plastic_bags_trees2_webI’m over the rebranded Allie’s Answers today, filling my role a as resident science guy. I’m looking at the contentious science surrounding plastic shopping bags today. Head on over and have a look and check out the rest of The Greenists as well.

One of the reasons that the science on this one is a bit foggy is a lot of misinformation. A lot of environmental groups trot out a figure of a million birds a year killed by plastic bags. This is bogus, as this article in the Times of London points out in excruciating detail.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Alexi Mostrous’ article spends about 23 paragraphs on penguins and exactly one on the other, and more important reasons for considering a ban or surcharge on lightweight plastic shopping bags. Mostrous clearly came in to this article with an agenda and is not inclined to let anything get in the way of that agenda. Murdoch Journalism 101.

Those of you who are paying attention may have noticed that this is the second Times science article that has gotten under my skin in recent days. I don’t have a vendetta going against the Times. I’ve always thought of them as a pretty decent right-leaning news source, but a lot of newspapers pick up their science stories. That being the case, they’ve got a responsibility to get it right and to cover the whole story.


This was supposed to be a short little post directing you to my guest post at The Greenists. But speaking of the Times and my not vendetta, I feel obligated to report some correspondence. If you remember this post of a couple of weeks ago, I had some unkind words for The Times Science Editor Jonathan Leake regarding an article he wrote on beauty and evolution. Leake obviously doesn’t know the unwritten rule that it is best the little fish who snipe at you from the shallows because he wrote me an e-mail:

Dear Chris

I just saw your lengthy blog about science journalism. I thought you might like to see a couple of the original papers on which the article was based.

The internet is a very free space but publishing blogs or articles without thoroughly checking them with the published data or raising relevant issues with the people you are criticising is the very fault you seem to be attacking.

Please feel free to check anything you might want to write in future.


Jonathan Leake

This annoyed me, because I addressed this in the post, so I responded:

Dear Jonathan,

Thanks for your terse mail. I did contact Jokela – one of your cited sources – and tried to contact you as well. Multiple times. But your e-mail address is not published and apparently your news desk doesn’t pass e-mails along.

My primary issue with your article still stands – it should not be difficult to find the primary literature on which your story is based. I should not have to contact you to determine where the material is coming from. Secondly, you still have this unattributed ‘beauty race’ quote that has now been picked up in papers around the world. You, on your own, have convinced countless people that there is a an evolutionary beauty race going on. You’ve  based this on dodgy primary literature, a half baked survey that makes no conclusions regarding evolution and some theoretical biology articles.

Those are the faults I’m attacking. I had your published data in hand, but cast a critical eye over it before writing an article.


Leake, to his credit, replied. However, he managed to ignore my clearly stated points for the second time…

Dear Chris

Of course it is going to be difficult to get the original papers. As with most research, the information was published in a subscription journal which you have to pay for. Having said that the abstracts are easily viewable for free just by doing  a standard google scholar or medline search on the authors names – which were in the article.

Have you read Kanazawa’s paper? I quoted him as saying: “Physical attractiveness is a highly heritable trait, which disproportionately increases the reproductive success of daughters much more than that of sons. If more attractive parents have more daughters and if physical attractiveness is heritable, it logically follows that women over many generations gradually become more physically attractive on average than men.”

This was just part of his arguments on evolution and attractiveness and you now have the whole paper setting out the evolutionary argument for attractiveness in greater detail.

I can see wny you think this is a flaky area, especially if you haven’t read much of the increasingly extensive scientific literature. The evolution of human behaviour is quite a new area of research and has not achieved wide understanding. However, at the heart of it is the idea that evolutionary pressures extend much further into our lives, looks, behaviour and so on than most of us have realised.
The idea that attractiveness is subject to evolutionary pressure is, however, well-established. You could look at the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour for more examples of research in this area. Or find the webpages of researchers like Randy Thornhill and David Buss.
Finally, these kinds of issues are always controversial so I usually get them checked over before publication by an academic working in the relevant who knows the literature. In this case I had the article checked by Gayle Brewer, a psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, who was also quoted. If you do all these things – as I did in writing the original article – I hope you’ll realise that your accusation of ‘you, on your own’ is inaccurate.
The other point of all this is just to illustrate that these articles are constructed with some care and regard for the facts. Sometimes we get them wrong but that’s much rarer than you might think and usually the result of a cock up or genuine error, not bad intentions. And if anyone complains and they’re right we publish a correction.
That’s a very different approach to that taken by most bloggers.

