PZ Myers—biologist, academic, tireless crusader for science and reason, and proprietor of the weblog Pharyngula—is being sued for reviewing a book. The plaintiff, one Stuart Pivar, has charged PZ Myers and Seed Media with assault, libel, and slander.
Let’s go over that again: Pivar published a book; he got bad reviews; he’s charging assault. Yes, it really is that dumb. But speaking from experience, even if all you’ve got is a lackwit suing you on patently ridiculous grounds, it’s still damned irritating. (And sometimes funny. But irritating.)
Pivar thinks he’s come up with a revolutionary idea for how evolution works. He wrote a book about it, which he published in two versions, both attractively illustrated. The first, LifeCode: The Theory of Biological Self Organization, was reviewed in Pharyngula. The gist of PZM’s review:
I will say this: it is very pretty. Pivar has a website for the book, with some of the artwork on display. It’s visually striking stuff.When Pivar put out his second version of the book, PZM reviewed it too:
Unfortunately, it has almost nothing to do with reality. His theory (which is also explained on a website) is all about topological manipulations of embryonic forms, and he uses the artwork to show his models for how the embryo is distorted by physical forces to generate various structures…and they simply do not bear any relationship to cell and tissue movements in any embryo I’ve ever seen. …
I’m afraid all of these artistic inventions are in the service of a theory that is unappealing, uninteresting, and without the slightest bit of predictive power. Here is his idea, briefly: all cells and embryos are donuts, and how they turn themselves inside out determines their future morphology.
Pivar has put out a new version of his book, Lifecode: From Egg to Embryo by Self-Organization. I’m sorry to say it doesn’t address any of my criticisms, and is even worse. This is not a scientific theory, and it isn’t even a collection of evidence: it’s a jumble of doodles. I read through it all this afternoon (there really isn’t that much to read), and I have to conclude it says nothing about the development or evolution of biological organisms, although it is relevant to something else.If you’re tempted to criticize PZM for his unkindness, go read the reviews in full. Both of them fully engage with Pivar’s theories, and discuss them at length. PZM even finds a few kind things to say about the books. Really, they’re model reviews. Pivar’s only cause for dissatisfaction is that PZM comprehensively dismissed his theories: not grounds for legal action.
What seems to be new in the book is a set of experiments, of sorts. Pivar’s model of development has long been that we achieve the diversity of organismal form by starting with a torus, and that fluid movements and distortions of the toroid form lead to the more elaborate forms at the end of development. The donut is the unifying principle underlying everything (hmmm, makes one wonder if there is a tie-in to the new Simpsons movie). So what he’s done in this work is make some flexible plastic toroidal tubes filled with fluid and flexed them and twisted them, and taken some pictures. These balloons of fluid, as you might guess, buckle and wrinkle in predictable ways—ways that, in Pivar’s interpretation, leap to be represented as morphogenetic events. A tube that is bent, for instance, makes a series of wrinkles with an even distribution that look, very vaguely, like maybe you could pretend they are segments.
So he does pretend. At length.
… The doodles in this book bear absolutely no relationship to anything that goes on in real organisms, but after staring at them for a while, I realized what this book is actually about.
This book is a description of the development and evolution of balloon animals.
It’s that bad.
The case has been reported by Christopher Mims in Scientific American. Reduced to more or less its topic sentences, the piece says:
Stuart Pivar is a wealthy New York businessman who also was or at least claims to have been a close friend of noted evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould.This is either harassment or cluelessness. Whichever it is, Pivar’s lawyer is at fault for helping him pursue the case.
PZ has made a number of unfavorable but, on balance, not in my opinion excessively mean-spirited reviews of Pivar’s book.
Stuart responded by leaving a number of comments on PZ’s blog expressing his displeasure, and according to PZ:I’ve got a mailbox full of his frantic hallooing, some of which claims I “have transcended the barrier separating protected commentary from libel.”So, it looks like Mr. Pivar has made good on his threat to sue for libel. I’ve no doubt he believes he has a legitimate case, but of course the bar for proving libel under U.S. law is quite high.
There’s probably a lot of other things going on here, as well. For instance PZ (and CSICOP’s Intelligent Design Watch) have accused Pivar of being mixed up with the Intelligent Design movement. (I believe the exact word PZ used in describing Pivar was “crackpot.”)
A quick search of the database of the New York state court system reveals that since 1986, Stuart Pivar has been named as a plaintiff in 25 different cases filed with the New York State Unified Court System (and a defendant in two).
If it is a matter of cluelessness, I think we’re going to see more cases like it. A lot of people out there have some notion that the New York Times is allowed to make unfavorable remarks about their ideas or business practices or prospects for success, and that Library Journal and Publishers Weekly are allowed to print unkind reviews of their books; but they aren’t nearly as clear on the idea that webloggers can do it too.
Someone whom I believe is unconnected with the case has e-mailed me a .pdf of the complaint Stuart Pivar filed against PZ Myers and Seed Media Group. Apparently what set Pivar off was the use of the word “crackpot”. Tough noogies. Anyone can see it’s true.
I’m puzzled by “Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief and money damages for defamation and libel per se premised upon diversity of citizenship.” Wonder what that’s about.
Woo! Get this:
“Plaintiff discussed the LIFECODE project on numerous occasions with Professor Stephen Jay Gould, who, until his untimely death in May 2002, was working on a refutation of the fundamentalist Darwinian theory of evolution, a position of scientific orthodoxy that LIFECODE questions.”I have serious trouble imagining Stephen Jay Gould going along with a revolutionary theory of embryological development that doesn’t match anything we know about the actual development of embryos. It’s a good thing for Pivar that the dead can’t sue for libel.
Hmmm. Pivar says that his book was “reviewed” by an odd assortment of scientists. He says that PZM’s motives for calling him a crackpot can only have been malicious, since PZM knows that no such assortment of scientists would endorse or review a crackpot’s work. He seems to have no notion that PZM’s judgements might be based on scientific expertise, independent of anyone else’s endorsement of the book. Hang on, there’s something I need to do …
Yo, Stuart Pivar! You’re a crackpot. Yes, you are. Get used to it.
Back to the filing.
Pivar is asking for total damages of fifteen million dollars, plus PZ Myers has to take down those reviews. He says he’s been made to suffer humiliation, anxiety, emotional upset, public ridicule, public embarrassment, impairment of his good name, gross impairment to his professional reputation (as a manufacturer of plastic containers? I doubt it), and public impairment of his abilities and integrity. I say that if he’d really suffered all those things, the experience would have taught him the difference between impairment and disparagement.
This demonstrates once again, as if it needed demonstrating, that trying to retaliate for bad reviews is always a mistake. If Pivar had left the matter alone, some fraction of Pharyngula’s readers would have remembered PZM’s reviews of the books, and a much smaller fraction might have remembered Pivar’s name. Now he’s well on his way to becoming middling famous as the crackpot who sued PZ Myers. He has no one to blame but himself.
Read the entire filing (.pdf). (Thank you, Michael Weholt.)
Kathryn Cramer on Stuart Pivar and Andy Warhol.
Blake Stacey, in Science after Sunclipse, lays out the gory details, then says:
When I think of the people I’ve angered on the Internet, this kind of censorship-by-intimidation gives me pause … and then makes me want to load up on 1.21 jigawatts of caffeine and sound a barbaric yawp over the networks of the world.