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Whoa!

Remember that Stuart Pivar fellow who wrote a book called LifeCode (2004), a book which purported to advance a new theory of developmental biology — a theory which would, naturally, overturn everything biologists have figured out so far? Well, here’s a quick refresher:

  • On 7 November 2005, PZ Myers reviewed LifeCode on his old blog. The upshot is that pretty pictures do not a body of evidence make.
  • This past July, on the twelfth to be specific, Myers reposts his review on ScienceBlogs.com, because Pivar started promoting his book again.
  • Down in the comments, my Pharynguloid pals and I started noticing that the laudatory quotes Pivar had stuck on LifeCode couldn’t be traced back to their purported sources. In particular, an endorsement from Neil deGrasse Tyson turned out to be a chimera: the first part from an unrelated NOVA interview, and the second completely fabricated.
  • On the seventeenth, Myers posts his review of Pivar’s new edition. In Pivar’s illustration, a spider has ten legs. The money quote from Myers: “This book is a description of the development and evolution of balloon animals.” Later, Mark Chu-Carroll will agree that, in the end, Pivar’s claim “just doesn’t hold up to the least bit of scrutiny.”
  • The next day, PZ makes note of the puzzling endorsement situation. He says that he’s written several of the people whose names Pivar invoked, and Neil deGrasse Tyson had written back: “Tyson replied, and has said that part of the quote is an out of context reference to a completely different subject, and that another part is a fabrication. He has asked that Pivar remove his name from his website, which he has not done. Tyson’s name is also prominently used on the back cover of his book — I don’t see that going away, either.”
  • Stuart Pivar sends an e-mail to my place of employment, using our generic departmental e-mail address; an administrative assistant eventually notices the message and forwards it to me. The text follows.

    Dear Dr Stacey,

    Thank you for your interest in Lifecode. It presents a solution to the ultimate systems problem, living taxonomy. The model is considered very serious now by many. But it freaks out biologists into cognitive dyfunction.

    Robert Hazen is a prominent NASA scientist in this field . His review recommending publication is appended.

    The review of PZ Myers may be also seen today. Please note that he not an embryologist.

    May I send you a copy of the book?.

    Stuart Pivar

    Note: there were no actual appended items.

OK — followed all that? Now, you better be sitting down for this. Via ERV, I just learned that Stuart Pivar is suing PZ Myers and the Seed Media Group.

Jim Lippard summarizes the shenanigans:

The complaint claims that Myers’ remarks led to Neil de Grasse [sic] Tyson withdrawing a review of the book and causing “considerable mental and emotional distress,” tortious interference with the plaintiff’s business relationships as a “scientist and scientific editor,” and “loss of book sales and diminished returns on ten years of funded scientific research in special damages” exceeding $5 million.

The three claims of the complaint are, first, for declaratory relief in removing defamatory statements from the web and an injunction to prevent further such statements; second, for $5 million in special damages from the “tortious interference with business relations”; and third, for $10 million in damages for defamation, emotional distress, and loss of reputation.

Holy frivolous litigation, Batman!

At the SciAm blog, Christopher Mims observes that checking the New York State court system’s database reveals fifteen cases since 1986 in which Stuart Pivar has been the plaintiff (and two in which we was the defendant). All of them are listed as “disposed.” PZ writes in an e-mail to Mims,

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.

Prof. Myers’ wisest course of action may be to “shut up,” but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to keep fingers away from keyboards. Far from it:

When I think of the people I’ve angered on the Internet, this kind of censorship-by-intimidation gives me pause. . . and then makes me want to load up on 1.21 jigawatts of caffeine and sound a barbaric yawp over the networks of the world.

UPDATE: As I did for Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, I’m going to collect links on this subject and list them on this post. I don’t plan to gather everything, but pages which offer original insight or information will be welcome.

UPDATE (25 August 2007): You may recall that attorney and retired law professor Peter Irons commented at the Panda’s Thumb, calling Pivar’s complaint “a patently frivolous lawsuit.” At the time, Irons wrote,

I have learned a lot more about Pivar, including his alleged “friendship” with Steve Gould (who was my close friend from our college days in the 1950s until he died in 2002), but I won’t post it here.

