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Pigliucci Deceit Drags Publisher Into Big Muddy

Pigliucci Deceit Drags Publisher Into Big Muddy

By Suzan Mazur

After a two-week review of the following letter, the University of Chicago Press has advised "Via Electronic Mail" and their legal counsel that they stand by their man, Massimo Pigliucci, and will neither remove his junk science book from circulation nor stop public readings from it. They failed to address ANY of the specific points I raise below in their response to me.

"Perry Cartwright
Manager, Contracts & Subsidiary Rights
University of Chicago Press

Russell J. Herron, Esq.
Associate General Counsel
University of Chicago

Re: Removal of Massimo Pigliucci's Book from Circulation

Dear Messrs. Cartwright and Herron:

A book published by University of Chicago Press and written by Massimo Pigliucci, entitled Nonsense on Stilts , targets me unfairly in a five-page media section in an attempt by Pigliucci to discredit me and my work as a journalist, a career that began 40 years ago and includes significant contributions to some of the world's most respected news organizations. I object to being included in such a book and specifically to being the focus of Massimo Pigliucci's malicious attack. It is unclear what Pigliucci's motive is, but in his attempt to diminish me and my work through his twisted and disingenuous statements, he casts a very serious shadow on his own reputation both academically and as a man, and does a disservice to science. Pigliucci's misconduct also calls into question whether he is competent to teach with regard to morals and ethics at Lehman College, where he currently heads the philosophy department.

I've been told by the University of Chicago Press that no one there fact-checked Massimo Pigliucci's book. I am asking that the Pigliucci book be removed from circulation. Such a book should have been reviewed by University of Chicago Press lawyers before ever going to the printer. The public expects academic excellence from a university press publication not libelous trash. I am also requesting that you advise Massimo Pigliucci to cease and desist from further derogatory public statements with regard to me and my work and to stop any scheduled readings you have organized for him with regard to his junk science book. Further, I am requesting that you advise Massimo Pigliucci that I seek a public apology from him.

I am also requesting that Lehman College stop all scheduled readings from Pigliucci's junk science book, including the one now scheduled for September, and that Massimo Pigliucci be counseled to cease and desist from further derogatory public statements with regard to me and my work.

At issue are the following points in Massimo Pigliucci's book:

1. Pigliucci titles the five-page section under discussion (pages 99-103), "The Altenberg 16: Conspiracy Theories by and for the Media".

Pigliucci is referring to the July 2008 conference in Altenberg, Austria of 16 biologists and philosophers who met to discuss an extended evolutionary synthesis, pertaining to events beginning 500 million years ago. It was Pigliucci who first promoted the symposium as "a major stepping stone for the entire field of evolutionary biology" in a written invitation to these 16 scientists in early 2008. The invitation was later emailed to me from Konrad Lorenz Institute, host of the workshop -- without restriction -- and I then circulated the invitation on the Internet in March 2008 because of intense public interest.

So if Pigliucci is referring to himself as the "chief villain in the story" (emphasis added) on page 99 of his book -- that statement is true.

2. Pigliucci states at the top of page 100: "I met for coffee with an independent journalist, Suzan Mazur, who had called me a few days earlier saying that she worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer".

I called Massimo Pigliucci in February 2008 introducing myself as a freelance journalist researching a story for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Except for my first years in publishing at Hearst Magazines, decades ago -- when my science and outdoors columns circulated to over a million people around the world -- I have always contributed stories on a freelance basis and never would have told Pigliucci that I was "a regular employee" of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as he notes on page 100.

3. Pigliucci also states at the top of page 100 that I told him I was "working on a story on evolution and its critics". He writes: "I wanted to clearly explain why intelligent design is not science, on the other, I was aware that the journalist had only an approximate grasp of the matter under discussion and that very likely the article would come out as a combination of quasi-accurate statements and things that I had not actually said or meant."

I tape all my formal interviews, and Pigliucci agreed to be taped.

The evolution debate I called Pigliucci to discuss was the controversy surrounding self-organization and the physical approach to evolution -- not intelligent design.

Regarding my journalistic credentials. I was an education major (Biology) for two years in college. I began my writing career as a science journalist 40 years ago at Hearst Magazines. Through the years I've contributed feature articles about science to The Economist, Financial Times, Archaeology, Omni, Connoisseur, Solar Age and others. Among the highlights: In the late 1970s, I investigated solar energy at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. In 1980, I flew into Olduvai Gorge to interview paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey re evolution and interviewed scientists elsewhere in East and West Africa. In 1981, I interviewed scientists in subSaharan Africa. And at the French Space Agency in Paris. I reported on earthquakes and seismology in Guatemala. Archaeology in Colombia and Turkey. In the early 1980s, heading a solar energy film project, my crew and I were invited by the Swedish government and the Saudi Arabian National Center for Science and Technology to research a television documentary on solar energy villages in those two countries; I was a guest on Saudi-TV in Riyadh discussing the project. During the Gulf War I broke a fetal-to-fetal transplant [surgery] story. Etc.

