Wars of the Word

Over the last few days I have been drawn into what should have been a constructive and lively debate, but in reality was immediately dominated and sabotaged by a single, blinkered antagonist. Their diatribe was unrelenting and wasteful of the opportunity to highlight yet another case of unprofessional science journalism in the media.
I really should have heeded the advice of @StephenFry and many others who are more social-media-hardened than I am, not to look at the comments. However, this individual, initially and at face value, seemed to be of a like mind and I had hoped for constructive debate. At least here, on my own blog, I can exercise a little judgement in what is allowed, to keep it a pleasant place for us all – criticism is very welcome, just keep it civil.
A blog at least gives people the ‘right of reply’. It is rare for a newspaper to ‘waste’ copy real estate for the purpose, and comments at the bottom of a page are often a jungle of misinformed misdirection, paraphrasing and obfuscation.
It’s not surprising then, when not given a proper forum for discourse to be voiced openly, review and revenge must piggyback on mechanisms already out there, and bitterness can become shrouded in double-talk and camouflaged ambush. Of course, when the online forum is entirely public and moderated by a third or remote party, then those websites are more susceptible to this kind of abuse. Amazon is a good example.
Earlier this year, in what is evidently, “a row that has scandalised the academic world”, Orlando Figes (Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, above left), falsely posted highly critical reviews on Amazon of books written by some of his fellow historians: of Rachel Polonsky’s (above middleMolotov’s Magic Lantern he wrote that it was, “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written”, and of Robert Service’s (above rightComrades that it “is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull …”. Figes’ own works he found strangely, “Beautifully written … leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted … with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever”. Figes is clearly enamored of himself. Unfortunately, the court wasn’t and he has since been ordered to pay damages and costs after a messy denial and exposure, and a subsequent libel hearing, and now finds himself with all the writing time he needs, on extended “sick leave”.
Another high profile Amazon review-enacted spat occurred even more recently. Philip Kerr (above left) seemingly objected to reviews appearing in sequential years in The Scotsman, for his A Quiet Flame (“enjoyable enough, good-quality airport fiction. But that’s all it is”) and If the Dead Rise Not (“This is fiction to pass the time”). As both reviews were written by Allan Massie (above right), Kerr used the Amazon review section associated with Massie’s The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain to lambast it and much of his previous publication history (“reads like a chapbook for one of Massie’s worthy but mostly unread novels”), adding “… Massie has reviewed my last two novels with a distinct lack of enthusiasm … I’m of the opinion that authors should avoid reviewing books of their peers and, usually, I stick to this principle, but I’ve made a special exception …”. Massie (who, I can confirm from my time at the Wigtown Book Festival recently, is as witty in real life) retorted, “For a professional writer to do this without a fee is agreeably unusual”.
It’s nothing new of course, professional rivalry between creatives probably started when cave-painters Ug accused Og of copying his mammoth’s tail, and has been raging ever since. A little later, Charles Darwin (above left) also fell foul of a fellow author, Richard Owen (above right), who reviewed his Origin of Species. Here is an excerpt from my Darwin in Scotland that recounts their falling out:
One of the most damning accusations that can be made of a scientist is plagiarism. By the time the Origin of Species was published, Owen already had been caught falsely claiming the discovery of a type of ‘belemnite’, an extinct group of molluscs closely related to modern squids. This serious offence cost Owen his places on the councils of both the Zoological Society and the Royal Society. Now, Owen was well known to be anti-evolution. So, when it came to his anonymous review in the Edinburgh Review of the Origin of Species in 1860, in which he suggested, in the third person, to have usurped Darwinian evolution by a full 10 years, the Darwinians were understandably outraged, particularly Huxley, Owen’s despised adversary over human origins. In contrast to his dealings with the abandoned Grant, when Owen attacked Darwinian evolution as presented in the Origin of Species, he found himself confronted by what essentially constituted a team of Darwin’s supporters. His ruse hadn’t worked, even though, for the purposes of subterfuge, Owen had fiendishly incorporated three of his own recent works, which he then proceeded to review, but was actually attempting to present evidence of an ongoing development in his evolutionary ideas:
In his last published work Professor Owen does not hesitate to state ‘that perhaps the most important and significant result of palæontological research has been the establishment of the axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things’ […] As to his own opinions regarding the nature or mode of that ‘continuous creative operation’, the Professor is silent. He gives a brief summary of the hypotheses of others, and as briefly touches upon the defects in their inductive bases. Elsewhere he has restricted himself to testing the idea of progressive transmutation by such subjects of Natural History as he might have specially in hand: as, e.g. the characters of the chimpanzee, gorilla, and some other animals.
Darwin, confused by the actions of his old friend, expresses deep hurt and humility when describing events to Asa Gray (1810–1888), his most ardent supporter in America:
Have you seen how I have been thrashed by Owen in last Edinburgh: he misquotes & misrepresents me badly, & how he lauds himself. But the manner in which he sneers at Hooker is scandalous, to speak of his Essay & never allude to his work on Geograph. Distribution is scandalous. When Hooker’s Essay appeared Owen wrote a note, which I have seen, full of strongest praise! What a strange man he is. All say his malignity is merely envy because my Book has made a little noise. How strange it is that he can be envious about a naturalist, like myself, immeasurably his inferior! But it has annoyed me a good deal to be treated thus by a friend of 25 years duration. He might have been just as severe without being so spiteful. Owen consoles himself by saying that the whole subject will be forgotten in ten years.
In confidence to Lyell, Darwin was more matter-of-fact, but still quite incredulous of Owen’s departures from reality:
I have very long interview with Owen, which perhaps you would like to hear about, but please repeat nothing. Under garb of great civility, he was inclined to be most bitter & sneering against me. Yet I infer from several expressions, that at bottom he goes immense way with us. He was quite savage & crimson at my having put his name with defenders of immutability. When I said that was my impression & that of others, for several had remarked to me, that he would be dead against me: he then spoke of his own position in science & that of all the naturalists in London, ‘with your Huxleys’, with a degree of arrogance I never saw approached. He said to effect that my explanation was best ever published of manner of formation of species. I said I was very glad to hear it. He took me up short, ‘you must not at all suppose that I agree with it in all respects’. I said I thought it no more likely that I shd be right on nearly all points, than that I shd toss up a penny & get heads twenty times running.
