Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Granville Sewell's SloT article: Zombie or Persistent Vegetative State?

I've been apprised that the 15 seconds of Internet fame alloted to this blog has arrived, in the form of a link from John West's blog entry over at Evolution News and Views. As welcome (in the 'just spell my name right' way) as that may be, it seems that John and/or lawyer Pete Lepiscopo are confused about the issues.

Here's the text of my letter to Dr Rodin, the editor at AML.

Dr Rodin,

I am appalled to see a preprint, apparently from Applied Mathematical Letters, of the often repeated and often refuted nonsense of Granville Sewell on an anti-science web site.
http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/elsevier-publishes-granville-sewells-latest-on-the-second-law/

Dr Sewell, whose expertise lies in partial differential equations, has writen several times on the relevance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the topic of evolution. Each time he makes poor arguments that do not show any understanding of the physics or chemistry involved, clearly contradicting the philosophy of your journal.

A concise refutation is
http://ajp.aapt.org/resource/1/ajpias/v76/i11/p1031_s1

The reputation of AML will be harmed by publishing this article by Sewell.

Yours,
David vun Kannon

You might notice that I don't make any request of Dr Rodin, specifically, I don't ask him to not publish. Nor do I base my argument on my own reputation in the field of evolution or thermodynamic studies (fields where my reputation is at least equal to Dr Sewell's). Rather, I supply Dr Rodin with a link to an article published in 2008.

American Journal of Physics -- November 2008 -- Volume 76, Issue 11, pp. 1031
Entropy and evolution
Daniel F. StyerDepartment of Physics and Astronomy, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio 44074
Abstract:
Quantitative estimates of the entropy involved in biological evolution demonstrate that there is no conflict between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. The calculations are elementary and could be used to enliven the thermodynamics portion of a high school or introductory college physics course.
© 2008 American Association of Physics Teachers

The above article is far more persuasive than a letter referencing it. While Sewell's lawyer might think an e-mail from a nobody blogger can move an editor to extraordinary actions, I think the credit fairly belongs with the scientific literature that was cited.

West then follows lawyer Lepiscopo into an odd series of quotes and links. For example, West states:
According to the journal's editorial policies, acceptance of an article cannot be rescinded once an author has been notified of its acceptance, and accepted articles are supposed to be withdrawn only "under exceptional circumstances" such as fraud, errors, ethics violations, and the like.
Um, yeah. Follow that "cannot be rescinded" link and you arrive at a page describing the Elsevier editorial process, which is not relevant to the situation after acceptance. Even so, the page states:
Editors with the appropriate EES permission* can rescind (undo) a decision before or after the Author has been notified, or after the final disposition has been set to Reject.
Notice the "can rescind" verb? West and lawyer Lepiscopo appear to have read that as "cannot rescind" for some reason, perhaps a reason favoring their position.

West and lawyer Lepiscopo continue by noting that errors are a valid reason for withdrawing a paper. Well, that is really the point, isn't it? While people familiar with Sewell's Johnny-one-note attack on evolution know he has been singing the same song for years (as Weseley Elsberry showed), more to the point for AML is that this version of the paper does not address the literature, specifically the 2008 paper cited above.

I am not privy to any agreement, certainly less so than John West seems to be. If Elsevier has made a pragmatic choice to buy off a nuisance lawsuit, I understand it from a business perspective. I hope it might make them review the business process that led to this fiasco, a 'rapid review' editorial workflow. I'm glad to hear that Dr Sewell is welcome to submit future articles to AML. This is a privilege that is shared by most of the population, including myself, John West, and lawyer Lepiscopo.

And what of the paper itself? According to West, it can join several of it's kin on Dr Sewell's web site. It might even say 'accepted by AML' on it. But it remains comatose. If John West wants to see how Dr Sewell and I discuss his ideas, he can look at my comments (under the pen name Nakashima) on the various threads on Uncommon Descent where the same thoughts have been floated in the past.





11 comments:

Robin said...

Thanks very much for this well-articulated summary of the issue, David. Pity they chose to buy off the nuisance suit given what appears to quite valid and ethical reasons for pulling the paper, but I suppose there are more important fish to fry.

Nice work though.

Patrick May said...

David,

I found your blog from EN&V via UD (reading the headlines of which every morning is my secret vice). Since EN&V doesn't allow comments (Whatever could they be afraid of?) I hope you won't mind if I post here to correct one of the several erroneous claims they make.

The reason AML rescinded Sewell's ridiculous paper was not solely due to a single "Darwinist blogger." I sent the following to the AML editors on February 21st:

Dr. Rodin,

I'm writing with regard to the pre-print of an article that has apparently been accepted by the Applied Mathematics Letters. The pre-print is available here: http://www.math.utep.edu/Faculty/sewell/articles/secondlaw.pdf

Based on my degree in Chemical Engineering I can assure you that the author of this paper has either a tenuous, at best, grasp of the concepts of thermodynamics or is deliberately equivocating on essential terms. This paper includes no application of mathematics; it is nothing more than religious apologetics wrapped in a simplistic summary of how to calculate entropy and a great deal of confused, non-rigorous discussion of "order."

I would like to strongly urge you to have this paper reviewed by people with expertise in thermodynamics. It also wouldn't hurt to have someone with an understanding of the creationist movement take a look. This is clearly an attempt by a religious fundamentalist to achieve a patina of respectability for his frequently and soundly debunked creationist claims (see here for an example: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/elsevier-publishes-granville-sewells-latest-on-the-second-law/). Errors in peer review do occur -- I hope you won't let this one tarnish the image of your journal.

