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Science Blogger Sued for Unfavorable Book Review 588

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the hope-he-countersues-and-buys-a-nice-summer-home dept.
tigerhawkvok writes "Recently, new author Stuart Privar provided Professor PZ Meyers of Pharyngula a copy of his book, Lifecode, for review. Over the course of the review itself and a few follow-ups, it became evident that the content was nonsense (including, among other things, ten-legged spiders and other phenomena strongly at odds with developmental biology). However, the common threat of lawsuits finally became a reality, and now Privar is suing Myers for $15 million. Can calling someone a 'classic crackpot' in the face of such incorrect data have any chance at making it to court, or even winning the suit?"
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Science Blogger Sued for Unfavorable Book Review

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:23AM (#20317335)
    Contrary to this "this is the first time this has happened!" tone of this article, religious nutballs (as this Picar guy appears to be), frauds, and crackpots actually have a long history of suing when someone challenges them. The Church of Scientology has sued [wikipedia.org] many people. Uri Gellar sued [wikipedia.org] James Randi and others. Crackpots sue all the time (that part of what makes them crackpots). Some, like this Pivar guy apparently, have the financial resources to use their lawsuits to harass (like the aforementioned Scientologists). It's just a sad reality, here in the U.S. anyway (where we have no "loser pays" lawsuit system).
    • by pimpimpim (811140) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:31AM (#20317417)
      Not just in the US, in Netherlands [skepsis.nl] the society against quacks had to pay a considerable amount to a quack, by court order! And because of the 'loser pays' system, even had to pay for this quacks lawyer costs :( Face it: stupidity has settled itself in all social layers and is international, no way to run or hide from it anymore.
    • by Goaway (82658) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:34AM (#20317451) Homepage
      Scientologists aren't crackpots, though. They're a very deliberate scam. The things they teach are a mixture of self-help material and crackpottery, but don't think for a second that the leaders actually believe in any of it.
      • OMG! You are going to be sued now ;-)
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by intx13 (808988)
        I realize we're getting off-topic here, but this is something I've always wondered about. I think it's fair to say that Hubbard was not "into" Scientology - but what about the modern leaders? They weren't founders; they rose to their positions by buying into the whole deal (and buying is exactly the correct word!) and staying prominent within the organization for a long time.

        I wonder if when they get together out of the eyes of the cash cows they slap backs and laugh among themselves at the profit they're
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by neomunk (913773)
          As far as I know (I could be very wrong, but this is what I've read) when you start to get into the more rarefied reaches of the Scientologist hierarchy the lessons (they actually have step-ladder type lessons that become increasingly more expensive to purchase) start to tell you that the lower lessons are lies meant to prod a persons mind in THIS direction, or THAT direction, in order to prepare them for the REAL secrets, of course.

          From what I've gathered, the end result is a mixture of the second and thir
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Billosaur (927319) *

      You see a common thread in these lawsuits: an individual or group cannot stand criticism of their ideas. Of course, this is nothing new, hence the Inquisition. Our legal system needs to do a better job in weeding out the frivolous lawsuits, and where a lawsuit has any merit, ensuring that when these individuals/groups lose based on the lack of supporting evidence, they should pay their opponent's legal fees. This might put a halt to Scientology's constant waste of the court system. The fact that people do n

    • by faloi (738831) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:38AM (#20317489)
      Just a quick question... On what basis do you claim Pivar is a religious nutball? I've read most of the connected articles and it sounds like he's just a regular nutball, religion isn't mentioned anywhere that I've seen. Unless you're just inferring that because he's putting up something contrary to real evolutionary theory (which I would maintain makes him a regular nutball).
    • "First time" tone? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Selanit (192811) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:41AM (#20317519)

      The parent quoth:

      Contrary to this "this is the first time this has happened!" tone of this article,

      Huh?

      In the article I read, the author starts out like this:

      There comes a time in every debunker's life when they are threatened with a lawsuit. It's the bar mitzvah of skepticism.

      How is that a "first time this has happened" tone? Or maybe you were reading a different article?

      • by Otter (3800)
        I think he's referring to the "However, the common threat of lawsuits finally became a reality..." in the blurb here, not to the link. Of course, the blurb also spells the blogger's name two different ways.

        My sympathy for Myers/Meyers is limited, though. If you want to build your reputation on kicking around crazies, occasionally getting bitten back is the price you pay.

    • I'm confused why you point out Christians in your subject. There is no indication that the author of the book is a Christian, or that its content is motivated by Christian principles. Nor do you mention Christians in your text, let alone wealthy Christians. I'm not denying that there aren't Christian nutballs, because there definitely are, but it is simply an off topic jab.

