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  Topic: Hooper's 'Of Moths and Men' and reviews thereof, Links, discussion, etc.< Next Oldest | Next Newest >  

Posts: 319
Joined: May 2002

(Permalink) Posted: Sep. 21 2002,13:26   

This thread is for accumulating links on Judith Hooper's recent book Of Moths and Men.

We might as well start with the link to the book:

Of Moths and Men at

Most reviews of the book are positive, but my is not.  Mine, posted at

Hooper gets the science wrong, August 27, 2002

Reviewer: ntamzek (see more about me) from Santa Barbara, CA United States

The fundamental rule of science journalism should be "first, get the science right". Unfortunately, Hooper's book is marred by One Big Mistake: namely, Hooper misrepresents the state of the scientific question on Kettlewell's explanation for industrial melanism in the peppered moth, namely differential predation by birds against moth morphs more or less cryptic in polluted woodlands. Reading Hooper's book, one would think that this thesis, what I call the "Bird Predation Theory" (BPT), was on the rocks. But this just ain't so -- if we read peppered moth researcher Michael Majerus' (2002) book Moths, we find him writing on page 252,

[E]very scientist I know who has worked on melanism in the Peppered moth in the field still regards differential predation of the morphs in different habitats as of prime importance in the case. The critics of work on this case and those who cast doubt on its validity are, without exception, persons who have, as far as I know, never bred the moth and never conducted an experiment on it. In most cases they have probably never seen a live Peppered moth in the wild. Perhaps those who have the most intimate knowledge of this moth are the scientists who have bred it, watched it and studied it, in both the laboratory and the wild. These include, among others, the late Sir Cyril Clarke, Professors Paul Brakefield, Laurence Cook, Bruce Grant, K. Mikkola, Drs Rory Howlett, Carys Jones, David Lees, John Muggleton and myself. I believe that, without exception, it is our view that the case of melanism in the Peppered moth still stands as one of the best examples of evolution, by natural selection, in action.

Hooper, however, presents the peppered moth case as if it were falling apart, a story which of course the press reviews have uncritically repeated.

Hooper's hero in the book is the one critic of the bird predation thesis who is actually a moth expert, Ted Sargent, although even here Sargent is actually an expert on an entirely different family of moths (the Underwings, e.g. Catocala) and has done almost no work on peppered moths. Hooper, however, gives Sargent a huge platform and gives his numerous critics, and their published rebuttals to Sargent, very short shrift. Hooper portrays Sargent as a lone rebellious American taking on the dogmatic British establishment, but of course American peppered moth researcher Bruce Grant, who supports the BPT and has done numerous studies on peppered moths specifically, is not given the same chance to make his case.

As for Sargent's actual arguments against the bird predation thesis, both Bruce Grant and Laurence Cook wrote articles rebutting Sargent's critique, but Hooper gives Cook's article merely a brief brush-off in a paragraph, completely ignoring, for example, Cook's statistical analysis of all the previous peppered moth experiments, proving a correlation between moth fitness and morph frequency with a >99% confidence. This was a direct rebuttal to Sargent's most important argument, that the statistical support for the bird predation thesis was weak, but Hooper doesn't deal with it directly like she should if she is going to advocate an alternative view.

Hooper does come up with a few arguments that not even the creationists have proposed -- most importantly, that Kettlewell faked his results, or almost as bad, unconsciously mislead himself. This is despite the fact that the predation and mark-release-recapture experiments have been repeated by other researchers and have in the main confirmed his results (see the articles by Cook, Grant, and the books by Majerus 1998 and 2002 for detailed reviews). The most astounding passage in Of Moths and Men occurs when Hooper spends a paragraph "squinting" at the tables in Kettlewell's paper, and she notes that Kettlewell's moth recapture numbers increase suddenly on July 1, 1953. The implication is that Kettlewell fudged things somewhere.

But a modicum of investigation shreds Hooper's fraud hypothesis. What Hooper fails to look at seriously was that when Kettlewell released more moths, he recaptured more. Kettlewell started releasing far more moths on June 30th, and started catching far more moths on the morning of July 1st. In fact, when one does a linear regression, one discovers that "number of moths released" explains 80% of the variance in "number of moths recaptured". This is a nice strong linear relationship. Fraud is not a necessary explanation. Why didn't Hooper realize the obvious answer? Later in the book, Sargent keys off the same change in numbers, and he too mysteriously ignores the obvious explanation -- as in most of the book, Sargent's word is taken as gospel and is substituted for rigorous scientific evaluation.

In addition to the major issues discussed above, Hooper's book is peppered with small but disturbing mistakes of logic and science; there is a particularly nasty one about genetics that shows up Hooper's amateurishness (and frankly, that of her editors and glowing reviewers) rather blatantly. I will, however, leave these as exercises for future reviewers to acknowledge or not, so that readers of the reviews may distinguish the critical thinkers from the whatever-a-science-journalist-says-must-be-true types.

The peppered moth story is an awfully good story; but just as this doesn't make it true, it doesn't make it too good to be true either. Hooper's story, the story of a rebel (Sargent) overturning an oppressive orthodoxy is a "good story" also. As Hooper should know, the only way to tell if a "good story" is a true one is by a careful, balanced and weighted review of the evidence. The peppered moth researchers have and are doing this repeatedly, as every bit of new evidence comes in; this is their job as scientists; and their scientific conclusion is that Kettlewell's central finding, that bird predation is the agent of selection, remains firm. Hooper, however, chooses sensationalism, psychoanalysis, and a very selective review of authorities and evidence to reach her conclusion that the bird predation thesis is unsupported; this is the central flaw of her book.

Reader beware.

(9 of 19 people found this review helpful!;)

Edited by niiicholas on Sep. 21 2002,13:27

  8 replies since Sep. 21 2002,13:26 < Next Oldest | Next Newest >  


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