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August 21, 2007

PZ Myers sued over negative book review

Prominent skeptic and science blogger PZ Myers is in the middle of a legal battle because he had the temerity to pan some crank's book (twice!).

The embittered author, Dr. Stuart Pivar, filed a lawsuit against Myers' publisher in New York's Southern District Court on August 16th.

Andrea Bottaro of Panda's Thumb reports that Pivar is seeking $15 million in damages from Myers and his publisher Seed Media Company.

Pivar claims he was libeled why Myers described him as a "classic crackpot." Here's my favorite part of the complaint (pdf):

16. On July 12, 2007, Defendant Myers maliciously, and without cause, defamed Plaintiff by referring to him as "a classic crackpot."

17. Upon information and belief, Defendant Myers' references to Plaintiff as "a classic crackpot" were necessarily intended to disparage Plaintiff's abilities as a scientific enquirer and were intended to hold Plaintiff up to ridicule and embarrassment in this specific area of Plaintiff's professional endeavors.

18. Myer's defamatory remarks were made with actual malice; Myers called Plaintiff "a classic crackpot" fully knowing that statement to be false as a statement of fact and in reckless disregard of the truth about Plaintiff because Myer's knew full well, the time of publishing his defamatory statement that no scientist holding the international reputation ofany of Hazen, Sasselov, Goodwin or Tyson would endorse or review the work of a crackpot.

19. Myers has publicly described himself on his web log as a "cruel and insensitive person".

Grampa Simpson couldn't have said it better himself!


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Comments

Seldom does something make me as angry as some petulant, rich asshole abusing the justice system in a transparent effort to silence criticism. It would be a massive injustice for this frivolous lawsuit to even go to court, I hope it gets thrown out.

Do you think "contemporary crackpot" would have been better?

Hey - another graduate of the Harlan Ellison School for Misunderstanding Defamation Law! What amazes me about people like this is that it seems like their misunderstanding of the law could be pretty easily dispelled by a few seconds' thought. What if you really could sue people for millions of dollars for making vague, subjective insults toward you as a public figure? Wouldn't our discourse look a little different?

I don't read that many complaints, I'm happy to say, but are the punctuation and spelling mistakes in this one just par for the course, or more reasons to regard it with contempt...

I don’t know beans about law, so can’t say anything about the lawsuit. I have however, spent much more time than I care to think about, looking at many thousands of developing fish eggs/embryos through some very expensive microscopes. Which does qualify me to make a comment about Pivar’s limb development diagram in P.Z.’s second post.

Fantasy, full stop.

It bears as much resemblance to reality as say, I don’t know, claiming that the Grand Canyon was dug by a civilization of cocaine-addicted gophers. If the rest of Pivar’s stuff is anything like his imaginative limb development diagram, spun out at book length, it would be hard to describe it as anything but crackpottery. Classic or otherwise.

Do you think "contemporary crackpot" would have been better?

Perhaps, "neo-classic crackpot" would have been more complimentary?

I suspect strongly that part of the case will depend on how the term "crackpot" is defined. If it's defined as a deliberate fraud, as opposed to an advocate of unsound theories or hypotheses, then Myers may be more likely to be in real trouble.

I have not read the complaint, nor do I fancy myself an expert on the law of defamation. In general, though, attacking someone as a fraud or a liar, as opposed to being full of crap, exposes you more. What I find surprising is that the attorney who drafted this complaint did not emphasize that theory, rather than going merely on the impugning talent.

Surprising - and frankly embarrassing - to me is how the complaint is organized. I am NOT a New York lawyer but this is a federal suit and the federal and Maryland rules of procedure are very similar. In general, one does not make legal argument in a section called "The Facts" (see paragraph 21). There is a distinction between "declaratory relief" (asking a court to make an official finding as a declaration) and "injunctive relief" (asking a court to COMPEL or PROHIBIT something, as actually requested in paragraph 34); often one asks for both at the same time but if you sue for seven figures, you go all out and (ahem) edit your first draft before filing.

The count for tortious interference does not outline the elements of the tort of tortious interference with business relations, but just flatly states that "it happened." Causes of actions are like recipes; typically one outlines each element one by one in separate paragraphs - one stick of butter, one pound of flour, 2 eggs, etc.

"Tortious [I]nterference with Business [R]elations" is capitalized irregularly without apparent reason. The paragraph indentations are highly irregular; please see page 8 for an ugly failure to edit. Top of page 4 looks hideous as well. Unless some bizarre "page-1 8-tab indentation rule" applies in the Southern District of New York of which I have not learned in 12+ years of practice, the very first page of this complaint looks horrendous, starting with the first sentence of prose text - "Plaintiff Stuart Pivar, for his......" - indented FUBAR to the right. If there is such a rule with which I am not familiar, someone please correct me; it does NOT apply in the federal court in Maryland.

