Lies, Lies, Lies

Back in March 2009 I was very pleased and even proud that a paper of mine, more about Emma Darwin than Charles, was published in Elsevier’s Endeavour, a journal focussing on the history of science. This marked something of a departure from mainstream science writing for me and I saw it as a springboard into territories new.
Those cosy warm feelings soon cooled though when articles quickly appeared in blogs and online magazines reporting wild claims being made by the paper.
For example:
  • http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/03/03/darwin-music-evolution.html
  • http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29492764/
  • http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=264484277&blogId=475282662
  • http://news.softpedia.com/news/Two-Darwinian-Theories-Influenced-by-Music-105956.shtml
  • http://skytimes.co.uk/darwins-pianist-wife-may-have-influenced-evolution-theories/
  • http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/health/darwins-pianist-wife-may-have-influenced-evolution-theories_100162432.html
  • http://johnhawks.net/node/1895
  • etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.
    Now, I am no stranger to the system of press releases, and the potential, nay tendency, for misinterpretation of carefully constructed scientific argument, in the name of media sensationalism; another paper of mine about evolutionary events that took place under a sequence of climate change beginning 3 million years ago, was similarly abused to suggest the possibility of Daliesque Space Elephants and similar beasts sweeping majestically across the Serengeti (but, perhaps more on that another time). But what is most galling, and what must be a frustration to every writer ever misquoted or represented out of context, paraphrased, or generally misunderstood, is that every time this happens it’s likely a simple result of the reporter bloody-well not actually reading the original piece of work.
    As you will see from the precursory correspondence (incorporated below), this is particularly inexcusable in this instance. So, here follows my response made via the Brightcecilia Classical Music Forum, one of the places I found the fallacies about my work being perpetuated. I felt I ought to have right of reply …

    As the author of the original article :
    Bravo Emma! Music in the life and work of Charles Darwin Endeavour Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2009, Pages 35-38 doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2009.01.005
    I am horrified by the slack journalism and misrepresentation of the original by Jennifer Viegas in her piece (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29492764/) which is now reproduced in this thread, sadly using Viegas’ article as a source rather than the original, and therefore reproducing the same mistakes.
    I was approached by Viegas and asked for a copy of the paper which I sent. Her response opened with,
    “Thank you again for sending your paper, which was a delightful read. I’m a great fan of piano compositions, as well as Darwin, so your study provided a refreshing blend.”
    This was followed by 9 queries to answer. Some were surprisingly fundamental and could have been researched easily, e.g., “How many children did the Darwins have?”, “Did Charles outlive Emma, or the other way around?”. However, I answered them accurately and, perhaps sensing a lack of understanding, I requested, “a read of your article before you publish” which of course I never got.
    My only fault in this is that I was not more proactive in predicting Viegas’ most obvious error, namely Emma’s influence on Darwin’s ideas. Viegas’ second question to me hinted at it, but not in a way that I suspected the absurd extrapolation that actually resulted,
    “2. When and where did Darwin write his famed Origin of Species? I’d like to juxtapose its creation with Darwin’s home life, including his enjoyment of music during this period, since your paper suggests that his musical experiences influenced at least one of the book’s theories.”
    My response to this was, “his first transmutation sketch was made in london. a reworking followed their move to Downe where the book was eventually completed, as were all subsequent works. music was central to home life and a panacea after a hard day’s work, or often when not feeling well.”
    Thus, his musical experiences did have an influence upon his work, on sexual selection, as stated in my original paper. But there is no evidence, nor suggestion in my paper, that Emma’s music specifically, “influenced at least two key evolution theories formulated by the British naturalist”, as stated in Viegas’ article.
    As soon as I was notified of Viegas’ article I read it, and was moved to write the following,
    “I really wish that you had sent a proof to check before publication as I had requested.
    There are some pretty notable and embarrassing errors in your article:
    1/ at no point so I suggest that Emma’s music influenced Darwin’s theories
    2/ Endeavour is misspelt
    3/ Emma’s diary played a very minor role in my research
    4/ it is likely that one of his children, esp. Francis, not Emma, played the piano for Darwin’s experiments
    5/ no link has been made between evening recitals in the Darwin house and his work
    6/ I don’t claim that any observations of his children were used in “The Origin” but rather in “Descent of Man” and “Expression of the Emotions”
    7/ Randall Keynes (with whom I have collaborated) is wrongly given as Randall Keyes.
    8/ I doubt Randall would claim to have discovered the link between Annie’s death and Darwin’s agnosticism, but the way you present it suggests conflict of opinion.
    These do need to be corrected, even at this stage.”
    Viegas replied, “I will do what I can to make the changes you request, Dr. Derry. Please understand that I do not retain full control of any published piece, nor is that given to any outside source. The office is closed over the weekend, so hopefully the editors can run the revision early next week.”
    Of course, nothing happened, and that was the last time I heard from Viegas (other than an automated, “Jennifer Viegas requested to add you as a connection on LinkedIn”!), even though I did email again showing at least half a dozen internet articles and blogs that had perpetuated these falsehoods by using Viegas’ article as a source, rather than the original paper. And so it goes.
    Despite the valiant efforts of lovely people like Andreia Azevedo Soares who have taken this case on board in their brave efforts to champion scientific truth in reporting, sadly, I have come to accept that from this single, careless, mention online, the idea that “Two Darwinian Theories Influenced by Music” is inextricably linked to my name.
    So what? If it were just a matter of my pride, a dented ego and a small smear on my reputation then it would hardly be worth even posting about it on this blog. After all, they say, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”, right? But, it has been taken one stage further already.
    While not yet appearing in the peer-reviewed literature (and I hope for the sake of our academic literature that it never does), the misrepresentation has been used to fuel pro-Christian arguments, presented at a reputable UK institution.
    Richard England, professor of music and adjunct graduate professor of counseling at Freed-Hardeman University, an accredited Christian University, used my paper as evidence of cherry-picking in science, and he claimed, the weakness of scientific argument. He did so at the Oxford Round Table conference at Oxford University in 2009. His speech has since been posted on the Forum on Public Policy website (relevant extract follows):
    “There is also a difficulty encountered by many who extend their core beliefs to disciplines that extend beyond a familiar frame of reference. This stretch of basic beliefs at times provides unique insights into the thought processes of those strongly intertwined within a system that allows little space for other explanations of phenomena. The result can be an interesting sequence of thoughts revealed that provide insight into the source of conflicts for beliefs and how a core belief can guide the interpretation of multiple areas of thought, regardless of the discipline examined. As example of this interesting phenomena is the speculation of J. F. Derry (2009) in Bravo Emma! Music in the LIfe[sic] and Work of Charles Darwin. In the article Dr. Derry, of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh, suggests a relationship between the piano playing of Emma Darwin (who studied for a time with Frederic Chopin) for her husband Charles and that it perhaps had a profound influence on his theories set forth in Origin of Species (1859). Dr. Derry indicates regarding Charles Darwin “A self-confessed lack of musicality did not prevent music from influencing his work. He clearly considered musicality an inherited trait, suggesting that his daughter Annie showed her mother‟s aptitude for the piano. He even wove this argument into the Origin as he attempted to grapple with the elusive mechanism of inheritance” (2009, 37). The concepts of musical ability as an inherited trait are further discussed within the context of Dr. Derry‟s article, but the despondency of Charles Darwin over the death of his daughter Annie at the age of ten is not presented for consideration. Speculation over why such an important element would not be presented could not fail to consider that such a fact did not fit within the context of the purpose of the article-to show a relationship between the musical influences on Charles Darwin and his views on evolutionary biology.”
    Now, I know that these are just the poorly informed conjectures of an illogical individual, confirmed by his statement elsewhere, that,
    “It’s amazing to me that individuals could say without hesitation exactly what happened 60 billion years ago, and believe they could predict with reasonable certainty the next steps in the evolutionary process, but they bring an umbrella because they are uncertain if it is going to rain.”
    Nonetheless, and I think this is the pivotal point, it is more than just a professional courtesy that reporters working in the media, presenting scientific material to the public, should ensure the accuracy of their work, at least by consulting their original sources. To not do so disseminates misinformation, and that way madness, and the substantiation of delusion and (when intentionally misreporting the way the land lies) lies, lies.

