Jane Goodall, Plagiarist
March 27, 2013
From the WaPo article:
Jane Goodall, the primatologist celebrated for her meticulous studies of chimps in the wild, is releasing a book next month on the plant world that contains at least a dozen passages borrowed without attribution, or footnotes, from a variety of Web sites.
Looks pretty bad.
This bit from one Michael Moynihan at The Daily Beast raises the more interesting issues:
No one wants to criticize Jane Goodall—Dame Goodall—the soft-spoken, white-haired doyenne of primatology. She cares deeply about animals and the health of the planet. How could one object to that?
You see, everyone is willing to forgive Jane Goodall. When it was revealed last week in The Washington Post that Goodall’s latest book, Seeds of Hope, a fluffy treatise on plant life, contained passages that were “borrowed” from other authors, the reaction was surprisingly muted.
It always starts out that way for a beloved writer. We’ll just have to see how things progress. Going by recent events it will take more guns a’smokin’ in her prior works to start up a real hue and cry. At the moment, her thin mea culpa will very likely be sufficient.
A Jane Goodall Institute spokesman told The Guardian that the whole episode was being “blown out of proportion” and that Goodall was “heavily involved” in the book bearing her name and does “a vast amount of her own writing.” In a statement, Goodall said that the copying was “unintentional,” despite the large amount of “borrowing” she engaged in.
Moynihan continues on to catalog additional suspicious passages. I think some of them probably need a skeptical eye. For example I am quite willing to believe a source might give the exact same pithy line about a particular issue to a number of interviewers. But this caught my eye:
Describing a study of genetically modified corn, Goodall writes: “A Cornell University study showed adverse effects of transgenic pollen (from Bt corn) on monarch butterﬂies: their caterpillars reared on milkweed leaves dusted with Bt corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly, and suffered higher mortality.”
A report from Navdaya.org puts it this way: “A 1999 Nature study showed adverse effects of transgenic pollen (from Bt corn) on monarch butterﬂies: butterﬂies reared on milkweed leaves dusted with bt corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly, and suffered higher mortality.” (Nor does Goodall mention a large number of follow-up studies, which the Pew Charitable Trust describes as showing the risk of GM corn to butterflies as “fairly small, primarily because the larvae are exposed only to low levels of the corn’s pollen in the real-world conditions of the field.”
And here is the real problem. When someone who has a public reputation built on what people think of as science weighs in on other matters of science, they enjoy a lot of trust. Goodall certainly has this. So when such a person misuses this by misrepresenting the science to further their own agenda…it’s a larger hurdle for the forces of science and rational analysis to overcome. Moynihan is all over this part as well:
One of the more troubling aspects of Seeds of Hope is Goodall’s embrace of dubious science on genetically modified organisms (GMO). On the website of the Jane Goodall Foundation, readers are told—correctly—that “there is scientific consensus” that climate change is being driven by human activity. But Goodall has little time for scientific consensus on the issue of GMO crops, dedicating the book to those who “dare speak out” against scientific consensus. Indeed, her chapter on the subject is riddled with unsupportable claims backed by dubious studies.
So in some senses the plagiarism is just emblematic of un-serious thinking on the part of Jane Goodall. The lack of attribution is going to be sloughed off with an apology and a re-edit of the book, undoubtedly. We should not let the poor scientific thinking go unchallenged though, just to raise a mob against plagiarism. The abuse of scientific consensus is a far worse transgression.