      Either way, I agree with everything else you said.
      • by ajs (35943) <ajs AT ajs DOT com> on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @10:15AM (#20317953) Homepage Journal
        I was wondering the same thing. I'm actually getting rather tired of this particular knee-jerk. Yes, there are Christian crackpots in the world. No, not all crackpots are Christian nor are all Christians crackpots. Faith in a deity is tangential to the search for truth through the scientific method. Only where one allows the two to become entangled does crackpottery arise.
      • The very real danger to the book's reviewer is that he may be placed in the position of defending rationality before a jury comprised of people who find it perfectly reasonable to symbolically eat the flesh of a cosmic Jewish zombie and telepathically implore him to save them from the consequences of a snake-deceived rib-woman's consumption of magic fruit.

        Which is to say, in our rapidly medievalizing former republic, crazy nutbag plaintiffs are granted a decisive advantage.
  • by AltGrendel (175092) <ag-slashdotNO@SPAMexit0.us> on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:24AM (#20317337) Homepage

    Can calling someone a 'classic crackpot' in the face of such incorrect data have any chance at making it to court, or even winning the suit?"

    Of course it could, probably will, and will be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

    • by Pojut (1027544)
      "Dad, why is American government the best government?"
      "Because of our endless appeal system." ...
      . ...
      "Wait, you're not actually writing that are you?"
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by chalkyj (927554)
      It's probably worth noting that he doesn't even call the author a crackpot - he says the book is "flagrant crackpottery." If you called someone's book "insane", you wouldn't necessarily be saying that the author is insane themselves.
  • by Sierpinski (266120) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:24AM (#20317339)
    If someone can be sued for their opinions... man I'm going to make a TON of money from my mother-in-law!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:30AM (#20317397)
    Aha, I see the floodgates opening now:

    1). Write ridiculously inaccurate book
    2). Send it to a well-known, respected scientist for review
    3). Wait for the scathing reviews to come in
    4). Sue
    5). Profit!

    But, at the expense of respect. Hey, who needs respect when you have 15 million dollars?
  • by plover (150551) * on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:32AM (#20317427) Homepage Journal
    I love this quote:

    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. This is a book suitable only for use at clown colleges, and even there, I suspect the clowns would tell us that it is impractical, nonsensical, and has no utility in their craft.

    • Mod parent up (Score:4, Informative)

      by Fozzyuw (950608) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:51AM (#20317637)

      Bestest. Review. EVAR.

      For no other reason than getting people to RTFR (RTF-review) because the 2 images alone will probably make whatever liquid substance you're drinking come shooting out your nose. Lets hope it's not scalding hot coffee. This is one link /. readers need to read. =)

      Cheers,
      Fozzy

      • by mcmonkey (96054) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @10:02AM (#20317787) Homepage

        For no other reason than getting people to RTFR (RTF-review) because the 2 images alone will probably make whatever liquid substance you're drinking come shooting out your nose. Lets hope it's not scalding hot coffee. This is one link /. readers need to read. =)

        And now people are afraid to write a bad review of the review!

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by julesh (229690)
      I love this quote:

      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.

      This prompted a poster on another blog I read [nielsenhayden.com] to produce what I think is the best lolcat ever [flickr.com].

    • by Andrewkov (140579) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @11:06AM (#20318521)
      It's that bad. This is a book suitable only for use at clown colleges

      I would prefer it if you not refer to Princeton in that manner.

  • Me too! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:32AM (#20317429)
    Ten-legged spiders? Stuart Privar is a classic crackpot!

    And I'll proudly say it...anonymously.

  • by Silver Sloth (770927) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:32AM (#20317431)
    If you look at the Amazon rating he's a solid 1 star based entirely on a 'scientists don't sue over disagreements'
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Billosaur (927319) *

      Which now begs the question: if you go on Amazon, but the book, then review it and tell him he's a crackpot, are you going to be sued to? Can an Amazon review be held against you?

  • hmm. (Score:5, Informative)

    by apodyopsis (1048476) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:35AM (#20317459)
    many brilliant men have been called crackpots by their contemporaries but have ended up being exonerated by history.

    however, on examination of the links from the article, this man looks like a crackpot with a capital C.

    my fave quote from TFA: "To Mr Pivar, I would suggest a simple rule. Theories are supposed to explain observation and experiment. You don't come up with a theory first, and then invent the evidence to support it."
    • Re:hmm. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Larus (983617) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:42AM (#20317533)
      As Niels Bohr said, "Your idea is crazy, but not crazy enough to be true."
    • by e2d2 (115622)
      "To Mr Pivar, I would suggest a simple rule. Theories are supposed to explain observation and experiment. You don't come up with a theory first, and then invent the evidence to support it."

