One of my many complaints about science reporting…

In my mind, it’s extremely irresponsible when science writers report that a new potential cure for cancer has been found before any serious research has been done. Science reporting would lead you to believe that a new cure is discovered almost daily, when most of these leads are tenuous at best.

Here is a particularly illustrative example. A group of researchers have identified a toxin produced by at least two species of freshwater algae that is responsible for killing over a million dollars worth of fish. Β Knowing the structure of the toxin may provide scientists with the information that they need to neutralize it. Because fish are important economically and are an important protein source in many parts of the world, this is an important finding in its own right.

But instead of focusing on that or other applications of the discovery, the article focuses on the toxin’s cancer cell killing properties. They exposed cancer cells (presumably in a petri dish?) to the toxin and, low and behold, the cells stopped growing and some of them died. How is this surprising?? They exposed cells to a toxin that they know is capable of killing entire organisms in a matter of hours. You probably could have exposed any type of cell to this toxin and would have seen the same effect.

All the researchers have shown is that the toxin is toxic. It’s safe to assume that the use of this toxin as a treatment for cancer would carry serious side-effects (i.e., in addition to killing cancer cells it would kill any other cell that it encountered as well).

To be fair, the fault doesn’t just lie with the science reporters. Surely the scientists pushed their claims about the toxin’s cancer-fighting abilities in the hope of increasing their project’s attractiveness to funding agencies. It’s a lot more exciting to fund research on a cancer-fighting algal toxin than on a fish-killing algal toxin.

Reporting on the toxin’s ability to inhibit cancer cells should not have occurred until more detailed experiments had been done. Advertising such flimsy leads detracts attention away from methods that are more sound and well-researched while giving the public a false understanding of where we are in the fight against cancer.

Plus, it’s dishonest. This toxin will probably never be an important player in the fight against cancer. Both the researchers and the science reporters are probably pushing the link to draw attention because hell, everyone is excited about finding a cure for cancer.

Anyway, I hope I’m wrong and this toxin is a lot more promising than I think it is. Given the measly 4 sentences the article devoted to actually describing the research on cancer cells, I doubt I am.

On a funnier note, here is one of my favorite SMBC comics, which happens to be about science reporting:

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “One of my many complaints about science reporting…

  1. A lot of educated people are frustrated about the state of scientific reporting (and reporting in general) but I feel that much of it isn’t the fault of scientific reporters themselves, but a general lack of societal scientific literacy. I honestly think most reporters are trying their best. Most journalists don’t write their own headlines, which I find are especially inflammatory to scientific types. That’s an editor’s job, and editors are more in tune with the bottom line, I think. I feel Andrew Weaver gives a good overview of flaws in scientific reporting through his deconstruction of the media portrayal of climate change in his book “Keeping Our Cool”. I summarized and opined about it on my blog. Here are lynx:

    http://blogdenville.wordpress.com/2009/09/21/she-blinded-me-with-science/

    http://climate.uvic.ca/people/weaver/

  2. Full Disclosure! You have undisclosed ties to the artist of SMBC! Such shameless plugging – you should be… well… ashamed (I need to invest in a thesaurus). For all we know, you could have used your unethical ties to this cartoonist to influence him into creating this comic for use in this very blog post! And of course it’s your favorite comic – you very well could have written and commissioned it! Truly an unabashed lack of journalistic integrity in a piece lambasting the lack of journalistic integrity in others! πŸ˜€

    On a more serious note – there exists a very real dilemma between garnering a large audience for scientific advances – in which case some of the facts must needs be dumbed down for a more generalized audience – or going for a much more detailed, but less widely read, area of publication.

    A great solution to this problem would be if people were willing to, and able to, be more skeptical about what they read, even if it does have “SCIENCE” attached to the name. Unfortunately, even people who want to be skeptical face the problem of insufficient understanding of many topics, and no real way to remedy this problem.

    Fortunately, on the scale of problems humanity faces, this is one of the non fatal ones which will likely dog us for the rest of our existence as a species – short of integrating us all into a mass mind, there is no possible way of ensuring that everyone will understand everything that everyone else does. Yay for those wonderfully intractable issues that will keep us occupied for the rest of our lives!