Irons has followed up this comment by writing to Pivar himself. Before taking apart Pivar’s complaint, Irons notes,

As an aside, if Steve were still alive, I think he would have a viable defamation action against you for your false statements about his views, but that’s a moot point.

To summarize the rest, the supposed precedent cited in Pivar’s complaint is worthless, and the precedent which does apply — Underwood Dudley‘s dealings with a litigious math crank — is entirely in PZ Myers’ favor. Furthermore, “Ryland Press, Inc.,” the publisher of both versions of Lifecode, suffers from a severe case of nonexistence. On top of that, Axiom House, which advertises Lifecode, chose to do so as a personal favor to Pivar himself, and has not sold any copies.

So much for the millions of dollars, eh?

UPDATE (28 August 2007): Woo hoo! Peter Irons reports that Pivar’s attorney withdrew the suit today! He says,

PZ, thanks for mentioning my small contribution to convincing Pivar that his case was crap. Let’s see, over the past 9 days I’ ve put in about 40 hours on this case, and I charge $200 an hour, so PZ owes me $8000. Just kidding: I did this because I admire PZ and despise rich bullies like Pivar. Here’s my pay: a commenter on one blog said “I want to have Peter Irons’ baby.” Wow! and another said, “Let’s send him home-baked cookies.” Chocolate chip, please. Seriously, if this kind of time-suck can happen to people like PZ, it could happen to anyone who says “boo” to a crackpot. But maybe Pivar’s humiliating back-down will prevent other crackpots from trying the same tactic. Now, back to whittling on my front porch.

But in a bizarre and shocking twist, Stuart Pivar’s lawyer — Michael J. Little — is now threatening Irons with noise of legal action.

UPDATE (13 September 2007): For the epilogue to this affair, see my post Stuart Pivar: Man and Myth.

36 Comments

  1. Does the phrase “professional litigant” ring any bells?

    IANAL (I am Not a Lawyer). TINLA (This is Not Lgeal Advice).

    But let me react, unoffcially, as a mere citizen, by interlineating my comment in the causes of action.

    The three claims of the complaint are,

    “first, for declaratory relief in removing defamatory statements from the web and an injunction to prevent further such statements;”

    Pivar, to prevail on Defamation, must prove ALL of three things:
    (a) PZ’s statements are FALSE, or made with a Reckless Disregard for the Truth. Thus, if PZ is correct, the suit fails right here.
    (b) The statements of PZ must be taken by a reasonable person as FACT and not as OPINION;
    (c) There must be actual MONEY damages, not just hurt feelings.

    “second, for $5 million in special damages from the ‘tortious interference with business relations';

    Pivar is doing business with whom? People who might or might not buy his book? With his publisher? I don’t get this one.

    “and third, for $10 million in damages for defamation, emotional distress, and loss of reputation.”

    That’s a conglomeration of several things.
    (a) “defamation”, I’ve addressed breifly above;
    (b) “emotional distress” (in California, he’d have better to say “severe emotional distress”), see what I said about hiurt feelings. Unless he has sunk into expensive medically diagnosed clinical depression, attributable to PZ. Yeah, right.
    and (c) “loss of reputation” — so what was Pivar’s prior reputation? Again, I say “professional litigant.”

    Dude, scientists rarely launch such suits. It is self defeating.

    Anyway, that’s my first impression of this fiasco wrapped in an over-reaction to a balloon animal deflating slowly in the sunset.

    Thank you for providing this venue, Blake. Once again, you have done a big favor to me and many other rational people.

  2. John has weighed in as well:
    http://dododreams.blogspot.com/

    • deadman_932
    • Posted Tuesday, 21 August 2007 at 00:57 am
    • Permalink

    Bah, irritants like Pivar annoy me. I should hope that Pivar has to pay court costs after losing. Either that or he meets a blue-ring in his bathtub.

  3. William K. Wolfrum’s post may meet your standard for inclusion (and thanks very much for the link).

  4. IanR:

    You’re welcome!

  5. And in the middle of it all, you’re now a Dr!

  6. mollishka:

    Yeah, and Pivar’s not the only one to have granted me a doctorate. I have further evidence to the same effect which I should actually blag about, now that I think of it — maybe I don’t need any more graduate school after all!

