Priorities, people!

OK, many people seem to be picking up on Coulter’s plagiarism, Karl Mogel picks up on the overt sexism of Coulter’s remarks*, but there’s far too little discussion of the fact that Coulter’s book is a tissue thin collection of lies. Her understanding of science is negligible, and she’s simply parroting old creationist nonsense, but almost no one is pointing out that fact. Is science just too hard for the media? Shouldn’t the fact that she plagiarizes be a lesser sin than the fact that she is making stuff up?

Although, actually, I do feel that the fact that she dismisses over half the population as too stupid to do good science, and doesn’t even think biology is a science, is probably more serious.

*One bothersome thing I need to point out about Karl’s analysis: The Panda’s Thumb would also do very poorly, with women grossly underrepresented on the list of contributors. There is no shortage of XX science bloggers, though, as the list at scienceblogs shows.

John McKay tells me that Media Matters has a thorough content-based criticism of Coulter’s book. Excellent!


  1. says

    Just to bang that gong again, Coulter’s writing is often –usually — wrong on history, civics, law and politics, too. Her inaccuracy is not limited to science topics by any means.

    You find it painful to see what she writes about science? Look, I’m a politico, and a history teacher, and a former journalist. Almost every sentence she writes is skewed, and produces pain for her errors.

    I am not sure what the solution is. Maybe if she wrote about more topics, more people would see through her methods. But just as certain, more idiots would read her, and take her work as accurate.

    Franklin observed that truth wins in a fair fight. How to keep this fight fair?

  2. says

    I think that if Coulter considers biology worthless and women scientists stupid, she should simply refuse to participate in any activities that are based on biological research, or on any scientific research done by women. No pharmaceuticals for you, Ann, no matter how sick you get — after all, drug discovery relies heavily on biochemistry, and modern biochemistry is influenced by Maud Menten’s work on enzyme kinetics. No X-rays if you break your leg or radiation treatments if you get cancer; you’d just be pandering to those silly Curie girls. None of the medical or agricultural benefits of genetic research for you — why encourage flighty ladies like Rosalind Franklin and Barbara McClintock to waste all that time and money in the lab?

    Go eat Twinkies and drink snake oil, Ann. That is, if you can tell a Twinkie from a snake.

  3. G. Tingey says

    But, but ……
    We are all saying “Coulter is a liar” and her fellow-travellers are also liars (I’m thinking particularly of Bthell, here )
    We call them liars, in public, and what happens?
    Nothing – no-one notices.

    Something seriously wrong here …..

  4. stevie_nyc says

    Plagiarism is a form a lying. It’s also seems to have more weight in publishing circles than flat out making shit up, mis-quoting or quoting out of context.

    Plagiarism seems to have actual repercussions in the print media. It’s theft. People lose their jobs and livelyhood because of it. Hopefully that will happen to her.

    She should be teaching an intro to political science course at liberty university or flipping burgers in the cafeteria.

  5. stevie_nyc says

    And Yes science is too hard for the MSM.

    The bloviating moustache John Stossel gets to rant once a week on ABC.
    That’s the extent of “science” programming on the networks. And he is as
    bad as Coulter.

    I think the networks avoid science for fear of offending the shrill fundies.

  6. says

    I’m trying to address her (or rather her Woo Wizards’) arguments, if you can call them that, but let’s face it, I’m in over my head pretty often. Though the same thing doesn’t stop Coulter. My saving attribute is that I know when I’m being snookered, even if I don’t quite know how.

    As far as the plagarism charge goes, repeating it could only reinforce in the public the perception that there is a ton of “evidence” against evolution that Coulter shoveled into her snook book. I’m beginning to wonder if the “plagarism” charge isn’t being gleefully seized upon by her own PR grist mill, after all.

  7. stevie_nyc says

    I think it’s more likely to reinforce the lying perception.

    If she’s lying about her sources and her writing… of course she’s lying about evolution.

  8. George says

    I blame the rise of talking heads like Coulter on the decline of television, which has become abysmally bad in the last decade. T.V. news has become a joke. The air waves are filled with yelling talking heads. Thoughtful reporting is, sadly, almost completely absent.

    PBS science programs are presented at the super-basic gee whiz level (viewer must not be asked to think!). What ever happened to Frontline? There used to be lots of investigative reporting on PBS. It’s not there anymore.

  9. says

    As far as the plagarism charge goes, repeating it could only reinforce in the public the perception that there is a ton of “evidence” against evolution that Coulter shoveled into her snook book. I’m beginning to wonder if the “plagarism” charge isn’t being gleefully seized upon by her own PR grist mill, after all.