My book, The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry (North Altantic Books), which includes the stories Pigliucci derides, has a cover endorsement by the world's most respected public intellectual, Noam Chomsky, which reads as follows: "Very glad to see the book. I suspect it should have some (very much needed) influence now against the background of the "evo-devo revolution" and the belated recognition of Margulis's work."

I've also covered the wars -- Gulf War, Colombian Drug War, Sudan, Kashmir (from both sides of the CFL/LOC). Been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News shows. My television reports on human rights and politics have aired on PBS, CBC, MBC and Fox.

4. In the second paragraph on page 100, Massimo Pigliucci states the following: "Before leaving the coffeehouse, she had asked me what I was up to during the summer, and I casually mentioned some travel plans, including a workshop on the status of evolutionary theory I was organizing in Altenberg (Austria, near Vienna) with the logistical and financial support of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research (KLI)."

One of the reasons I decided to meet with Pigliucci was that he first pitched to me over the phone that he was organizing a conference in Europe in July about new evolutionary thinking. Again, I taped our conversation at Pret-a-Manger; it is a self-service cafeteria chain -- not a "coffeehouse" as Pigliucci describes it. During that taped conversation Pigliucci again took the opportunity to plug the symposium he was co-organizing at Altenberg. Following the taped conversation, Pigliucci urged me to contact the organizers of the symposium in Europe to see if they were inviting journalists to cover. Here's the partial transcript:

"Suzan Mazur: Are we talking a revision or are we talking about what Jerry Fodor's saying: "All I'm wanting to argue is that whatever the story turns out to be, it's not going to be the selectionist story."

Massimo Pigliucci: I think he's probably dead wrong on that one. Selection is here to stay. Natural selection fundamental principle we know it works. We can see it. We can measure it on a daily basis in living organisms both in controlled conditions and in the field. So to say that natural selection is out of the picture seems to me to discard literally thousands and thousands of empirical papers. And I don't think anybody can afford to do that, let alone Fodor who is actually not trained, apparently is not familiar with that literature.
So, a rejection of natural selection is misleading and in fact erroneous. That is not to say, however, that we don't need a lot of other stuff to work with natural selection to really have a comprehensive understanding of our evolution.

Suzan Mazur: And then to bring together these different fields to talk to one another.

Massimo Pigliucci: Right. That's what I call the extended evolutionary synthesis would be looking like.

Suzan Mazur: Are you talking about this in your new book as well or no?

Massimo Pigliucci: You mean the one that I'm writing?

Suzan Mazur: The one that you're writing now.

Massimo Pigliucci: No that one is for the general public. That has very little to do with this -- these are technical issues. But there will be in July this year -- I think I mentioned to you -- there will be a symposium in Vienna that I helped organize on asking a bunch of theoretical and empirical biologists what do they think about the possibility of a new evolutionary synthesis. And MIT is going to publish the proceedings of that the following year -- 2009. (emphasis added)
Which I guess is also fitting because it's the 150th anniversary of Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species. So it's going to be a big year actually.

Suzan Mazur: Yes and I think also because of the politics changing here, well everywhere, but what's happening here especially.

Massimo Pigliucci: Yes, we might be looking at a very different landscape politically.

Suzan Mazur: Much more positive.

Massimo Pigliucci: From my perspective, yes. [The conversation moves on to a discussion of philosophy and science.]"

5. Also in the second pararaph on page 100 Pigliucci writes: "The first of what turned out to be a series of articles by Mazur featuring me and several of my colleagues came out on 4 March, not in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but rather in a dubious online outlet based in New Zealand called Scoop (a publication that proudly announces that it does not edit anything that it publishes). The title of the article was "Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?". To my astonishment, Mazur had essentially ignored everything I told her in over almost an hour of chat and instead focused on the last five minutes of our conversation."

The Philly piece was ultimately stopped because of internal politics at the paper. But while the Philly piece was still being discussed, and following my successful series of articles on antiquities looting syndicated by the New Zealand news agency Scoop Media -- 15 stories of which Harvard Law School included in its 2008 Art Law Seminar -- I decided to begin posting a rethinking evolution series on Scoop as well. Pigliucci calls Scoop "dubious" because it doesn't edit (censor) stories.