    About JFDerry

    Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.
    This entry was posted in Books, Darwin and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

    13 Responses to Lies, Lies, Lies

    1. Martyn says:

      It’s a big bad world out there – enough to make me run back into my mouse hole and pull the covers over my head! Of course, your article is high profile – about Darwin and music – and I learnt something quite new about the guy. He ends up appearing more human with the added musical dimension. All you can do (as you have done) is to keep an eye on the speculation and if it gets out of hand, restate the facts. I suppose the answer to lies, lies lies must be vigilance, vigilance, vigilance.

    2. Sinead says:

      Just imagine the day when every article written about you will provide references back to your blog where you can point out any journalists mistakes.

      Be awesome.

    3. JFDerry says:

      Not sure I have remained vigilant since the initial recognition that something was amiss, and I’m not sure it is possible to do so / worth doing so. But, I am sure it is of value to point out unprofessional journalism whenever possible.

    4. JFDerry says:

      Sounds like Hell, and a busy one at that. However, if the purgatory can be automatically meted out, then I am all for attaching cattle prods to journalist genitalia and listening to podcasts of their screams.

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    6. Eddie says:

      The essential problem with many journalist is that they are simply not very bright, and generally not fit to deal with academic material. Think of the mentality of a person who considers journalism as a career. The profession is swamped with low-pay/no-pay wannabes prepared to Google and Wiki their way up an increasingly greasy pole.
      Perhaps cattle prods might be the most effective solution. However, you run the risk of prompting another headline: “Darwin science writer calls for the torture of journalists”

    7. JFDerry says:

      Very astute that journalism is populated by a certain “type” Eddie, but I wonder if it is different for any profession, relative to the mean / modal type for that profession. And how realistic are they being by seeking glory as a tabloid hack? There can’t be many who are consistently revered and not despised by a large sector of society for their opinionated drivel.

      The most influential and respected ones tend to have either come from an alternative writing background, or have established themselves equally as a writer of repute outside journalism. An ambitious vision would be for these individuals to cover the subject areas their lazy colleagues find too taxing, particularly science.

      As for those who do continue to offend, I would never really advocate anyone doing them harm. An honorable death by their own hand would suffice. (*joke*)

    8. Anjali says:

      I can imagine that it must be a nightmare to keep correcting other people’s mistakes – especially when things take a life of their own in other people’s hands! Perhaps next time, you can be like Steve Jobs and tell the journalist to leave you alone, like this http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/09/tweet-of-the-day-3/
      If the choice is between saying nothing and sparking a fairy tale fest, what would you choose?

    9. JFDerry says:

      There always seems to be someone who will read between the lines, or get completely the wrong gist of the nub. Probably worth an initial response and then let it lie if the ignoramus persists – I should listen to myself more http://jfderry.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/rich-pickings/

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