    Kristine is, unfortunately, right. Plagiarism says absolutely nothing about whether or not the ideas you stole are factually correct, and given the demonstrated slackjawed yokelism of Coulter’s target readers (they’re easy to spot, because you can see their lips moving), they’re going to assume a priori that they are.

    Charges of plagiarism do absolutely nothing to persuade the stupid people that Coulter is a fascist shill, because the stupid people are, by and large, virulently anti-intellectual. I still see kids at the college level who don’t even know what plagiarism is, much less why it’s frowned upon. And even if they weren’t virulently anti-intellectual, we need to understand that these people actually want to live in a fascist state.

  10. says

    I’ll just chime in again with my same old tune:

    Nobody pays any attention to the arguments Coulter makes because nobody believes she’s making honest arguments in the first place. Her arguments are deliberately constructed to be as stupid as possible, to provide for maximum effect.

    If you want to talk about priorities, I’m depressed by the fact that everyone allows this woman to be a part of national discourse despite the fact she’s not able to behave like an adult. It seems to me every one of us should respond to her rants by saying, “Look, if you’ve got something to say, you need to articulate it in a minimally adult-like fashion. We’re not even going to listen to you if your writing is filled with snotty non sequiturs and childish name-calling. If you’ve got something to say, you need to learn how to say it like a rational adult. Then we’ll have a debate.”

    It seems to me if our priorities were straight, that would be the first requirement we’d place on the woman’s writing.

  11. richCares says

    her science chapters appear to be good examples of plagiarism, they are very similar to the writings of a failed high school student’s science papers. (the one that flunked).
    It is very difficult for me to accept that she or her readers are that stupid, but it must be so.

  12. stevie_nyc says

    I think maybe some are missing the point of bringing up the plagiarism issue.

    It’s not about the average american. It’s about the papers and publishers of her screeds.

    If you want to limit her reach you have to go to the people who PAY her. People who steal
    get sued.

    People who love her or even like her don’t care if she lies or steals.

  13. Barry says

    Posted by: stevie_nyc:
    “Plagiarism is a form a lying. It’s also seems to have more weight in publishing circles than flat out making shit up, mis-quoting or quoting out of context.

    Plagiarism seems to have actual repercussions in the print media. It’s theft. People lose their jobs and livelyhood because of it. Hopefully that will happen to her.”

    Plagiarism is something that hits home in the publishing industry. Truth or falsehood is immaterial there, but theft of the written word strikes directly at their work product.

  14. cm says

    In addition to lies, plagiarism, and juvenile analysis, the book is sociopathically hostile (e.g. saying the wives of 9/11 victims enjoyed their husbands deaths, etc). And yet the book is #1 on the NY Times list for hardcover nonfiction.

    How is this possible? It’s almost as if she is a scout from some kind of ultraconservative secret police, a pilot study to see how far a pundit can push the hate envelope and still sell books and get on Leno. And the results are in: far. Bill Maher lost his ABC job on “Politically Incorrect” for saying that the 9/11 attackers were not cowards, yet she is able to say the widows are “harpies” and such and achieve top billing.

    I think some of what explains this is groupthink. Some subset of those who self-identify as conservatives (or at least anti-liberals) will support anything, sight-unseen, as long as it is sold as bashing liberals. Unfortunately that subset of conservatives seems to be large enough to drive big sales, and we’re seeing now how much of a blank cheque for pundits that groupthink is.

  15. ChaosEngineer says

    Stevie_NYC: “I think maybe some are missing the point of bringing up the plagiarism issue. It’s not about the average american. It’s about the papers and publishers of her screeds.”

    Yes. There was a great example of this just recently. The target audience for Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” wouldn’t care that a couple dozen passages were swiped from Megan McCafferty’s books.

    But the publisher certainly cared when they realized they were vulnerable to a lawsuit, and they pulled the book from the shelves as damage control. (Afterwards they had to choose between having the book re-written with the offending passages removed, or just cancelling the contract and writing it off as a loss. Guess which option they chose.)

    Right now this could go either way. If there’s no plagiarism in “Godless” beyond the three passages we know about, then the publisher is probably in the clear. But another half-dozen could mean trouble.

  16. says

    Upon a second reading of Coulter, I cannot say that I believe “nobody pays attention to her arguments.” For example, she makes a statement about random mutation that I believe is an honest mistake, and definitely is something that I can see many general readers concluding as a good point:

    “If mutations are utterly random–as Darwinism [sic] claims–there ought to be an infinite variety [now, really, how could there be an infinite variety?] of transitional animals with small mutations that eventually led to a magnificent new attribute like a wing or a lung…

    “But if the mutations were really random, with Mother Nature ruthlessly striking down the genetic losers, then for every mutation that was desireable, there ought to be a staggering number that are undesirable. Otherwise, the mutations aren’t random, they are deliberate–and then you get into all the hocus-pocus about an ‘intelligent designer’…But that’s not what the fossil record shows.”