I do not claim to be the second coming of Clarence Darrow but I would be horrified and humiliated to put my name and reputation professionally on such an atrociously unedited document. If anything, it's because I know that I am HIGHLY fallible that I shudder at this embarrassment to my profession.

Bruce/Crablaw, Merriam-Webster online gives a single definition for crackpot: "one given to eccentric or lunatic notions." That's how I understand it--in my experience, crackpot doesn't carry any implication of fraud. When I hear crackpot, I think of someone who sincerely believes the delusional theories he propounds. Are you familiar with some usage that does carry an implication of deliberate fraud, or are you merely saying, "If such usage exists, that might provide some legal basis for a defamation suit"?

The faster a judge tosses out this lawsuit, the better.

This is no shock at all. Back in July a food critic was being sued because of a bad review, pretty sad.

http://www.slashfood.com/2007/07/17/philadelphia-inquirer-food-critic-sued-by-local-restaurant/

The complaint also misspells "pharyngula."

It think it was a SciAm blogger who pointed out that the plaintiff has filed 25 other suits in the same court. The Panda's Thumb post above has a link.

I always thought "crackpot" connoted almost messianic sincerity.

Surprising - and frankly embarrassing - to me is how the complaint is organized.

The plaintiff is a rich industrialist, yet he got a solo practitioner from 26 Broadway -- a building that houses a lot of solo practitioners -- to draft his complaint for him. Someone without much federal experience, even if he is admitted to practice before federal court (it's usually not necessary to attach a verfication to a federal complaint, that's a state thing).

This tells me that the First Amendment specialists at the mid-sized to big firm he usually uses for his personal dealings laughed in his face. So somehow, he winds up with this guy, whose registration I looked up and who was admitted only in 2005.

Not to mention, he's making out a claim for per se libel under New York law, but mentions a case from Mississippi as authority. And completely neglects to set out the basis for his claims, other than "crackpot" being uttered.

What I find frightening about this has nothing to do with the merits of the case, since such merits are nonexistent. Instead it is the vulnerability of bloggers that it exposes. It's unlikely that PZ will suffer any real hardships, financial or otherwise (aside from some frustration), as a result of this, but there are plenty of bloggers, some as popular as PZ, who would have a hard time affording any legal fees that might result from such a case (even if those legal fees would ultimately be returned in any ruling). Lawsuits like this have the potential to seriously change the content and tone of the blogosphere as a result. Just one won't do it, but 5, 10? It will make people without financial means think twice before they say what they think about certain types of people, I fear.

I agree that "crackpot" is likely to be interpreted as a non-defamatory term, much like "crank" was in Dilworth v. Dudley (a suit also brought, and dismissed, over an unfavorable professional review of a lunatic's work.)

It's really interesting that although the reviews got a presentation here, with the complaint being featured and not the reviews themselves, as being sort of like "Ha ha, that fucking crackpot, he doesn't know a damn thing.", in actuality the reviews were more careful and considerate, actually looking at the ideas before making criticisms of them.

The issue isn't that she called him a crackpot and it's not ok to call someone a crackpot if you're someone crass enough to do that without considering their work, the issue is that she wrote a considerate book review criticizing him and he wants that not to have happened.

I think science proving atheism is a crackpot idea, because it's not in the realm of science to prove or disprove, but I wouldn't characterize someone's considerate presentation of their case, as opposed to a condescending ideologically biased presentation of their case, as being the product of idiots. There, it doesn't feel so good when the shoe is on the other foot, does it?

>I think science proving atheism is a crackpot idea, because it's not in the realm of science to prove or disprove, but I wouldn't characterize someone's considerate presentation of their case, as opposed to a condescending ideologically biased presentation of their case, as being the product of idiots. There, it doesn't feel so good when the shoe is on the other foot, does it?

I keep reading these sentences around here that seem to be in English but don't quite yield meaning. My best guess is that this comment is something about unnamed "scientists" trying to prove there is no God. While a few -- yes, kinda crackpot -- scientists have tried to demonstrate there is a transcendent deity, I honestly cannot think of anyone who tried to prove God did not exist (as opposed to the implausibility of religious claims, not the same thing in the least). After all, close to Rule One is that you cannot prove a negative. I can claim "there are no green blackbirds, because one has never been seen" but that in no way proves there isn't one hiding in the tree in my front yard.