Regards,

Patrick May


I received a prompt response very similar to yours.

I'm sure I'm not the only other person to notify them of the problems with the paper. Obviously the ID creationists will continue to spin this as a simultaneous victory and martyrdom, but in fact it shows the strength of the scientific publishing process -- even when the review system fails it is still possible to detect and correct errors.

In closing, I agree with you that the payment to Sewell was probably a simple business decision to avoid spending money on lawyers to respond to him. It's unfortunate that it will be portrayed as capitulation.

Regards,

Patrick

David vun Kannon said...

Patrick,
I won't tell anyone about your secret vice!
Yes, ENV allows comments in the same way as some Communist countries organize spontaneous demonstrations. Thank you for making your comment. I know that Dr Rodin did receive more than one letter, and I think his response was correct. Elsevier, not so much.

Patrick May said...

Is the full text of Elsevier's apology available online? I hope it's something like "We're sorry our review process let your poor quality paper be approved."

David vun Kannon said...

I haven't seen it.

Lars said...

David wrote,
Follow that "cannot be rescinded" link and you arrive at a page describing the Elsevier editorial process, which is not relevant to the situation after acceptance.

This is a really puzzling assertion...which seems clearly contradicted by the quotes below. How is it not relevant?

Even so, the page states:
Editors with the appropriate EES permission* can rescind (undo) a decision before or after the Author has been notified, or after the final disposition has been set to Reject.
Notice the "can rescind" verb? West and lawyer Lepiscopo appear to have read that as "cannot rescind" for some reason, perhaps a reason favoring their position.

First, the part you quoted talks about rescinding decisions in general, not specifically about rescinding an Acceptance decision. Then immediately following the part you quoted, it says specifically,
Note: Accepted and Withdrawn submissions cannot have the decision rescinded. (Emphasis in original.)
It's unfortunate that you did not mention this sentence.

The policy could be stated more clearly, but the plainest interpretation would seem to be that the latter ("Accepted and Withdrawn submissions cannot have the decision rescinded") is an exception to the former ("Editors with the appropriate EES permission* can rescind (undo) a decision before or after the Author has been notified, or after the final disposition has been set to Reject.")

In other words, the part you quoted gives some general constraints on the times when decisions can be rescinded, but is not intended to imply that those are the only constraints on rescindment. The following Note gives further, important constraints (in bold), which you seem to have overlooked.

In other words, it appears that West and Lepiscopo are right on this point. Has Dr Rodin claimed otherwise?

David vun Kannon said...

Yo, Lars, thanks for playing, but... no. "Accepted and Withdrawn" means the paper was accepted for publication and then the author withdrew it. Quite rightly, the editor cannot change this status.
The sentence I quoted clearly states that the status can be changed before or after communicating with the author that the paper has been accepted.

Anonymous said...

David,

That's great and all (and btw, congratulations on your 5 minutes of fame, I'm sure this will greatly boost your chances of getting elected to assistant VP of the local secular humanist society) but why the heck is the journal paying $10,000 and issuing a public apology?

Its somewhat inconsistent with the position you are promoting. Do you know something we don't? Has the editor informed you that he's paying off Sewell just to make him go away and the forthcoming apology is insincere?

Lars said...

So you're interpreting "Accepted and Withdrawn submissions" to mean "submissions that have been both Accepted and Withdrawn", instead of "Accepted submissions and Withdrawn submissions"? Do you have a source verifying your interpretation?

While the clarity of the policy ought to be improved, your interpretation seems dubious. Your interpretation supports your position that the policy allows rescindment of paper Acceptance decisions; but it also contradicts your interpretation of the previous sentence, which you say "clearly states that the status can be changed before or after communicating with the author [that the paper has been accepted - your interpolation]."

Either way you slice the second sentence, it means there are exceptions to the first. So the first clearly does not mean what you interpret it to say: that a decision can be rescinded "before or after the Author has been notified, or after the final disposition has been set to Reject" with no other constraints. Instead, it establishes some constraints on recindment, and leaves some for the following sentence. Again, has Dr Rodin claimed that the policy allows rescindment of Acceptance decisions?

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for your vote of confidence, but I've had my fill of societies, churches, and synagogues.

As I said in the body of this post, settling for 10K is a pragmatic business decision. Elsevier is a big company, and in some sense would rather invest its money in making more money than in proving itself right. Dr Rodin or other folks who care about the reputation of AML as a journal are not at the table, I'm guessing, when the corporate decision gets made.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Lars,
If you follow the second link in that paragraph I quoted from John West, you'll arrive at another page describing Elsevier editorial process, this one defining the differences between 'withdraw', 'retract', 'replace', etc. These terms might be used interchangeably in common speech, but have distinct meanings within the editorial policy.
I agree that the second sentence sets a limit on the first. That is irrelevant to this case, since no one is arguing that Sewell withdrew his paper. What remains is the first sentence:
Editors with the appropriate EES permission* can rescind (undo) a decision before or after the Author has been notified, or after the final disposition has been set to Reject.
From that sentence, West and lawyer Lepiscopo get the idea that an acceptance decision cannot be rescinded without communicating with the author first. But it clearly says that the acceptance can be rescinded after the author was notified of acceptance. There is no requirement of communication in that sentence.