Science Fame: Million Dollar Minutes

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"Art is What You Can Get Away With." -- Andy Warhol

Scienceblogs' scientist PZ Myers of Pharyngula, one of the first and most entertaining science bloggers, was recently sued for 15 million dollars by Stuart Pivar because of Myers' scathing review of Pivar's book. The 2005 review is here, and an updated review from last month is here. On behalf of Myers, Lawyer Peter Irons wrote a response to Pivar here. Pivar dropped the suit -- but until then feverish speculation and analysis prevailed on some blogs. 'It will be dismissed' some said. 'It's groundless' everyone agreed. But there was also unexpected and deafening silences from other corners, as if a cold wind had blown through some warm cozy blogospheric goodness. Some just had no comment. But others asked, what if people start suing individual bloggers?

What if? Would all bloggers just go quiet? Really? No. If it weren't Seed and a famous blogger, would there be any point of a suit? No. So what's the suit really about? We conclude that from Pivar's history, he's seeking fame, but what does Myers get? Well, fame from being sued. And interestingly, even though Myers tears Pivar's book book apart for being non-sciency, why does he not question Lynn Margulis's anti-science ideas?

How do fame and science mix and confuse science understanding?

Who The Heck is Stuart Pivar?

When I first tried to search for "Pivar" and "science" I came up empty-handed. Google asked me if I meant "Pixar", as in Pixar Entertainment? "Picar"? "Piper"? My search terms were wrong and as it turns out "science" was throwing off the results. Well-known in art and New York Society circles, Pivar is often associated with famous people, sometimes deceased -- like Andy Warhol and Diana Vreeland. He has been featured in popular magazines, like the New York Times "Public Lives" section, and in New York tabloids' "celebrities" sections for over 30 years.

In 1975, Newsweek profiled Pivar, who at the time was curating a show on "Schlock Art" (not an insult, apparently). In 1979 he paid $223,250 for a rare sabre-tooth tiger skull to add to his collection of skeletons and bones. Then he spent oodles of time and money delving into the provenance of a life sized statue called "Roman Bronze Boy" a fake, as it turned out.

He strives to be the highest bidder: "'This is an excellent painting,'" Pivar exclaimed...a W.C.M. [world-class masterpiece.]'" (Boston Globe, March 22, 2000), referring to art painted by live elephants for a foundation that teaches Asian elephants to paint. The foundation also develops "an affordable line of non-toxic quality paints for use by elephants and caretakers as well as underprivileged children in developing countries". Claudia Steinberg once interviewed Pivar (NYT September 9, 2004), on decorating and noted his "'grand tone"', as if he mastered "'the effectiveness of pontification.'" Pivar pontificated:

"'Every time I see an example of something that is better than what I own, I buy it... otherwise for the rest of my life I have to live with the knowledge that someplace in the world something is floating around that is better than mine, and that's intolerable.'''

This is the artist who sued Myers. He sues frequently. He targets a variety of people and organizations and was once called "'an institutional stalker"' by the president of the New York Academy of Art. (The New York Post, June 20, 1998). After suing the Academy (which he had founded), he showed up one night at their "Take Home a Nude fundraiser", which the Post described as: "flesh-filled works". Since Pivar had sued the association, he was unwelcome, in fact "barred at the door, then thrown down into a puddle". "'Ass over teakettle'", Pivar told the Post. He slapped the Academy with a suit for assault. Then he dropped the suit.

Perhaps the culture of New York artistes differs from that of scientists'? Somehow PZ and Pharyngula figured into Pivar's marketing plan. But it's odd that someone who pursues fame so relentlessly, who has so many well-connected friends, can't simply get himself listed as an expert on the internet somewhere

Pivar certainly must not have looked too closely at the articulate, analytical, opinionated, sarcastic, and biting Pharyngula blog before jumping in. Gauging the landscape, I would think twice before submitting a book for review there. But knowing that Pivar lives with "wallcovering of rose-gold silk brocade" and hundreds of art objects ( NYT, September 9, 2004), I wouldn't solicit his opinion about some things either, like design or my attitudes towards pursuing fame. So Pivar expected a cordial reception from Myers?