    Where I come from, this is going to strike people with an “Ah-ha!” Most people aren’t stupid, but Americans’ science knowledge is the lowest that it’s ever been. This crap is going to sound logical to a lot of people, and we have to deal with that. Her book is a best-seller not because it’s satire but because despite the jokes she really believes what she says, and so do a lot of people (apparently including people who loathe her).

  17. stevie_nyc says

    Isn’t it pretty easy to say that there ARE millions of transitional species. You are LOOKING at them. Every species is in some form of transition. It just takes a really long time.

    I dunno. How hard could it be to make the point…”would you want Ann Coulter to be your fertility doctor or researcher trying to cure cancer?” Didn’t think so.

  18. says

    A few points:

    (1) I doubt that Coulter really believes everything she says, but that’s beside the point. She earns money for acting like it and is successful enough to make a nice living at it.

    (2) Her book is #1 on the NYT bestseller list in part because of her notoriety and in part because the right-wing success machinery has been cranked up on her behalf. Many copies of her books are sold at huge discounts as loss-leaders for things like NewsMax’s recent subscription drive. (You can get Godless for less that $5 in its hardcover edition.)

    (3) Coulter’s lies and misrepresentations are by far the most important things about her books and speaking engagements, but she’s been vaccinated against charges of being a liar because her acolytes refuse to listen to anything anyone says against her. However, the charges of plagiarism, although relatively minor at this stage, may be gaining traction in the press, where such accusations are taken more seriously than such trivialities as her misrepresentations of science and scientists. First you need to get their attention. The press may finally be confronted with something they care about, understand, and are inclined to respond to. As minor as it may be — we don’t know yet — the plagiarism charge has the potential to damage Coulter’s image as a writer and thinker. That is entirely good.

  19. thwaite says

    As the most direct tactic I agree with stevie_nyc and Barry that a lawsuit on plagiarism looks pretty attractive if there’s sufficient evidence.

    Longer-term, Kristine’s concern that Coulter’s assertions appear logical is apt. I see their appeal even in my students – who are in that small subset of people willing to enroll in a class and go beyond the common notions of common sense.

    Common sense? Wild animals, plants and their evolution are increasingly distant from urban and suburban life experiences. And this in a culture which has a strong tradition of hunting – Asian tradition is more generally agricultural. So we are utterly dependent on what the schools & such teach.

    Perhaps cultural shifts like the “Pleistocene diet” movement or highlighting “evolutionary medicine” could help. Or a greater awareness of what artificial selection has done for agriculturalists (but that leads into really ugly issues of animal welfare for what we mostly just want to see on our dinner plate). Or perhaps ultimately a resurgence of Gaia-based paganism, in which the old Christian religion with its Dominion** over nature, and Christianity’s linear model of history which eventually shoots humans right off the planet of their origin – perhaps that old religion will be remembered only as we now remember the old Greco-Roman gods, as names for weekdays. Anyone for meeting next Maryday to discuss more?
    **(Matt Scully’s book titled DOMINION is a rare Christian analysis of responsibilities which come with dominion. Even Christopher Hitchens gave it grudging due in his Atlantic Monthly review 11/02)

    For the specific Coulter claims Kristine cited, I’d counter that:
    * embryos DO display an enormous variety of mutations (from undesirable to neutral/good) – and the majority of embryos die before birth (for humans about 80% die) or soon after, so the adult population is nowhere near so diverse. This biological triage does annoy pro-lifers.
    * to see diversity which leads to speciation, one usually needs a time machine (or very short-lived critters) to observe the multi-generational sequence. But sometimes we get lucky and see populations diverging over space as well as time, with the original populations still visible. Examples include many island species (Galapagos, Hawaii…) and also “ring species”, of which David Wake’s Ensatina salamanders are the clearest example (PBS has a discussion and excellent map overlain with images of the diversifying salamanders). Other examples include common mice in Europe and “Greenish Warblers” in Asia.

  20. Steve_C says

    The only people who can really sue her are the one’s she stole from and if she’s on their side of the debate I doubt they would. Also looking closely at the evidence at it looks as if much of her lifts are factual statements and not so much conceptual ideas. The company that did the check stopped at 4 instances which were direct lifts that were uncited. They said that was enough to get someone expelled from university it was good enough for them.