The first story post was March 4, 2008 (NZ time), titled "Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?" with coverage of scientists invited to Altenberg and some leading scientists not invited, like Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge, Stuart Kauffman and Michael Lynch. The story that Massimo Pigliucci now describes as "hodge-podge" in his book on page 101, paragraph 2, reflects the widely different perspectives in evolutionary thinking among leading scientists. As complexity pioneer Stuart Kauffman told me: "There are people spouting off as if we know the answer [re the process of evolution]. We don't know the answer."
"Altenberg! The Woodstock of Evolution?" story drew a large audience. And Pigliucci sent me an email shortly after the story posted saying the following:

very nice article indeed!
(emphasis added)

Some hours later when the intelligent design bloggers (some of the most vigorous re evolution) began to comment online about the piece, however, Pigliucci sent this email to all 16 invited Altenberg scientists with a CC to me:


well, it was inevitable, but Paul Nelson, of the ID "think tank" The Discovery Institute, picked up Suzan's article and ran with it:

6. Because the evolution pieces I circulated via Scoop drew a substantial audience, I decided to gather them into a book: The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry
The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry. It largely consists of straight forward Q&As with some of the foremost evolutionary thinkers about the need to reformulate the theory of evolution. While the book opens with the backdrop of the Altenberg symposium, which again covered events beginning 500 million years ago, it includes discussions with NASA astrobiologists about the origin of life, as well, an interview with Presidential Medal of Science recipient Lynn Margulis, one with Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, Rockefeller University president Paul Nurse, science philanthropist David H. Koch, even one with Richard Dawkins.

7. On page 103 Mr. Pigliucci states that I said his wife was a former adventurer. He says she was not. But it is public record that she was:

"Never one to sit still, Gillian Dunn once quit college to sail the South Pacific, hitching rides on strangers' schooners and tracing the Pacific Rim. Exotic travel was the norm for Ms. Dunn. . ." -- Michael M. Grynbaum / New York Times/4/20/2008: "Vows -- Gillian Dunn and Massimo Pigliucci"

Times reporter Michael Grynbaum confirmed to me last week that neither Massimo Pigliucci nor his wife has ever voiced objection to him about that statement.

8. Pigliucci states I wrote that his wife was a former director of the International Rescue Committee. He says she was not. But it is public record that she was:

"The Peace Corps followed, and finally a job in Manhattan with the International Rescue Committee, where she became the director of emergency preparedness and response." -- Michael M. Grynbaum/New York Times/4/20/2008: "Vows -- Gillian Dunn and Massimo Pigliucci"
Times reporter Michael Grynbaum confirmed to me last week that neither Massimo Pigliucci nor his wife has ever objected to his report that Pigliucci's wife became "the director of emergency preparedness and response" for the International Rescue Committee.

9. Massimo Pigliucci states on page 103 that he did not flee following his talk at the library (which I taped). There were roughly 45 people attending the event -- others did see him immediately exit. There was no chance to question Pigliucci informally following the event because Pigliucci left the room. I'm not aware of any announcement at the gathering about a dinner -- I was not personally invited.

10. Massimo Pigliucci writes on page 103 paragraph 2: "The Mazur Scoop story is remarkable not for its consequences (it had virtually none), but because it allowed me a rare glimpse from the inside of the development of a journalist's behavior once she thought (mistakenly) that she was onto something big. The fact that serious media outlets got interested in the story as soon as the Mazur article was out also makes one appreciate how thin the boundary is between not only science and pseudoscience, but journalism and pseudojournalism."

Massimo Pigliucci's Altenberg colleagues are not all on the same page with his conservative thinking. New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman in an interview with me for Archaeology magazine said this:

"I believe that the field will have to reorient I don't by any means think the science that's been done under the Darwinian paradigm will disappear or will be seen to be entirely invalid. But the Darwinian mechanism that's used to explain all evolutionary change will be relegated, I believe, to being just one of the several mechanisms - maybe not even the most important when it comes to understanding macroevolution, the evolution of major transitions in body type."

And Richard Lewontin's New York Review of Books article "Not So Natural Selection" commenting favorably on Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's book What Darwin Got Wrong is also telling, a book Pigliucci termed "misguided" in his review in Nature magazine. In the NYRB article, Richard Lewontin also noted the lack of civility among evolutionary thinkers.

11. Massimo Pigliucci writes in his book on page 103 that "[s]cientists have an ethical duty to the public to explain what they do and why."

It is peculiar that Pigliucci, a scientist with the distinction of three PhDs, chooses to wade in the Big Muddy. Some of Pigliucci's colleagues have also expressed to me that they find his ongoing tactics highly objectionable.

I await your response following your conference with Massimo Pigliucci about this serious matter.

Yours sincerely,
Suzan Mazur"


Suzan Mazur is the author of Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur's reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr @

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