Although, true, Myers blog Pharyngula gave controversial scientist Lynn Margulis a very welcoming reception when he hosted her earlier this year. And in a way Lynn Margulis is to science, I suppose (minus the endosymbiotic theory and some other things) what Pivar is to art.

Mastering Fame In Science -- Your 15 Minutes? Again?

Dr. Lynn Margulis is renowned for cell biology she did 15, 20, 30 or so years ago on endosymbiotic theory. She's earned plenty of street cred -- of the science type, both for her science and writing. But she's also well-known for putting forth "non-traditional" ideas, like:

"In the nerve cell, the axons and the dendrites that make the physical connections that allow us to communicate are latter-day spirochetes. Nerve cells, having long ago discarded the rest of the spirochete body, use the fundamental motility system of spirochetes. Think of the nerve as coming from what had formerly been a bacterium, 'trying' but unable to rotate and swim. Thought involves motility and communication, the connection between remnant spirochetes. All I ask is that we compare human consciousness with spirochete ecology."1

You can imagine a simple schematic that suggests the relationship.

Of course all fame - science, art or blogging - demands selective use of charm. And to her credit, given Pharyngula's on-line chat forum, Margulis was charming and gamely mastered the medium, tutoring the likes of a participants with handles like "Hairhead" on her theories.

Be Charming, Claim You're the Underdog, "Don't Worry What They Write About You...."

Margulis is well-established and somewhat revered, so she didn't hesitate to use this opportunity to forward her harebrained and controversial ideas. With PZ Myers moderating, Margulis insisted that the HIV virus doesn't cause AIDS, citing a Harper's article published last year. However the Harpers article was roundly dismissed by scientists, public health and policy experts as well as AIDS patients and activists around the world (PDF).

Margulis persisted - If HIV did cause AIDS why didn't the CDC respond to her written demand for proof? This is a weak argument. The feigned helplessness from Margulis is laughable. Here's a woman who with tenacity, research skills, and dare I say -- balls -- unearthed obscure microbiology references from 19th century Russian publications, compared these to modern paradigms for cell evolution, then successfully challenged scientists to accept symbiosis theory.

Don't underestimate her feat in establishing symbiosis theory. But think, when listening critically to Margulis's argument, about HIV now. The CDC explains HIV virus and AIDS here. NIH explains everything here. Given her mastery of chat and her previous investigative work, do you believe her Google search skills are so lacking that she needs to resort to 1960's communications in sending snail-mail letters?

When Science is What You Can Get Away With

Reading the Margulis post on the Myers blog and the chat that he hosted, it's hard to tell if PZ would have axed anything under his "no-trolling" rule. These forums tend to go sideways anyway after hundreds of comments, not just because of trolls, but because people don't know basic science. Reading the Pharyngula blog comments transcript was like watching a parade while a posse of kids fights in front of you to retrieve gumdrops that rolled on the ground. In other words, Margulis got off lightly with her anti-science ideas.

Myer's "moderated" forum enforced civility that drifted to intellectual stupor. Originally, the subject sounded promising, but Margulis ably chose what to talk about. It was certainly not a place where an "open exchange" could occur, rather it was a place where she could get coverage for her crazy ideas. Margulis is savvy and used PZ Myers' forum well. Pivar, obviously, played his unique hand with Myers differently, with less successful results.

Margulis knows how to get her ideas across because she knows the rules of the game and isn't afraid to make her own. Scientists employ well established rules of engagement in academia. There is an old adage that the feuds are intense in academia because the stakes are low -- that is the financial stakes. Not true so much anymore, but unlike art, apparently, scientists generally don't sue fellow scientists. It never made sense because there was nothing to gain -- " Watch out, I'll confiscate all your test tubes!" Science fame is achieved with intelligence and/or least creating that image (to the point of intimidation). Equally powerful tools are words, wit, aplomb, and most of all, renown from previous accomplishments -- all attributes that Margulis deploys with rigor.

