, bullshit he’s simply made up. It wouldn’t be worth responding to except it serves as a useful teachable moment.

You owe it to yourself to read the full post and judge for yourself whether Jones scores a knockout in the first round.

What gave Jones such a decisive advantage? Very simply, he did his homework on the subject of political radicalization, and Coyne did not. Also, Jones approached the topic from a scholarly perspective, but Coyne was speaking from his gut.

Coyne’s humiliating defeat illustrates a very serious problem. The social institutions of science and academic scholarship do a pretty good job of holding people accountable for their factual statements. If scientists or scholars don’t do their homework, then their work is rejected, their reputations plummet, and they get washed out of the system. When distinguished scientists and scholars write for the general public, there is an implicit assumption that they have proven themselves and can be trusted to do their homework on the topics that they write about, including topics that are outside their area of professional expertise. When they betray that trust, they are falsely trading on their professional reputations.

Quality control is required for any process to result in a high quality product. This is true for DNA replication, manufacturing processes, academic science and scholarship, and for high quality journalism. Distinguished news organizations such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have elaborate processes for ensuring the veracity of their articles, and they are deeply humiliated when falsehoods creep in. Jones used to work for the Nature magazine group, and his freelance articles are published in numerous reputable magazines, which might account for his journalistic integrity. What Coyne writes about political radicalization wouldn’t survive the journalistic quality control process any more than the scientific and scholarly quality control process—unless some editor was hoodwinked into thinking that his journalistic integrity can be trusted on the basis of his scientific reputation.

Jones is bravely playing the role of quality control officer with his article on Coyne. More of this is needed, so I am happy to lend my support. Coyne in particular is a repeat offender. I have called him out on the subjects of group selection, cultural evolution, and hitting below the belt. Despite his well-deserved reputation as a scientist, he has no journalistic integrity as a blogger.

If Coyne responds to critiques of his integrity at all, he is likely to say that he isn’t attempting to play the role of scientist or scholar in his blog posts. That won’t do. If a serious problem such as political radicalization is going to be addressed, the solution will need to be based on factual knowledge about its causes. If Coyne is obscuring factual knowledge with his gut reactions and abysmal scholarship, then he is part of the problem.

I feel strongly about this topic because I am a scientist who is attempting to function as a journalist with integrity, not only in my own writing but as Editor in Chief of This View of Life and (with Peter Turchin) the Social Evolution Forum. I expect to be judged for my journalistic integrity and I regard it as my responsibility to comment on the integrity of others, in the same way that it is my responsibility to take part in the academic peer review system. The only way to improve the quality of information on the Internet is by establishing a quality control process.

6 Comments

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6 Comments

  1. Chris Kavanagh says:

    I like Dan’s stuff and from the limited interactions I’ve had with him he seems like a very nice, knowledgeable guy. I also agree with most of his criticisms of Coyne’s stated views on extremism and I agree with your assessment of the bullish/dismissive attitude towards group selection (and also you personally) on his blog.

    However, (there had to be a BUT…) I don’t think it’s quite fair to present this as a ‘humiliating defeat’. Especially since Coyne hasn’t responded/isn’t aware of the critique yet. Dan is thorough and unrelenting in his criticism and the issues he raises are valid but at this stage it’s not exactly a two way battle. Coyne may be able to present some counter-arguments for his perspective, (although I personally remain doubtful they will be convincing).

    I also think that we do have to recognise the more informal nature of blog posts. Of course quality control is important and what you post on your blog should still be considered as offering insight into your views but it is often much more ‘off the cuff’ and in Coyne’s case I think that is part of what makes his blog appealing.

    • Dan Jones says:

      First, massive thanks to David for offering his public support of my analysis – it’s extremely gratifying to know that other people understand where I’m coming from, and why I wrote what I did (and, perhaps, why I adopted the style and tone I did).

      And Chris, I don’t object to anything you said, except to say that Coyne should be aware of the critique as he’s been included on Tweets linking to it. Given that he usually responds immediately to any criticism he receives (especially if it’s weak!), I thought he might have put a reply to together by now. Perhaps he’s working on one.

      I should add that my essay was deliberately provocative. I’m trying to elicit a reply that acknowledges the key points I’ve made – not so that I can say “Look, I’m right and he’s wrong!”, but to move the conversation on to more sensible ground where we can agree on crucial points. My hope would be that, in the future, writers like Coyne will think a bit more about what they say on this topic, and don’t keep saying things that have no empirical support, and which, far from being valuable contributions to understanding extremism, actually just feed into the narratives that extremists themselves cling to.

      • Chris Kavanagh says:

        I hope he does respond and addresses the arguments you’ve made rather than dismissing them or just ignoring the critique. Your analysis is harsh but it’s well argued and well supported and if Coyne does value rational/critical thinking as much as he says, he should respect where it is coming from.

        I’ll be interested to see his response if/when it comes but regardless of whether he replies, your article is now a useful reference for anyone who wants to see some of the limitations of Dawkins/Harris/Coyne’s arguments. And I say this as someone who agrees with a fair amount of their views.

        So in summary great work Dan! It looks like a fair amount of research went into the piece too, maybe you could turn it into a feature somewhere?

  2. Dan Jones says:

    One other small thing: my post went up on 6 August 2015 – I use the date format 06/08/2015, which in the US translates to 8 June, hence the mis-date in the opening paragraph.

  3. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to Dan and Chris for their comments and oops for mistaking the 6th of August for the 8th of June. I appreciate Chris’s point that blogs can be off the cuff but I don’t think that lets Coyne off the hook. No one would care about his views if it weren’t for his reputation as a scientist that he is trading upon.

  4. Steve Roth says:

    Jerry Coyne gets two Very Big Things very wrong:

    1. Religion is the sole cause of Islamist terrorism.

    2. All scholars who disagree with that statement completely dismiss religion as a cause of Islamist terrorism.

    Dan Jones gets one (much smaller) thing wrong:

    1. There are no specialist scholars who claim that colonialism etc. are the sole cause of Islamist terrorism, and dismiss religion as a cause. He explicitly refuses (“I also don’t want to hear”) to accept the evidence of Robert Pape, “who is but one voice out there.” One loud and prominent voice serves to prove the point: they do exist. (They exist more widely within the broader scholarly community.) Offensive and false provocation my merit strongly provocative response. But the (few) facts remain.

    Coyne is not delivering up a complete strawman, though he is egregiously, irresponsibly, and offensively overstating (hence falsely stating) the case.

    Jones is not acknowledging that the strawman is not completely made of straw.

    IOW, Coyne in large and Jones in small both show evidence of their arguments being impervious to evidence. (Coyne far worse.)

    Evidence-proof, impervious beliefs (prima facie, every religious belief that’s supported only by “faith,” not by evidence) are ubiquitous and mostly benign in practice. (And many practices of religion are salutary and beneficial.) But those evidence-proof beliefs are also arguably necessary (though not sufficient) for humans to engage in the kind of atrocities being discussed.

    As such, religious beliefs, or a least the evidence-resistant thinking that they promulgate and engender, are also dangerous.

    So to see both of these writers (especially Coyne) refusing/failing to acknowledge evidence is dismaying. It gives ammunition, aid, and comfort to those who say that scientific beliefs are just like purely faith-based religious beliefs — impervious to evidence.