      Yeah, because theories like superstring have so much observable evidence to support them..

      • by sholden (12227)
        And I wouldn't be surprised if a biologist wouldn't call them science anyway. "Just math" would be a likely response I suspect.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by tgibbs (83782)

          And I wouldn't be surprised if a biologist wouldn't call them science anyway. "Just math" would be a likely response I suspect.

          As a biologist, I certainly regard string theory as science, because it is not abstract but rather directed toward describing physical reality. Whether it will turn out to be a useful theory in inspiring informative experiments (which is more important for science than rather a theory is actually correct) remains to be seen. The math is clearly very difficult, but it took many years

      • by mwvdlee (775178)
        Whether or not string theory is right and whether or not you can observe the evidence with you naked eyes (or, in fact, through any scientifical means you can fathom), it IS based on evidence. It tries to explain evidence that other (more high-level) theories currently cannot.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        (Before I drop into my string theory rant, I want to point out that there is a difference between having no evidence and MAKING UP evidence.)

        String theory is an interesting bit of physically-motivated mathematics that has been WAY oversold as a description of nature. It is the theorist's job to invent new mathematical descriptions of unexplained phenomenon, and to extrapolate from what we know to what we could potentially discover. It takes a while to get there, though. Lots of nice ideas which are w

  • by pzs (857406) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:36AM (#20317475)

    This may not be true in all cases, but people who actually know what they're talking about don't usually need the law to back up what they say.

    The other case of this was "Dr" Gillian McKeith [guardian.co.uk] a "nutritionist" who sells a lot of books about how you should eat less chips and more salad. This is all very well, but of course it also includes a bunch of quakery about eating leaves so that their photosynthesis can oxegenate your gut. As the article I link points out, that wouldn't work too well unless you had a torch up your arse.

    Naturally, McKeith is mighty litigious at people who point out that she bought her doctorate from the web.

    Peter

    • by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @10:06AM (#20317865) Homepage

      This is all very well, but of course it also includes a bunch of quakery about eating leaves so that their photosynthesis can oxegenate your gut.
      It's "quackery". "Quakery" is something to do with porridge oats.
    • by Joe Random (777564) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @10:26AM (#20318101)

      As the article I link points out, that wouldn't work too well unless you had a torch up your arse.
      Gotta love the subtle differences between British and American English. If you put a torch up someone's ass here in the states, it's wouldn't be quite as . . . illuminating . . . an experience. Well, not unless you were one of the bystanders. You could even have some marshmallows ready to roast over the soon-to-be bonfire -- if you're able to deal with your bonfire running around, flailing and screaming, that is.
  • can sue everyone that thought the movie stank. Oh, even better, sue the people that didn't come and see the movie, after all because they didn't come and see what others had called a pile of rubbish!
  • by apodyopsis (1048476) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:40AM (#20317511)
    Seems like word gets around, already the book reviews are flooding in....my word, he has really not done himself any favors here - I sense another internet laughing stock in the making.

    from: http://www.amazon.com/LifeCode-Theory-Biological-S elf-Organization/dp/0976406004 [amazon.com]

    I do not own this book. I do not propose to read it. My "rating" is based solely upon the fact that the author has chosen to sue a reviewer for "Injury - Assault, Libel, and Slander", because he didn't like the review. (Unlike the author, the reviewer is a professional biology professor who actually understands this subject.) No reputable scientist would react in this way - indeed the whole point of science is to prove things wrong! (As Richard Feynman wrote, "We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.") So caveat emptor...

    A 164 page book for $60?
    And from an author without any doctorate in the sciences he purports to write about? With a non-peer-reviewed 'theory'?
    Don't waste your money.

    The reviewer above wrote everything I intended to, but I just thought I would add my voice here. By sueing a critic of his theories, the author of this book threw away any claim he might have had to any kind of scientific credibility. A scientist might argue with his critics, but the fact that this author has instigated a lawsuit against someone for criticizing his theories suggests to me that even he is aware that said theories have no merits to argue.

  • Professor's mistake? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by aadvancedGIR (959466) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:45AM (#20317561)
    I really don't want to support Stuart Privar, but didn't Professor PZ Meyers made a mistake by accepting to review that book, apparently at the request of Stuart Privar or its publisher, without the security of a contract?
  • by Analogy Man (601298) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:46AM (#20317573)
    If a reviewer can be sued for an unfavorable review, can the poor suckers that go to the "Movie of the Year - five stars!" file a class action suit against the lame-o reviewer for their $7.50 + $1M in emotional anguish?
  • by intx13 (808988)
    In true Slashdot fashion, I did not read the review, but I wanted to make the general point that the fact that it's a nutjob filing the lawsuit doesn't mean it's not a valid lawsuit. Libel and other such laws are often valid, and sometimes when discussing a particulary outlandish author's particularly outlandish claims it's easy to slip from lambasting the claims to lambasting the author. If this crosses the line to libel then a lawsuit might, under some circumstances, be warranted.

