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August 20, 2007

12:19:42 pm, Categories: Life Sciences, Technology, I.D. and Creationism, 900 words

PZ Myers, ScienceBlogs.com's lead blogger, is being sued for libel

Talk about hot off the wires, the following was filed last Thursday, and if the lack of discussion of it on the usually endlessly self-examining ScienceBlogs is any indication, no one there has any idea about it either.

update - comments that just came in from PZ are at the end of this post

(I found this through the magic of google alerts, and full disclosure: I used to work for Seed and I recruited PZ to join ScienceBlogs.)

From Justia.com, aka your tax dollars at work (it's a database of federal district court filings):

v. Seed Media Group, LLC et al

Plaintiff: Stuart Pivar
Defendant: Seed Media Group, LLC and Paul Z. Myers

Case Number: 1:2007cv07334
Filed: August 16, 2007

Court: New York Southern District Court
Office: Foley Square Office [ Court Info ]
County: NewYork
Presiding Judge: Judge Shira A. Scheindlin

Nature of Suit: Torts - Injury - Assault, Libel, and Slander
Cause: 28:1332 Diversity-Injunctive & Declaratory Relief
Jurisdiction: Diversity
Jury Demanded By: Plaintiff

For those of you who don't know (and I'm guessing that most of you have no idea what the heck any of this is about, nor should you) here's the tale as well as I've been able to sort it out from PZ's varied, and quite frank, posts on the subject:

1. PZ Myers is the blogger behind the science blog Pharyngula. He's a developmental biologist, and his writings on the subject are lucid, enjoyable, even occasionally funny. When he's not writing about development and evolution, (or evo-devo) he's often on about his other favorite subject, the Richard Dawkins / nu-atheism movement. Which, as you might imagine, makes him rather controversial among folks who aren't on board with that particular ideology.

2. 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. Stuart recently came out with a book called Lifecode which, according to its Amazon page

represents the publication of a theory of biological self-organization based on the discovery of a unique geometric configuration with the property to generate the shape of all animal and plant form.

The theory of biological self-organization maintains that body form results from patterns arising in living tissue due to simple mechanical forces rather than by genomic code; the genes are responsible only for individual traits.

3. PZ has made a number of unfavorable but, on balance, not in my opinion excessively mean-spirited reviews of Pivar's book:

Lifecode

I've been reading a strange book by Stuart Pivar, LifeCode: The Theory of Biological Self Organization, which purports to advance a new idea in structuralism and self-organization, in competition with Darwinian principles....

I was disappointed.

I will say this: it is very pretty.

Lifecode: From egg to embryo by self-organization

Now Pivar has put out a new version of his book... I'm sorry to say it doesn't address any of my criticisms, and is even worse.

4. 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."

5. 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. Under libel law, Pivar's case is weakened by the fact that he is a public figure--he's written about in the New York Times and he wrote a book, after all.

6. 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.")

7. It's too bad this couldn't have been worked out some other way. I sincerely hope it doesn't have a chilling effect on the cantankerous dialog that is constantly swirling through the science blogging community... you know, that place where restraint is in short supply and you never have to guess what someone actually thinks of you, your work, your parentage or your politics.

addendum:

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).

UPDATE

From an e-mail from PZ:

Huh. I'd heard some noise from Pivar threatening to sue, but this is the first I've heard of any formal action being taken. Since I'm a defendant (one who hasn't been notified of his status!) I suppose I should just shut up at this point and let justice run its course.

Since I'm a blogger, though, I can't completely shut up. I will just say that this is Pivar's attempt to squash a negative review of his book, which I posted here. Nothing in the review was motivated by personal malice, and I actually am inclined to favor structuralist arguments in evolution ... but I'm afraid my honest assessment of Pivar's work is that it does not support his conclusions. I still stand by my review, and now I'm a bit disturbed that someone would think criticism of a scientific hypothesis must be defended by silencing its critics.


