Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Pedantic pedantry 1

OK, This is going to be an occasional series where I highlight where certain phrases or statements in the current science literature could have been . . . um . . . better thought through? Yes, better though through. Because as written, provides inadvertent fodder for the creationists/IDiots to quote mine.

Having some considerable experience with the various forms of creationism from Young Earth to ID, a common thread through most creationist claims is the misrepresentation of the scientific literature by taking short piece out of context or a single phrase or sentence to support their claims, when the piece as a whole clearly doesn’t. The creationist quote mine has been documented many times, and to be fair to creationists, is also employed by both AIDS deniers, and climate change deniers.

In order to starve the quote miners, authors need to be very careful in their phraseology. And so here is my contribution (every little helps, but this is also a case of those who can, write, those who can’t, contribute)

PP1 comes from:
Payne, J. L. et al. (2009) Two-phase increase in the maximum size of life over 3.5 billion years reflects biological innovation and environmental opportunity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(1): 24-27.

The paper discusses an increase in body volume of 16 orders of magnitude for living organisms over the last 3.5 billion years, with two pronounced jumps of approx. 6 orders of magnitude 1.9 billion years ago and between 600-450 million years ago hence my interest). It is claimed that these two jumps are related to increases in the ambient oxygen concentration.

The statement under consideration here is the concluding sentence of the conclusion:

The size increases appear to have occurred when ambient oxygen concentrations reached sufficient concentrations for clades to realize pre-existing evolutionary potential, highlighting the long-term dependence of macroevolutionary patterns on both biological potential and environmental opportunity.

*polite cough* (See – I’m being polite)

The problem here is the phrase pre-existing evolutionary potential.

I’m going to assume here that the authors (all 13 of ‘em) didn’t mean to imply that evolution pump-primed organisms with abilities and then waited around until the conditions in which those abilities would be useful, occurred. In other words, the ability of organisms to grow big occurred in anticipation of the right environments that would allow such growth – which is what creationists will claim it says. See they will say, scientists say organisms were provided with pre-existing abilities prior to those abilities being useful. Only God a Designer could do that.

Undoubtedly what the authors intended was to say, was that, as increasing oxygen levels expanded the area of morphospace available for evolution to operate in, some clades that acquiring separate features to scavenge oxygen from the environment (gills), and a mechanism to transport that oxygen deep into the tissues (circulatory system with some oxygen-hugging components)- which was very useful even at lower oxygen concentrations - evolve larger forms as the ambient oxygen concentration increased. And not, that the features previously mentioned evolved to take advantage of future increases in oxygen levels.

Please remember – as far as creationist quote miners are concerned, it’s the words that count, not the intent.


  1. I would say: "It's the words that count *every bit as much as* the intent."

    Good points here. Yes, we can not leave anything open to interpretation, because there are those who will interpret the way they want to - and claim that their way is the intended (and correct) way.

  2. I'm not in the business, but I don't think working scientists should be looking over their shoulders all the time, for fear of what some liar might make of their words (for one thing, the liars will always find something to lie about!) If that makes more work for Catshark & Co., well so be it.

  3. I don’t think it’s a question of looking over their shoulders. It’s more a quick read through to see if they have said something that can easily by ‘misinterpreted’. Especially, as in this instance, in the concluding paragraph – which is what most people will read, even if they don’t read the entire piece.

    So it’s more a last minute edit job, rather than something to consider throughout the writing process.


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