    To Coulter’s understanding of science and evolution see the below:

    From the link above:

    Mathematician and the force behind EvolutionBlog Jason Rosenhouse notes that

    Scientists are fully capable of jumping to conclusions, or arriving at incorrect theories from an inadequate supply of data. But it has never once happened in the history of science that a theory achieves mainstream status, only to fall apart when a clever outsider notices a simple logical oversight. That Coulter’s and Bethell’s formulation of evolution suggests it is tautological proves only that they do not understand the theory they are attacking….

    Here’s Coulter’s version of her insight:

    The second prong of Darwin’s “theory” is generally nothing but a circular statement: Through the process of natural selection, the “fittest” survive. Who are the “fittest”? The ones who survive! Why look – it happens every time! The “survival of the fittest” would be a joke if it weren’t part of the belief system of a fanatical cult infesting the Scientific Community.

    The beauty of having a scientific theory that’s a tautology is that it can’t be disproved. Evolution cultists denounce “Creation Science” on the grounds that it’s not “science” because it can’t be observed or empirically tested in a laboratory. Guess what else can’t be observed or empirically tested? Evolution! (pp. 212-213).

    Coulter qualifies her inane observations by prefacing her remark with “As I understand the concept behind survival of the fittest….” To which James Downard of TalkReason responded: “Coulter has hit the nail squarely here: going by her ‘understanding’ of the matter is her problem. She does not understand it.”

    In case you are thinking of reading Coulter’s masterpiece, consider Rosenhouses’s warning:

    The book contains four chapters dealing with evolution. In these chapters Coulter, well known for her right-wing polemics, attempts to portray evolution as nothing more than a sham science that serves as a creation myth for political liberals. Reading this material is a curious experience for anyone who knows some freshman biology. As with all anti-evolution writing, the arguments that are presented are not only incorrect, but also so confused that it is frequently difficult to discern what point Coulter thinks she is making.

    The concept of survival of the fittest, however, isn’t that difficult to understand. First of all, it should be noted that the expression was coined not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer, whose views on social and political matters are strikingly similar to those espoused by Coulter. Spencer, in fact, were he alive today, would fit right in with the pundits at Fox News. One reason nobody takes Spencer seriously any more, while Darwin is considered one of the greatest minds ever, is that Spencer’s logic is occasionally on par with Coulter’s (see pp. 139 ff. of Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism). Another reason is, of course, that Spencer, like Coulter, got most things wrong.

  21. PaulC says

    The author of the Media Matters page is someone named Robert Savillo. It looks pretty thorough. I was expecting to find that he was connected to Panda’s Thumb or but here’s his entry:

    Rob Savillo has experience in research, writing, and content analysis. He is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in American studies with an emphasis on media and communications. He was the first student to earn the Certificate in Communications and Media Studies at UMBC. Savillo is a research analyst at Media Matters for America.

    I wish we had this caliber of science reporting in the major newspapers.

  22. Carlie says

    “Perhaps cultural shifts like the “Pleistocene diet” movement or highlighting “evolutionary medicine” could help.”

    Wait, that gives me an idea! All someone has to do is come up with “the evolutionary diet”, create an infomercial showing a few people who lost dozens! of! pounds! and the whackos will be on our side in no time.

  23. Caledonian says

    If evolution *were* tautological (which it is not), it wouldn’t need to be disprovable. It would self-evidently be true, and its acceptance would be a matter of basic logic, not scientific inquiry.

    Not only are Coulter’s arguments wrong, and stupid, but they’re wrong and stupid in multiple ways. That’s no mean accomplishment.

  24. says

    I read the main entry. I read the comments. So far, all I know is that you all hate Ann Coulter. She’s vile. She’s a plagarist. She’s said bad things about evolution. She can’t tell a twinkie from a snake. She’s gored somebody’s ox. This sounds just like all the right wing blogs, but flipped over, legs kicking.

  25. Caledonian says

    There are other posts, and other sites, that establish how truly awful Coulter is. Wanna know? Go find them.

  26. Steve_C says

    Oh yeah we’re just oogah boogah Coulter haters.

    No ryhme or reason for our criticism.

    Some people just deserve the ridicule.

    And might we remind you she’s the one calling us godless believers of science and reality. Evil and frequently calling for our extrermination.

  27. KMarissa says

    Norma, when two people are each calling the other a liar, sometimes it’s worth your time to look into each claim and see who actually backs up their claims with evidence. It’s called using your brain.

    If you think Coulter has the evidence to back up her claims about evolution, by all means, explain.