Margulis relishes controversy and slings mud far better than most people, a well-honed and essential skill. She has maligned molecular biologists (who she felt threatened her cell biology) for various things, particularly being reductionist. Margulis also criticized evolutionary biologists for ignoring chemistry and microbiology in evolution and chided developmental biologists for not understanding important components of evolution like geology. She refused to talk to journalists because she said they always misrepresent her ideas. Nowadays she decries online sources who she claims distort her theories. Famously, despite her formidable offense skills, she forever portrays herself as someone who has been pushed in a mud puddle.

Scientists' methods of acquiring prestige are not to be underestimated because it's these skills as well as their research that make and break careers. (Of course this is so, but the stereotypes are different.) These skills help hold scientists and lay audiences in hypnotized sway. Clearly Pivar's background makes him pathetic at science combat skills. I mean if you attain fame by being the highest bidder on art made by elephants with their trunks, which you refer to with cute acronyms like "W.C.M." for "world class masterpiece", and if your biggest publicity stunt takes the form of a lawsuit, think again before messing with scientists. Forget the image of pocket-protectors -- modern successful scientists have overcome far more adversity in the lab and in the politics doing science than you ever will by falling in a mud puddle "ass over teakettle" at a art show featuring nude paintings.

Crackpot Science or Breaking Science? "It may not be Raining. They may be Spitting on Us." -- attributed to Warhol

Scientists can be eccentric, though, like artists. The difference is, when scientists mutter poetry or mismatch socks it adds to their mystique -- just like Einstein. So who's a crank? Eccentric? Margulis herself observes how "'it's easy to be dismissed as a "crank" or "on the fringe"'. Unlike the artist new to the science party, however, Margulis's past publications give her the leeway to tell us that what looks like "crank" theory is really a new, unappreciated breaking science. She brandishes the ghost of Thomas Kuhn to throw doubt on all our rock solid reality-based paradigms. She uses her fame and suggests to people that people will discount any idea but paradigms are shattered to reveal new truths.

So if one is a lay-person, how do you tell science from pseudo-science? It's tricky. Obviously, if the person doesn't have an established biography in science, it's easy to doubt their credibility. But what about scientists? PZ might say the Margulis exchange was an open forum, and indeed some people asked pointed questions. But did the warm reception send a mixed message to those who don't know or who swoon before fame rather than examining each new science proposal with equal amounts of analysis or skepticism?

It used to be that scientists didn't so often enter the public forum. They didn't blog. In 2000, James Glanz of the New York Times wrote in "Geniuses, Crackpots and a Grand Unified Theory" that interactions between scientists and the public used to occur only when the public wanted to appropriate scientists' ideas, or when they engaged scientists in their own crazy theories.

We still aren't entirely comfortable with scientists, and vice-versa. Margulis contends that new-age Gaia people misinterpret and missappropriate the science behind her's and Lovelock's ideas. But if scientists deeply doubt the public's ability to understand science, this challenges any layperson who would doubt scientists.

Artists and Bloggers, "...Measure [Criticism] in Inches." -- Warhol

The current political climate, in which fear dominates politics, drives people to faith and speculative pie in the sky theories. But at the same time the fame culture drives bloggers to be somewhat "controversial" just to get an audience. Many science bloggers want to expose readers to solid science and give them some sort of arsenal to distinguish good from bad. Yet paradoxically, to attract an audience, blogs need to entertain and be very popular. So Myers devotes himself to anti-religion, anti-alternative medicine, and anti-fringe science screeds, but welcomes someone who denies HIV causes AIDS? How is the public going to make sense of this?

Conflict is entertaining, as those who seek fame know. Margulis has mastered this. Pivar has cultivated a combative image in the art world but fell flat on his face in science. And certainly PZ has gathered admirers of his skilled rhetorical obliteration of science "foes".