Summerisle

Science never claims to 'prove' atheism - which would involve proving a negative (CANNOT prove the non-existence of a nonexistant sky fairy, merely state that it is highly improbable and invite theists to offer some sort of evidence supporting their position). Certainly Professor Myers does not so claim. You have created a new 'fact' out of whole cloth on which to base your criticism. Misrepresentative at the very least. It's such an obvious misrepresentation that I have to credit either widespread willful (malevolent) ignorance or equally widespread dishonesty.

So, actually the shoe feels plenty good as far as I'm concerned. Any time anybody wants to make an ACTUAL argument, based on something other than misprepresentations, wish thinking, self-righteous umbrage, or general crackpottery, I'll be just pleased as punch.

I think arguments and disagreements are a fine thing. We should keep having them to prevent rationality from atrophying or growing plaque. But when one LOSES an argument (because all the facts are on the other side), one should acknowledge defeat, not go crying to a judge saying the big bad (smarter) man hurt one's "widdle feewings".

Atheism is the the lack of belief in God, not a belief in the non-existence of God. This is misunderstood all the time, and leads to comments like "proving atheism". There's nothing to prove, atheism doesn't make any assertions!

PZ is the devil to some people and doesn't much care if he is. He is a good scientist, as those who read his posts explaining developmental evolution know. The test will come down to whether good science can beat bad science in a court of law [unless the disturbed "Dr." Peever comes to his senses out of court]. Sometimes [think Pennsylvania school boards] it does, sometimes [think Scopes or anything in KS;-] it doesn't.

Win or loose, PZ mocks those who have it coming. Peever really doesn't want to be in that category though it is his own words that put him there.

>Atheism is the the lack of belief in God, not a belief in the non-existence of God. This is misunderstood all the time,

It sure is. It just happened again. Both atheism and agnosticism can be divided into "strong" and "weak" categories. Most definitions atheism give prominence of place to denial of God's existence. And rightly so. "Weak" atheism and agnosticism are both wimpy and more than a bit unpersuasive and ridiculous. They're cop-outs.

"Weak" agnosticism claims to have no opinion about the existence or non-existence of God pending the appearance of definitive evidence. Like what? A big finger coming out of a cloud and skywriting, "Yes, goofballs, I'M HERE!"? All the "evidence" that's gonna be in, is in. Claiming to be a "weak" agnostic is to say, "I'd rather not talk about it."

"Weak" or "negative" atheism is pretty hard to distinguish from "weak" agnosticism. Best I can make out, it's either "I have no opinion about the matter at all" (yeah, I bet) or "I don't believe God but I don't believe God doesn't exist, either" (in other words, "I'd really rather not talk about it").

Myself, I'm a "strong" agnostic who feels the existence or non-existence of God can never be demonstrated one way or the other and the nature of such a being is completely unknowable to a mere single species on a single mere planet in this unimaginably vast universe. So what God is all about is not an interesting question. How should human beings live and behave -- now you're talking vital subjects.

It may be rude or hurtful or even unproductive to call someone a crackpot--but it's not grounds to sue.

For suing PZ and Seed, the plaintiff is a malicious bully with no regard for free speech or the court's time. And if he doesn't like my opinion, he can sue me--thereby proving my point.

Echoes of Paul Deignan.

Not surprisingly, a search on ISI Web of Knowledge, Zoological Record, SCOPUS, BIOSIS, Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, PubMed, Scirus, JSTOR, Dissertation Abstracts, etc., for anything Pivar may have published yields nothing.

Parse, I defer to your knowledge of the term and the dictionary. I don't use the term. When someone makes money by conveying demonstrably utter foolishness about real-life things like science or law, I consider her or him a fraud in effect. People have a moral duty not to be crackpots, not to urinate into the meme pool. The fact that a BS artist has fooled himself aggravates, rather than mitigates, their culpability in my view. But the law and the lexicographer are more merciful on the "crackpot" such that calling someone that is apparently not tantamount to calling her or him a con.

I hope and assume that PZ and Seed are well insured.

>People have a moral duty not to be crackpots

Aw, I donno. I don't want to live under a system where from any quarter I'm officially prohibited from believing silly things. Some officially silly things turn out to be plain truths later (meteorites are the classic example).

I'd go so far as to say wide-ranging thinkers have a duty to be "crackpots" until the evidence overwhelms them.

Of course, I just visited Orgonon a couple weeks ago. And it embodies all the excitements and perils of crackpottery.

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