    :-)

    • Rieux
    • Posted Tuesday, 21 August 2007 at 21:55 pm
    • Permalink

    In the interest of staving off the “chilling effect” (and daring this kook to sue the entire blogosphere), would it make any sense to engineer an “I’m Spartacus” movement, in which several hundred bloggers post on our sites that, for the reasons PZ has set forth, we too believe that Stuart Pivar is a classic crackpot?

    Or would that give Pivar and his stupid book more publicity than they deserve?

  7. Here’s mine.

  8. My take on this. Plus comparative spider anatomy. 10 legged spiders – Pah!

    • opened mind
    • Posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007 at 14:17 pm
    • Permalink

    The libel claim against PZ Meyer is a blow FOR scientific freedom. Just because Meyer does not like Pivar’s theory he can’t get away with saying as fact that Pivar is a “Crackpot” And by the way, the book LifeCode seems pretty interesting as i saw sample chapters at http://www.aninconvenienttheory.com

  9. Do any of those sample chapters explain why Pivar’s “theory” has nothing to do with the way embryos actually look, grow or develop? Or why Pivar manufactures fake endorsements?

    If Pivar had any actual facts to support his assertions, he could contest Myers on the Internet and in the scientific journals. That he is forced to use the court system makes his claims appear even more groundless than they did before.

    • Rieux
    • Posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007 at 15:26 pm
    • Permalink

    Aw, man, Blake beat me to it.

    Nevertheless, I call “sockpuppet.” Indeed, “classic crackpot sockpuppet.”

    • Rieux
    • Posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007 at 15:33 pm
    • Permalink

    Wait – on second thought, Blake’s mention of “fake endorsements” is probably a reference to the Neil deGrasse Tyson et al. blurbs that Pivar has concocted, not to the commenter who preceded him.

    In that case, I re-claim priority on the sockpuppetry hypothesis. What a familiar writing style you have, “opened mind”….

  10. Rieux:

    Maybe. FWIW, the e-mail address “mdrich1313@aol.com” is consistent with his IP address, registered to AOL in Manassas, Virginia.

    • Carlie
    • Posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007 at 15:56 pm
    • Permalink

    And in case said sockpuppet doesn’t notice it at PZ’s place, the only place “crackpot” shows up in PZ’s original review is here:
    “It seems no expense was spared getting it published, which is in contrast to the content, and is unusual for such flagrant crackpottery.”
    That’s about the book, not the author. Try reading comprehension sometime.

    • Owlmirror
    • Posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007 at 18:20 pm
    • Permalink

    Um, actually, I noticed that the thread titled “Pseudoscience by press release”, linked to above (Pivar started promoting his book again) does specifically say:

    Pivar is a classic crackpot, and Lifecode isn’t a science book by any measure. There is no theory there, and no evidence or observation. I can’t believe any scientist would be taken in by it.

    However, I think that all of those statements could be defended as being opinion. Or in some cases, fact.

    (Is “pretentious flapdoodle” libelous?)

  11. Do you want to add Denyse O’Leary’s article on the subject to your list?

    • khan
    • Posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007 at 21:25 pm
    • Permalink

    Reviews/comments from amazon.com

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/2efzy4

    • fingernails
    • Posted Thursday, 23 August 2007 at 10:55 am
    • Permalink

    In a 2004 New York Times article , Piven’s flatmate is identified as Helen Matsos. The article goes on to suggest she might known a thing or two about biology:

    “Ms. Matsos, 39, is a biophysicist with a special expertise in looking for fossil life in Martian meteorites. She is a consulting researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the editor in chief of Astrobiology Magazine, an Internet publication based at the Goddard Institute of Columbia University.”

    Hmm. Nice apartment.

  12. If the skills and knowledge bases of flatmates brushed off, I’d be a blacksmith, a nuclear engineer, a quantum-computing experimentalist, a materials scientist and a mechanical engineer three times each, and a pot-smoking Bob Marley fan.

  13. Is “crackpot” well-defined enough for it to be considered anything but an opinion?

    Also, Blake, now I’m trying to guess who your flatmates are.

  14. In cooking up that list, I counted people I’ve lived with — that is, shared a room or split an apartment with — since my freshman year of college, inclusive. No one person counts for more than two items.

    Yay, combinatorics!