So for Myers' own fame, it makes sense to engage cordially with Dr. Lynn Margulis, a famous scientist. He allows questions under a "no trolls" policy. But who is a troll in PV's world? Myers interestingly and controversially doesn't challenge her anti-science ideas, although his entire blog is devoted to attacking religion, alternative medicine, and "anti-science" ideas. And of course Pharyngula agrees to review the self-published book of Stuart Pivar, a famous art collector, and does so in a frank and comedic way. Pharyngula is popular, Margulis gets more than her 15 minutes, and -- Pivar? -- sorry. And for the public? Just do know, dear layperson, that the HIV viruses, not, say, intergalactic forces, cause AIDS.

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1 Margulis, Lynn and Hinkle, Gregory, "The Biota and Gaia: 150 Years of Support for Environmental Sciences," in Schneider, Stephen Henry and Boston, Penelope J. (eds.), Scientists on Gaia (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991): 11-18.

4 Comments

I wouldn't have thought to link Margulis' recent ideas with this guy.The blogs are still largely silent. Is it more than just the last week of August?

The question in my mind is - how can regular readers, or even scientists in other disciplines effectively assess claims made by scientists (or quacks posing as bona-fide scientists)? Perhaps the answer is that the only recourse one has is to study their writing, and/or study data - but who has time for that? That's how the Korean doctor - Hwang made all those false claims about cloned stem cells: nobody was properly evaluating his science. And when a scientist is on the cusp of a breakthrough, what's the first thing you have heard from many other scientists: criticism about supposed "bad science" - just bias in the guise of informed criticism. We're too impatient and focused on trivia, as a society.

Thanks for your comment. You make good points, though the Hwang situation was a little different. Their bad data required roguish work by the lab that eluded the publisher (it happens) but was then caught. Journals do try to be vigilant, especially with "high risk" areas of research, as Science put it after the incident.

To me, more insidious deceptions include conflict of interest, bias, or in this circumstance, where a trusted forum like MSM (or here, Pharyngula) is used to circumvent the scrutiny of peer review and journal publishing (albeit w/ all it's faults). In this situation, there are thousands of papers that establish the link between HIV and AIDS, and Margulis argues that this research basically doesn't exist, and is given a forum (Pharyngula), which is respected for flushing out bad science (even more insidious and ironic).

I saw an article in the New York Times today: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/fashion/02blog.html?ex=1346385600&en=8b94c677c244df39&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss
Quote from the article:

"Many publishing houses have now hired Web-savvy publicists or outside blog tour “producers.” Some blog tour producers say they have, from time to time, paid bloggers to review an author’s book as part of a tour. Bloggers may or may not reveal this detail. Producers also say they may try to dissuade bloggers who want to post a negative review. But in general, negativity is hard to find on a blog book tour. Gushiness — on the part of authors, bloggers and readers — is not."

Authors are doing "book tours" via blogs for self-promotion; and of course Pharyngula is promoting his blog just as much as the controversial scientist he had on was promoting herself. Pharyngula was promoting himself cracking on Mr. Rich Art Guy. All these bloggers are really really busy promoting themselves and growing that web traffic. If a blogger gets an established scientist on, of course they're thrilled about the "scoop" and they aren't gonna TRY to piss them off by attacking their strange ideas. But, as you point out, if someone with no science blogger street cred or relevant google-tracks sounds funny then it's open season. Nothing to lose.

Nothing to lose that is until they get a mound of legalese with a rather large dollar amount attached to it in the mail. Having to deal with this is probably the secret closet fear of many a brash, loud, devil-may-care blogger persona, who in reality -- in real life -- is just trying to fight off carpal tunnel syndrome and hemorrhoids in order to crank out the 8 posts a day for little but the hope of fame and enough lucre to offset their broadband connection. So there they are, legal document in hand, probably a knot or two in their stomach and real question about whether the author in question is also a crackpot when analyzed in the legal realm.

And in the blogosphere, a fidgety quiet prevailed until the reality of the old world institutions was clarified for the technorati...

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