I had a “driveway moment” last night listening to Alex Jones rant about science topics on his radio program. He was obsessed with the hypothesis that humans are the descendents of a primate-pig hybridization. I had heard of it as it first made the rounds back in July, but I assumed that no one would take it seriously and ignored it. But the Daily Mail recently has not only reported it uncritically, it also called Dr. Eugene McCarthy’s evidence for this hypothesis “compelling”. I guess I shouldn’t find that surprising, because the Daily Mail routinely presents quackery as mainstream scientific findings.
What really drew my interest in the subject was the way Alex Jones discussed the news article.
He called Eugene McCarthy a “top geneticist” and an “expert”, and while rightly dismissing the hypothesis as idiotic, he implied that it was in line with the current scientific consensus on human origins: that evidence was increasingly disproving evolution as an explanation. Instead, alternative ideas, such as an Intelligent Designer (Jones kept calling it “aliens” and mentioning the movie “Prometheus”) were becoming mainstream explanations for human origins, and this chimp-pig hybridization idea was yet another example. Framing the story in this way, he went on to say that “They (scientists) have no idea what they’re doing” (quote paraphrased from my memory), and therefore evolution is nonsense. And he’s not alone. The creationist/Intelligent Design site Uncommon Descent also dismisses McCarthy’s hypothesis while simultaneously dismissing “neo-Darwinism”
“In short: Dr. McCarthy’s hypothesis is an interesting one, and I agree that it should at least have been published. But it is, like neo-Darwinism, a failure. It fails to address the origin of functional information at the biochemical level, from the bottom up (i.e. proteins). Until it can do that, it does not merit the title of a “theory.” Neither does neo-Darwinism.”
(also see here for more).
It’s obvious that, despite having the same critiques of mainstream evolutionary theory, Uncommon Descent doesn’t want to be associated with McCarthy.
Is Alex Jones correct in calling him a “top geneticist”? As far as I can tell, from his bio, McCarthy received his degrees from the University of Georgia, but is not affiliated with it; his bio refers to his past education and work there*. And while he’s published some legitimate peer-reviewed books and articles, I don’t see any evidence of an ongoing, rigorous research program, aside from his attempts to get his “theory” in the public spotlight through self-publishing (more on that below). I certainly wouldn’t describe him as a leader in our field.
I believe that the Daily Mail, Alex Jones et al. are very invested in making him out to be a mainstream academic, and using that framing to undermine science in the furthering of their own agendas. It’s a very insidious tactic.
Does his “theory” (he’s using the term incorrectly, but whatever) itself have any merit? Absolutely not. PZ Myers did a thorough critique of it here, and McCarthy’s ideas on evolution in general here. The gist is that he doesn’t understand much about evolutionary genetic evidence, and he doesn’t use established, rigorous methods in his morphological comparisons. The evidence he presents for such a radical new hypothesis is feeble at best.
This may just seem like a silly, harmless incident. But it’s part of a larger pattern of uncritical treatment by the Daily Mail, Alex Jones, and many others of fringe theories as scientific truth. Trumpeting an obscure former academic as a leading scientist deceives the public, and undermines their understanding of how the scientific process works.
We obviously need drastically improved coverage of science by the media, although I don’t expect much improvement from a tabloid like the Daily Mail. But I think we also need more young scientists themselves communicating directly with the public. The thoughtful non-scientist will recognize that this particular claim is absurd. But without understanding the scientific process, he or she may not have the tools to articulate why, nor be able to discriminate between a “leading geneticist” and a fringe researcher. It is our responsibility to provide them with these tools.
In this case, the thoughtful non-scientist might recognize that McCarthy, a proclaimed “expert”, is arguing against a very strong and well-developed scientific theory. For non-scientists, here are some red flags in his approach:
1) His hypothesis (which he erroneously calls a “theory”) is not gaining any traction in the scientific community, as is evidenced by his description of trying to get it published:
“I wrote successive versions of a paper explaining the problems I saw with standard evolutionary theory and presented my alternative explanation. These manuscripts, once submitted, would promptly arrive in the hands of anonymous reviewers who would recommend rejection, because, they said, my claims contradicted accepted tenets of standard theory. Well, yes, of course they did — because I was trying to present an alternative evolutionary theory that, if correct, would imply that Darwinian theory is mistaken at an axiomatic level. My evolving manuscript on evolution, repeatedly rejected, continued to grow and change as I revised it and passed it around to colleagues. Finally it became a book, which I submitted to Oxford University Press in the summer of 2007. After peer review, it was accepted for publication and we signed a contract. The working title for the manuscript was On the Origins of New Life Forms.