  28. thwaite says

    I may be just slow in realizing this but apparently Coulter’s entire corpus of columns (odd image!) is under review for plagiarism. From the S.F. Chronicle online (in their entertainment section):
    Right-Wing Pundit’s Work Under Scrutiny
    By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
    Friday, July 7, 2006

    The syndicator of Ann Coulter’s newspaper column is looking into allegations that the right-wing pundit has lifted material from other sources.
    “We are reviewing the material and expect to have a response some time next week,” Kathie Kerr, a spokeswoman for Universal Press Syndicate, told The Associated Press on Friday.

    The New York Post enlisted the Berkeley, Calif.-based iParadigms to run the author’s material through its iThenticate software program, a web-based plagiarism detection system.

  29. thwaite says

    Never mind, I see PZ’s first link is to TPMmuckraker which covers this. I’d been entirely focused on the evolution chapters of her current book. Time to call it a day!

  30. ctw says

    from the Media Matters rebuttal:

    Coulter apparently expects the reader to believe her explanation of the fish over the team of scientists who discovered it, led by University of Chicago professor Neil H. Shubin, who is quoted in the article.

    this highlights the problem I have with the point-by-point rebuttal approach. yes, she does, and given her target audience, she’s probably right.

    almost everyone is incapable of reading something like the MM rebuttal in detail (due to either ignorance of the material or sloth – in my case, both). if rational argument won’t sway someone like behe who could understand if he wanted to, why do people think it will work on the kind of person who would waste time reading AC?

    everyone depends on “experts” for most of their knowledge, which is why I interpret “belief” in probabilistic terms. “I believe X” means the conditional probability that X is “true” given my weighting of relevant information sources (“I saw it myself”,”dad says so”, “god told me”, “dawkins says so”) is over some belief threshold. if X=”evolution is bunk” and someone weights “AC says yes” and “almost all reputable experts say no” such that their conditional probability that X is “true” is over their belief threshold, I really doubt that the calculation will be changed by the MM rebuttal (or equivalent); that person is simply hopeless. we just have to assume (optimistically, but I think correctly) that the number of such persons is significantly less than the number of reasonably rational ones.

  31. Josh says

    To be fair to Mogel, he does indicate that Coulter’s book is fiction, characterizing it as a “novel.”

  32. PaulC says


    if rational argument won’t sway someone like behe who could understand if he wanted to, why do people think it will work on the kind of person who would waste time reading AC?

    You’re misrepresenting the target audience and the intent of the Media Matters article. Coulter groupies aren’t going to be reading the article in the first place, so even if there were a set of magic words that would get them to see reason, this would be the wrong place to put them.

    The author, Rob Savillo, is a member of the Media Matters research staff and his article is a compilation of counterarguments to Coulter’s work. His audience consists of people inclined to disagree with Coulter but unsure of how to rebut her statements. I also haven’t read this carefully enough to be completely certain, but it looks like a good job to me. I’d be curious to hear from biologists who’ve read it carefully.

    It’s useful for developing a persuasive strategy, but it is not in itself a persuasive strategy. I’m not sure if you think it was not worth the effort Savillo put into writing it or not. It strikes me as something that needed to be done, though obviously it is not the only thing that needs to be done.

  33. ctw says

    paul –

    FYI, you are perhaps my favorite pharyngula commenter, so anytime you see a strong disagreement between us, a good guess would be that there’s a misunderstanding.

    yes, I understand why mr. savillo wrote the piece, and yes, I think it’s good that someone did so that there is a reference for those (IMO few) who care to pursue the details. but I don’t think it’s necessary or desirable for muliple SB bloggers (and many others) to do so as well. I consider people like AC to be either mentally disturbed or integrity-challenged opportunists. in either case (my guess AC is the latter), I think the more dismissive the response the better. for rational people who read AC and wonder if her position on evolution is correct (IMO, close to a null set), an adequate response should be “she has no credentials and no standing in the scientific community, in which there is essentially unanimous disagreement with that position”. or to state it in my terms, rational people weight concensus among (real) experts very heavily in calculating their belief values. the rest are likely to be, to elaborate somewhat on dawkin’s (in)famous statement, either anti-intellectuals or conspiracy theorists (who give “intellectual” expert opinion a weight that is low, possibly negative), fundamentalist extremists (who weight their religion’s dogma close to 1), or so ignorant that they weight their own opinion 1 despite having little idea where it came from.

    to paraphrase david niven in a movie the name of which escapes me (Houseboat?), “no need to explain in detail – the former don’t need it and the latter won’t believe you anyway”.