    I doubt that's the case
    • by plover (150551) * on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @11:55AM (#20319135) Homepage Journal
      Unfortunately, in truer Slashdot form, the author of the article summary got it completely wrong. The actual review never referred to the author as a 'crackpot', classical or otherwise. He did not attack the author personally, but he shredded the contents of the book from cover to cover.

      That's not to say that any educated reader wouldn't draw his own conclusions and consider Pivar a crackpot after having read the tripe.

      Anyway, you should read the review. It's hilarious.

  • Won't get far (Score:4, Insightful)

    by faloi (738831) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @09:51AM (#20317647)
    As one article points out, the bar for libel is pretty high in the US, especially for public or semi-public figures. The author of the book has put themselves in the public view multiple times, for many different things. I'd expect it never makes it to court.
  • PZ Meyers is a tough but fair cookie. If the book is as bad as he claims I really see no judge in the land sending it to trial. The case is going to get laughed out of court if it even gets that far.
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @10:12AM (#20317923)
    This case obviously has no merit. You don't need to be a lawyer to know that libel in the United States is knowingly making incorrect factual statements. I.e. saying "John raped sue", when you know that not to be the case.

    A value judgment like "this guy is a crackpot", or "the food at restaurant X is bad" is not libelous. Read the wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] for a more in depth description.
    • by pimpimpim (811140) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @11:02AM (#20318477)
      Just check out the link I posted somewhere earlier on in this thread: a similar case in the Netherlands worked out all wrong. The "society against quacks" called someone a quack who wrote a book with very dubious statements about human psychology (even going into nonsenical racial disciminations). This society lost their defence when being sued for libel because the higher court took the definition of a 'quack' as someone who *intentionally* promotes wrong ideas. The court probably assumed the author was just stupid and therefore not knowing about how wrong she was. She wrote the nonsense without intent of writing nonsense, this didn't make her a 'quack' and therefore calling her a 'quack' an incorrect factual statement: libel!

      This happened in 2007! A sad 0:1 in the competition of reason versus idiocracy, the defeats keep on coming :(

  • by BigGar' (411008) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @10:17AM (#20317985) Homepage
    This is why you should put "in my opinion" in front of opinion based statements. Even if you put a general declaratory statement of "this is opinion not fact" at the bottom of of the page it is, in my experience, it's good practice to preface such statements just to be clear.
  • 10-legged spiders (Score:3, Informative)

    by wiredlogic (135348) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @11:47AM (#20319041)
    The "10-legged spider" is probably a reference to the camel spider [wikipedia.org] which is not a true spider. It has elongated pedipalps giving the appearance of 10 legs.
  • by wisebabo (638845) on Wednesday August 22, 2007 @12:02PM (#20319211) Journal
    Hello Slashdot community. So I've decided to support Prof. Myers, I sent him the following e-mail and fully intend to follow up on my promises.

    Please do not think that I expect a substantial fraction of slashdotters (or anyone actually) to follow my initiative. I'm semi-retired, have a reasonable amount of resources at my disposal and basically don't have a life. I just mention it as a possible option.

    By the way, does anyone know if there is any sort of organization that formally supports scientists under attack like this? Sort of an ACLU for the sciences?

    Hi Prof. Myers

    I read about your problems with Stuart Privar. To make a long story
    short, I understand he is a wealthy businessman and may/is suing you.

    I am very tired about seeing science in America getting abused by (as
    Al Gore would put it) "attacks on reason". Should you begin to incur
    any significant amount of court costs, I would like to offer a modest
    amount of assistance (in the 3 to 4 figure range).

    As I am not a scientist myself but have a deep abiding interest in
    and respect for those who are expanding mankind's knowledge I would
    like to help in some way however small. I realize that scientists
    are human too and I'm sure have their share of problems but in this
    case it seems like you are definitely being prosecuted out of malice
    or breath-taking ignorance.

    So if you need my modest assistance please send me a return e-mail
    with an address to where I can send the check. It may take awhile (a
    few weeks?) because I am out of the country. As a matter of trust,
    you can find my ramblings on Slashdot, I go by the user name
    "wisebabo". Please do not give in if you can and admit guilt (with a
    slap on the wrist), someone needs to show these people that the
    majority(?) of Americans support scientific progress. But it is your
    choice and I/we are in no position to tell you what to do.

    Please do not disclose my identity/e-mail address (except as required
    by law). Good luck-

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