I asked him which he thought the weakest parts, he said he had no particular objection to any part. He added in most sneering tone if I must criticise I shd say ‘we do not want to know what Darwin believes & is convinced of, but what he can prove’. I agreed most fully & truly that I have probably greatly sinned in this line, & defended my general line of argument of inventing a theory, & seeing how many classes of facts the theory would explain. I added that I would endeavour to modify the ‘believes’ & ‘convinceds’. He took me up short, ’You will then spoil your book, the charm of(!) it is that it is Darwin himself ’. He added another objection that the book was too ‘teres atque rotundus’, that it explained everything & that it was improbable in highest degree that I shd succeed in this. I quite agree with this rather queer objection, & it comes to this that my book must be very bad or very good. Lastly I thanked him for Bear & Whale criticism, & said I had struck it out. ‘Oh have you, well I was more struck with this than any other passage; you little know of the remarkable & essential relationship between bears & whales’.
I am to send him the reference, & by Jove I believe he thinks a sort of Bear was the grandpapa of Whales! I do not know whether I have wearied you with these details which do not repeat to any one. We parted with high terms of consideration; which on reflexion I am almost sorry for. He is the most astounding creature I ever encountered.
All Darwin could do was declare in resignation and with regret: ‘The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about. It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me’.
The latest bitter rivalries to make the headlines are also scientists, and the events that surrounded the squabble were equally historic: James Watson (below left) and Francis Crick’s (below middle leftdiscovery of the DNA double helix. Their original papers detailing the structure are available to read as PDFs: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid and Genetical Implications of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid, both from 1953. The archive that holds these profoundly historic papers also has the complementary papers by Maurice Wilkins (below middle right), Alex Stokes and Herbert Wilson, and Rosalind Franklin (below right) and Raymond Gosling, all incredibly from the same year. The relations between those involved has been understood to have been fraught; can you imagine the reviews that might have been?
The tensions are now confirmed: some of Crick’s personal correspondence, known to exist but missing for years and thought to have been destroyed, has recently turned up amongst the papers of an office-sharing colleague, Sydney Brenner, himself also a Nobel laureate for his work on “genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death”, a subject touched on in my previous post.
The correspondence (spread across “nine archive boxes of correspondence, photographs, postcards, preprints, reprints, meeting programmes, notes and newspaper cuttings, dates from 1950 to 1976, the bulk from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s”) documents in more detail perhaps the pivotal, and certainly one of the first direct incidents that soured relations between the MRC Unit at King’s College, London (Wilkins & Franklin), and The Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge (Watson & Crick). And, once again, it involves the academic anathema of plagiarism.
The paper in Nature that describes the found letters, The lost correspondence of Francis Crick details how,
On 21 November 1951, Franklin described her latest results in a colloquium at King’s. Watson attended but left mistaken over the amount of water in the DNA structure … Watson’s order-of-magnitude underestimate of the water content led Crick to believe that there were very few possible structures for DNA and the right one might be found through model building alone … As soon as Franklin saw the model — a triple helix … she knew it was wrong.
This debacle precipitated a moratorium on further DNA work for Watson and Crick, who were doing no experimental work of their own. By most accounts, John Randall, the head of the MRC unit at King’s, and William Lawrence Bragg, his equivalent at the Cavendish, called this halt after a quiet chat. But the recovered papers reveal correspondence between Wilkins and Crick in parallel to — perhaps even in place of — direct communication between Randall and Bragg. Thus, on 11 December 1951 we find a typed letter from Wilkins to Crick … :
My dear Francis, I am afraid the average vote of opinion here, most reluctantly and with many regrets, is against your proposal to continue the work on n.a. [nucleic acids] in Cambridge. An argument here is put forward to show that your ideas are derived directly from statements made in the colloquium and this seems to me as convincing as your own argument that your approach is quite out of the blue … I think it most important that an understanding be reached such that all members of our laboratory can feel in future, as in the past, free to discuss their work and interchange ideas with you … I have much to gain by discussing my own work with you and after your attitude on Saturday begin to have very slight uneasy feelings in this respect.
It is likely that Wilkins wrote this on behalf of Randall, hence the formal tones. However, he followed it up later the same day with an strikingly more comradely handwritten note,
Dear Francis, This is just to say how bloody browned off I am entirely & how rotten I feel about it all & how entirely friendly I am (though it may possibly appear differently). We are really between forces which may grind all of us into little pieces … I had to restrain Randall from writing to Bragg complaining about your behaviour. Needless to say I did restrain him, but so far as your security with Bragg is concerned it is probably much more important to pipe down & build up the idea of a quiet steady worker who never creates ‘situations’ than to collect all the credit for your excellent ideas at the expense of good will.
The team dynamics at King’s were already fractured; Randall had omitted to formalise Franklin’s role in the department, leaving Wilkins and Gosling to feel that their control over the diffraction studies of DNA had been usurped. Crick and Watson sympathised with their male counterparts, writing in response to Wilkins,
Dear Maurice, Just a brief note to thank you for the letters and to try to cheer you up. We think the best thing to get things straight is for us to send you a letter setting out in a mild manner our point of view. This will take a day or so to do, so we hope you’ll excuse the delay. Please don’t worry about it, because we’ve all agreed that we must come to an amicable arrangement … so cheer up and take it from us that even if we kicked you in the pants it was between friends. We hope our burglary will at least produce a united front in your group! Yours ever Francis Jim
The abrasive Franklin and the shy Wilkins were never able to improve upon their relationship, even after Randall delegated their duties across the apparent two structures for DNA: the A- and B-forms. Wilkins favoured the B-form as it was likely helical. Franklin took the A-form and recorded results that suggested a non-helical structure, in contradiction to Wilkins who believed all DNA was helical. In what Wilkins no doubt thought of as a joke in very poor taste, Franklin and Gosling then presented him with a death notice for helical A-DNA:
Rosalindfranklinsjokecard

