RE: My last word

Donald Frack (
Sun, 18 Apr 1999 02:25:19 -0700

On Saturday, April 17, 1999 9:29 PM Brian D Harper wrote:

> But, in the very least, an experimentalist should go to great
> pains in explaining his experiment. What compromises were needed?
> How is the experiment different from the actual case being
> studied? As an experimentalist myself I would say failure to
> do this is simply inexcusable. Maybe its not fraud, but it
> certainly is poor procedure.
> If what Wells says is true (I can't judge this myself), that
> "...peppered moths do not normally rest on tree trunks in the wild."
> And if they are portrayed as doing so, then this should be
> clearly stated. Further, if, as Jonathan claims
> #"Textbook photographs which show peppered moths on tree trunks have been
> #staged. The photographs were made by people who either manually
> positioned
> #live, torpid moths on tree trunks, or glued or pinned dead moths
> to them."
> then this should be clearly indicated. I simply cannot imagine anyone
> who calls himself an experimentalist failing to describe the conditions
> under which his or her reported results were obtained.


There seems to be some confusion here. Jonathan Wells was not describing
illustrations in scientific works (as far as I remember), which is what you
appear to mean by "experimentalists" describing the conditions of
experiments. The illustrations at issue are in textbooks, presumably such as
those used in high school biology classes. These illustrations are usually
used simply to show cryptic coloration vs contrast against two types of
backgrounds. The authors of the textbooks cannot be assumed to be experts on
peppered moths.

1) Unless the background of some statistically more likely part of the tree
on which the moths rest differs significantly from the trunk (which Wells
never claimed), what is the point in all this? Comparison with the
background is what is being illustrated.

2) Entomologist friends of mine who I have asked all agreed that they have
always assumed most of these photos were staged. The photos are for
illustrative purposes, not as scientific records. They are frauds if it is
claimed that the were taken naturally and weren't.

2) Michael Majerus stated in his message to me that he tells his students
that many photos are staged. Also, that those in his book are all natural.

3) Another peppered moth specialist I corresponded with (he does not wish to
be brought into this discussion at this time) wrote to me (and cited, with
quotes) that all his papers since the late '80's, and books he has
contributed photos for, stated that the moths were staged (actually, he said
"posed") to demonstrate cryptic coloration.

4) The famous photos from Kettlewell's 1956 paper, reproduced in some
textbooks, are associated clearly in the original with text discussing the
fact that the specimens were released onto trees for experimental purposes
dealing with cryptic coloration. The issue of whether this was the
statistically "normal" position (which came up in the 1980's) was already
discussed in Kettlewell's 1955 paper, as I pointed out previously. How much
of Kettlewell's description should carry over into school textbooks depends
on just how confused you think students are going to get in understanding
that light-colored moths are harder to see than black ones on a light
background, and the reverse is true on dark-colored backgrounds.

Both peppered moth specialists with whom I have corresponded have told me
that Wells unjustified in his claims (actually, they were more explicit).
That being the case, Wells claims of fraud, lying and scandal seem a trifle
harsh. A more civilized approach would be to contact the American Biology
Teachers Association, explain the situation, ask them to evaluate the
problem with experts, and allow them to determine if future editions of
textbooks need to change the illustrations captions or text to make the
situation clear. I don't think any students are going to die in the mean

Don Frack