  15. Crackpot is such a mild insult you wouldn’t get told off for using it in an elementary school playground (checked with my teacher cousin on this). I do hope this twerp’s suit fails. And in future maybe we should call a vain, uxorious, egregious and bullshit laden enterprise ‘a complete pivar’.

    That’ll learn him.

    • Melissa G
    • Posted Saturday, 25 August 2007 at 17:28 pm
    • Permalink

    I like the flatmates’ skills game. I would be an expert geographer/mapmaker, actress, filmmaker and technical writer.

    Hm… actually, I think I like my own skill set better. Poor Pivar!

  16. Yikes! I forgot that I’d also be a wedding videographer!

  17. I hate the idea of being sued, but I have to admit, I’m a little jealous of PZ.

  18. I also posted about Pivar: Stuart Pivar is a classic crackpot. I hoped that he couldn’t sue everybody and if we made enough public noise we could switch over to debating the controversy: “Is Stuart Pivar a crackpot or a deluded pseudoscience crank?”

  19. And in future maybe we should call a vain, uxorious, egregious and bullshit laden enterprise ‘a complete pivar’.

    I’m with you on the spiffy neologism, Peter, but you lost me at “uxorious” (devoted to one’s wife)–not quite sure what you meant to say there.

    Still, I’ll be looking for an opportunity to work it into the conversation.

  20. No, thalarctos, you’re right I meant some other word: shouldn’t comment when the moon’s getting big. Uxorious sounds wrong for being devoted to one’s wife, it sounds like something that might go to make a complete pivar.

  21. Maybe unctuous was the word you were after? “Greasy,” or “revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, and false earnestness or spirituality”?

  22. “unctuous” — that works!

    now I’m just waiting to drop it into the conversation…

    • Barry Nordin
    • Posted Friday, 7 September 2007 at 22:59 pm
    • Permalink

    While I am interested in this story, the type and color combinations used for the text on this website make it far too difficult to read. White type on a black background is OK for short paragraphs but putting red behind the type is one of the worst graphic ideas I have ever seen. You might consider that not everyone has perfect vision.

  23. I’ve heard people hate it, and I’ve heard people love it. . . with any luck, it won’t take me too much longer to find a scheme which works better.


10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] with “a fabrication”, and used that in both his book and his website (for details see Blake Stacey’s post on the issue).  I suppose you could say that PZ “intentionally damaged” the [...]

  2. [...] to try to intimidate and bully people for no good reason. That’s exactly what’s going on with Stuart Pivar’s libel case against PZ Myers. Pivar is demanding damages due to a book review Myers wrote in which he called Pivar a “classic [...]

  3. [...] very own PZ Myers, a.k.a. Pharyngula. Inevitably, the blogosphere is all over this, here, here and here. If there’s any justice, Pivar will lose his shirt over [...]

  4. [...] Andrea Bottaro at Panda’s Thumb, Scientific American, the Lippard Blog, Overlawyered, Science after Sunclipse and Positive Liberty (all blogs that you read on occasion, [...]

  5. By Our way to fall « Nuytsia’s Playlist on 22 Aug 2007 at 5:37 am

    [...] Adnan Oktar has had the court block all access to WordPress. In other news a crackpot is suing PZ Myers for calling him a crackpot and just how bloody smart are crows? This smart. Oh and apparently girls [...]

  6. [...] more fun than admitting to a mistake, so Paul’s now been sucked into the mire of “Holy frivolous litigation, Batman!“. Not surprisingly, much blogging is happening on the subject, so you can read til your [...]

  7. [...] more fun than admitting to a mistake, so Paul’s now been sucked into the mire of “Holy frivolous litigation, Batman!“. Not surprisingly, much blogging is happening on the subject, so you can read til your [...]

  8. By .blog on 24 Aug 2007 at 2:36 pm

    [...] Post muito interessante com mais links para posts acerca deste escândalo incidente [...]

  9. By Friendly Atheist » PZ vs. Pivar Has a Winner on 28 Aug 2007 at 9:51 pm

    [...] Myers at Pharyngula was getting sued for a variety of reasons by pissed-off author Stuart [...]

  10. [...] PZ Myers, twister of theist scrota extraordinaire is not being sued after all. A gentleman called Peter Irons gave PZ’s – er – tormentor Pivar (offended at being called a crackpot) a thorough legal gralloching here. Blake Stacey summarizes and links up the fun here. [...]