While Franklin was preparing to leave King’s for Birbeck, Wilkins was still searching for definitive evidence of a helical structure for his B-form. So when, towards her leaving, Gosling passed him the famous photograph 51 that provided that evidence and had been taken by Franklin some time beforehand, Wilkins was understandably frustrated, confiding in Crick,

My dear Francis, … The crystalline data is clearing up nicely. To think that Rosie had all the 3D data for 9 months & wouldn’t fit a helix to it and there was I taking her word for it that the data was anti-helical. Christ. …
and later wrote again to Crick, looking to better times ahead,
… Let’s have some talks afterwards when the air is a little clearer. I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes …
A week after this something happened that would dictate the future of biological science. On 30th January, 1953, Watson rushed to King’s with a manuscript that had arrived a couple of days before, describing a structure for DNA by Linus Pauling. There was a feeling of great competition with Pauling, and Watson and Crick knew his triple helix was wrong. So, when Watson couldn’t locate Wilkins, he burst in upon Franklin to help disentangle Pauling’s model.
No doubt still smarting from having previously been plagiarised by Watson, Franklin was uncooperative causing a scene. Watson backed away, straight into Wilkins who had come to investigate the commotion. Assessing the situation and likely biased by his own history with Franklin, Wilkins sided with Watson, revealing to him the all-important photograph 51. In this instance, animosity between colleagues had led to a rare positive outcome, and at what cost to Franklin?
If your confidence in the review system, and the peer-to-peer relations that may lead to its collapse, hasn’t been dented enough already by these cases, and by my previous posts, then perhaps the funniest (on-topic) response to Service’s self-serving [ahem] rant in the Guardian Comment is Free The shame of Orlando Figes may provide the final blow necessary, “… Grow a pair, for god’s sake. We’re talking about reviews on Amazon FFS. Nobody cares. There are eminent book publishers who keep my wife in a free supply of childrens’ books in return for writing this guff. It’s the way the world works”. What a world, eh?

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.
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4 Responses to Wars of the Word

  1. Pingback: Darlinks « The Dispersal of Darwin

  2. Kevin Acott says:

    Really enjoyed this- eye-opening and beautifully-written- thanks

  3. JFDerry says:

    That’s very kind, thank you Kevin. That’s a nice looking blog you have there yourself.

  4. Pingback: When Science and Lazy Journalism Collide | OSQUALITUDE

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