However, the editor with whom I was dealing was clearly uncomfortable that the reviews had been mixed. On the one hand, one review was extremely complimentary, saying that the theory presented in the book was revolutionary and that it resolved many of the issues that have been problematic for Darwinian theory….”
The editor decided to cancel the contract, and so:
“rather than submit the manuscript for yet another round of lengthy, and perhaps fruitless, review, I decided to simply publish it here on the Macroevolution.net website with a slightly altered title, On the Origins of New Forms of Life: A New Theory.”
This is an example of what is known as “reviewer shopping”: submitting and resubmitting a manuscript over and over again in the hopes that you might strike it lucky and get one referee to accept it. And it almost worked for him: he got one very positive review (this is generally why journals have multiple referees). Someone who does this should be looked at very skeptically.
We had a similar example of this earlier this year with the “Bigfoot Genome Project”, spearheaded by Dr. Melba Ketchum. Unable to find any reviewers willing to accept their results as valid, the authors published their paper in a brand-new journal which has not published a single article since, leading one to speculate that the journal was created solely for the purpose of publishing this study.
2) The old adage “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” really does apply. If you’re proposing to overturn established theories, you need to have very strong evidentiary support. This may be why Darwin took almost 20 years to publish his ideas about evolution. McCarthy is not presenting rigorous evidence to back up his hypothesis. Instead, as io9 puts it:
“Dr. McCarthy’s hypothesis demands that others do the work to test it scientifically, while ignoring multiple lines of scientific evidence that it is wrong, and even making false claims about the hybridization abilities of mammals to the extreme of claiming that mammals and birds used to (or still can?) be able to produce viable offspring.”
This is not established scientific practice, and his ideas are not sufficiently supported by evidence to pass peer review and become published.
3) McCarthy claims that the reason his ideas are not getting published is because he is being treated unfairly by the scientific community.
“For those who shy away from anything that rocks the establishment’s boat, such objections can never be satisfactorily addressed. And yet, for someone like me, who is trying to critique and improve upon standard theory, they are not even valid. Obviously, a new theory that contradicts an existing theory will be inconsistent with the tenets of that theory!”
He’s just too radical! The scientific community doesn’t want their established ideas discredited!
This is a perfect example of the Galileo fallacy, and it’s a tactic which many fringe researchers employ (Dr. Ketchum frequently employs it as well). They claim persecution by the scientific establishment for their ideas (just like Galileo!), but they are right and the truth will be accepted eventually. This is a convenient cover for the fact that their ideas fail to meet evidentiary standards that everyone else’s must; in their minds they are exceptions and must be treated as such. Unfortunately for them, “persecution”** is not a credential.
Red flag words to watch out for here: “Kuhnian revolutions”
It goes like this:
-McCarthy is (incorrectly) asserted to be the “leading expert” in the field; therefore his claims must be taken seriously.
-McCarthy is “affiliated” with a respectable institution; therefore his claims must be taken seriously.
-McCarthy’s ideas are representative of scientific consensus, and/or they are developed and tested using the same process as other mainstream scientific ideas. Because they are obviously ridiculous, scientists don’t know what they’re doing.
Red flag words to watch out for here: “expert, authority, top researcher”
Always take the trouble to read a bit deeper about “revolutionary” scientific theories when they’re going viral on social media. The red flags are there if you know what to look for. Generally there will be some scientists who cover them, but this process takes time and effort, and would benefit from many more young scientists adding their voices. This treatment of the “primate-pig hybrid hypothesis” provides a very good example of where the tools of skepticism are needed to counteract irresponsible media coverage.
*For people unfamiliar with academia, “affiliation” usually implies ongoing employment in some capacity (research or teaching). This can be at several levels: graduate student, postdoc, adjunct professor, research fellow (like myself), or professor. Having once studied/taught/conducted research at a University isn’t generally referred to as “affiliation”, if you’re no longer there. For example, like McCarthy, I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees, conducted research, and taught all at one institution (Indiana University). I would never say that I was affiliated with IU, because I’m no longer there!
**Is it persecution to be denied special treatment in the publication process? That’s what they’ll have you believe.