Posted by Christopher Mims · 16 comments   Permanent

1 - 15 of 16COMMENTS
Mark Palmer [Member] August 20, 2007 @ 3:02 pm writes:
If the Creation Museum is an example of how much money the ID'ers have, and the nonsense they spend it on, you may be in for a money draining ride.
Kimberly Riley [Member] August 20, 2007 @ 4:04 pm writes:
Good luck to PZ.
John Kingman [Member] August 20, 2007 @ 4:16 pm writes:
This is ridiculous. Where can we contribute to the defense fund?
GrrlScientist GrrlScientist [Member] August 20, 2007 @ 5:49 pm writes:
This guy sounds like a first rate lunatic who uses the legal system to bully people whose opinions are different from his own. If he can't tolerate a negative book review, then he shouldn't be writing books in the first place!
SA Smith [Member] August 20, 2007 @ 10:21 pm writes:
A frivolous lawsuit that effects everyone in the blogosphere-- writers AND readers. Bad form, Pivar. Im glad Pivars 'less than cognizant' comments on PZs blog are archived for everyone to read (including the courts), and I hope PZ saved Pivars emails. Good luck, PZ and SciBlogs!
Russell Seitz [Member] August 21, 2007 @ 9:06 am writes:
Meanwhile , back in Constantinople, as it was called before evlving intoIstanbul, the Turkish NeoCreo whom Meyers styled a crackpot has secured an injunction shutting down access to a million Wordpress blogs on the strength of critical comments in one of them-- http://adamant.typepad.com/
John Bennett [Member] August 21, 2007 @ 12:38 pm writes:
I would also be interested in contributing to a PZ defense fund.
Paul Mitchell [Member] August 21, 2007 @ 1:54 pm writes:
Truth is an absolute defense against the allegation of libel. By forcing PZ's hand to defend his opinion Pivar cannot help but be hoisted by his own petard. A libel suit for being called a crank is an unwise course of action when your view on a particular point are outside the scientific mainstream.
J McH [Member] August 22, 2007 @ 10:16 am writes:
PZ is an arrogant bigot. It's about time someone took him to task for his obnoxious statements. Unfortunately, successful or not, this lawsuit won't change PZ's behavior. It will only embolden him.
Ray Ladbury [Member] August 22, 2007 @ 10:30 am writes:
J. McH. If you don't like PZ's blog, don't read it. But for God's sake DO NOT clog up the already backlogged courts with a frivolous lawsuit that will only bring your own foolishness to ridicule. There are a lot of fools out there who claim to be doing science while having no clear understanding of what science is. Such charlatans should be exposed, and if one can do it in a humorous vein, so much the better.
Matt Richards [Member] August 22, 2007 @ 1:22 pm writes:
Pivar gripe seems legit. Even argumentative PZ Meyer can't libel someone as "crackpot" because you don't like their theory - which by the way seems interesting, at least, I visited www.annconvenienttruth.com and pursued part of Pivar's LifeCode theory.
Matt Richards [Member] August 22, 2007 @ 2:14 pm writes:
As an attorney I can tell you Pivar has every right to sue PZ Meyer and may well prevail. And by the way, shame on PZ for trying to censor an interesting, if unconventional theory, in science community. shows part of the book in question and it seems of interest to this non-scientist Atlegalbar
Ed Smith [Member] August 22, 2007 @ 3:20 pm writes:
Seriously, can anybody but a Pivar sock puppet read those reviews and the exerpts and figures from the book and NOT question his credibility?.
Jud Fink [Member] August 22, 2007 @ 3:30 pm writes:
As an attorney I can tell you my opinion is that Matt Richards' opinion on the merits of Pivar's suit ain't worth much. Re Richards' comment, "shame on PZ for trying to censor [Pivar]," I am mystified as to how PZ's publicizing of Pivar's theories can be characterized as censorship.
Kimberly Riley [Member] August 23, 2007 @ 10:29 am writes:
Wait... I don't have a law degree, but I did end up in a class taught by someone who had a law degree in constitutional law. She was very good at it.. but anyway, the point was, I remember some court cases on slander. My understanding was that you could only call slander if it was done knowing it was lie and with the intent of causing grievous harm. For example, woman A hates woman B and so woman A photo shops a bunch of pictures of woman B stealing things, has them published, and it causes woman B to lose her job. That would be slander. But, if woman A meet woman B on the street and called her a nitwit, that is not slander, because most logical people could tell that they just don't like one another. I mean, if calling someone crackpot will get you labeled for slander, then all the fifth graders on the playground who call one another 'doo doo heads' should be charged with slander also. I mean really, that's what this feels like, a little child running to Mommy to tattle that another kid called him a mean word. Fact is, what PZ wrote was a book review and you cannot control, nor tell, other people what they should think. This is what freedom of speech protects, opinions. And any reasonable person who gets onto PZ's site knows that these are opinions. What Pivar has to prove is that PZ wrote the article with the intent of causing grievous harm. Such as, prove that after PZ's words where published, book sales went down, and PZ knew ahead of time that would happen. And, the book sale drop not be because of other reasons, such as stores not wanting them anymore. Least, that's how I understand the law to work.

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