You know, I had chucked this mail in the trash. I’m a busy guy. I’ve got a life to lead. And I didn’t want to get in a bitch fight with a Times Editor. But then I reread it just now. And I don’t like Mr. Leake’s tone. Not one bit. So, I was compelled to respond…


I wasn’t intending to reply to this mail, largely because I just don’t think you’re hearing me and it’s a waste of both of our time. But, you’ve managed to raise my ire.

Jonathan, I know how to search the literature. I am a university lecturer. I have a Ph.D. in Genetics. I spent four years doing post-doctoral studies in evolution and development at Oxford. I have institutional access to all of the papers that you’ve cited. I know what I’m doing, Jonathan. The problem was that Jokela’s article was in press. You make the informed reader’s job easier by stating, for example:

“In an upcoming study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki….”

Let’s leave that aside, if you like I’ll make a statement that there was a misunderstanding.

But the question that you still haven’t answered is regarding what I consider to be a careless use of the phrase ‘beauty race’. Where did this phrase come from? It is a direct quote. From whom?

You write:

“MODERN men have got it so good. According to scientific research, women are gradually becoming more attractive in an evolutionary ‘beauty race’.”

and again

“Over generations, the scientists argue, this has led to women becoming steadily more aesthetically pleasing, a “beauty race” that is still on. The findings have emerged from a series of studies of physical attractiveness and its links to reproductive success in humans.”

The words ‘beauty race’ are in your quotes. That implies that someone said that to you in an interview. You have yet to attribute that quote. You’re a journalist. Where did it come from? Who said it to you?

If you read my post, these are the only two issues that I had with your article. I’m willing to make a correction if one is warranted. But unless you can attribute the beauty race quote, I am not inclined to do so.


Leake’s reply…

er … no need to raise your ire. Or do a correction, although you can if you want. I just thought you’d appreciate some extra information about the process that goes into these articles, and hadn’t intended to upset you. However, Jokela’s article was actually quite available – I pulled it off the ScienceDirect website with no special access and it was also sent out in contents alerts.
I can see your point about saying its in press although |I suspect most people won’t understand what distinction is being made. And providing a link from the website is a good idea. In fact we have often done that. Sometimes we even ask scientists to write supporting articles. Neither of those things happened this time simply through lack of time on the day but Jokela’s article should still have been easily findable.
The phrase beauty race came from the other academic quoted. I think her name was Gayle Brewer. It also seemed to encapsulate the points being made by Karnazawa. And, as I said, I did send her a draft of the story in advance.
I stick to my point about bloggers. I wouldn’t write about someone or their work without contacting them. It’s unfair and risks inaccuracies.
I hope that helps …!

Jonathan Leake

(Italics are mine).

I read this as: “Uh, I’m not 100% certain about that quote. But it sounded good. So no correction necessary. But bloggers still suck. They’re so mean and irresponsible. Unlike Times editors who only make up the occasional quote that then gets syndicated in newspapers around the world.”

To be fair, though I’ll take him at his word. I’m going to set aside his snark – even though I did contact both him, his news desk and his paper’s general inquiry mail and got no response until after the post was written. I’m going to call it done.

Point and match.


I like to consider myself a gentleman and a scholar. So, I’m going to offer Leake an olive branch. An end to hostilities. I’ve got to give him credit for being responsive to bloggers (as unwise as that probably is) as most journalists are not. So, I’m going to quote his final mail in my original post and send him a polite e-mail thanking him for taking the time to correspond. Dodgy story or not, he’s clearly a decent enough guy. And I like to keep my karma clean.

This track by SoCal’s The Plastic Revolution has wormed its way onto my regular playlist recently. I don’t know much about this pop-punk quartet, haven’t heard all of their debut LP “Planning for Chaos”, but what I’ve heard compares favorably with some of the great Californie pop-punk bands – Social Distortion, Green Day, The Offspring.

Have a listen and if you like it, buy The Plastic Revolution‘s “Planning for Chaos” from The Plastic Revolution - Planning for Chaos.

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Plastic bag

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