  3. I seriously doubt that journalists put a serious effort into correctly covering science. They have the typical “science is hard” and “what does it matter if I’m not completely accurate on all the details” mentalities.

    In fact, it’s not even about scientific literacy. I’m a physicist, but I can still read things in this blog, I can still read articles in Nature or Science outside of my field and understand them well enough to communicate about them to other people. Sometimes even other people in the field! Sometimes even well enough to say “hey this Nature article sounds ridiculous to me” and have the response be “because it is!” Even though I am not particularly literate in, e.g., biology.

    The reason I can do this, and they can’t, is simple. I’m interested in it! (Well, also, I’m not a moron.) The people who do science journalism, I guarantee you, do not even know what it would *mean* to be interested in the subject they’re reporting on! They don’t understand detail, or careful thinking, or relating something to other things they know!

    Their level of “interest” in science is the same as someone who doesn’t know arithmetic’s “interest” that (even)x(odd) = (even). It’s a magical wonderful relationship that is so far beyond them they will never understand because they will not spend the three seconds of thinking it takes to figure this one out! (If you’re using algebra to answer that you’re working way too hard.)

    Also, people need to be LESS skeptical about what scientists say, not more! They need to be more skeptical about what the media says! We’ve already got too many people killing their kids with homeopathic “medicine,” or the Healing Power of Jesus ™, or refusing vaccinations, etc… We’ve already got too many people publishing books called “I Hate String Theory” and pretending they contain actual debate, or claiming quantum mechanics justifies their crackpot mysticism, or whatever else…

    People don’t have to understand everything. They just have to understand they don’t understand. (And they need to understand that I didn’t spend ten years in Evil-medical-school to be called “mister” thank you.)

    • Haha, well now, someone’s getting a little to big for their britches! Let’s not forget that just because you have access to knowledge doesn’t mean you are “better” than someone who only has experience in the field. And there are people who manage to be intelligent without going to med school for ten years.

      But no, the real social ills are not the homeopathic medicine, or the Christian scientists, or the String Theory haters. They are simply sensational accounts of minor sections of this country (the US) to say nothing of the entire population of humanity. They represent the incredible diversity of opinion and belief, and are an outgrowth of what we call life, where people are allowed to think differently, and, *dare I say it* – WRONGLY! I do not agree with any of the aforementioned groups, but I do not dispute their ability to say and think what they want. That is one of the things I have come to greatly enjoy about the US. But on to more pressing points!

      Those in positions of power and authority (such as scientists), who refuse to acknowledge the right of anyone, yes ANYONE, to be skeptical is one of the real dangers. In fact, as a scientist, any time anyone questions anything you do, your first reaction should be to rejoice, and your second should be to reasonably, and with well tailored arguments, proceed to explain and convince as best as you are able. This process is fundamental to science (and, coincidentally enough, the US system of governance) and any time you remove the ability of anyone to ask questions and speak up, you remove their ability to participate, learn, and become a contributing member of society. Yes, this process is frustrating, but guess what – LIFE IS FRUSTRATING! And that is why people should always be more skeptical. Should people try to ask informed questions? Well, yes. Should people try to read and learn on their own? Yes. To be cliche – If wishes were fishes, I’d be Jesus. In fact, as a physicist, you should be well aware that life seems fundamentally contradictory to the universe, as it appears that matter moves towards greater entropy, yet life is a form of decreasing entropy. So life is at its core contradictory.

      Also, let us not generalize about reporters. Just because there is a propensity for sensationalizing, or a stark lack of accuracy in certain instances, does not mean that all scientific reporters have a complete disregard for all things truly science. Rather, they have to work in the real world (not one of those fancy fictional worlds I know you physicists work in, where surfaces can be perfectly smooth, or completely frictionless). They have time constraints, entirely too short over-the-telephone interviews, word limits, and the ever present editor, not to mention the vast, uncomprehending public. Be glad you physicists don’t have to do both your job and that of the reporter! And look at it from the reporter’s point of view – s/he constantly has to put out a product that will never quite live up to the standards of anyone else involved in the process.

      So – no, the entire rest of the planet is not actually populated by morons, but by people with varying skills and understandings that all combine to build the society in which you get to live and study physics (and other pursuits). You don’t have to farm, or understand the basics of housing code, or any of the various intricacies of securing a government license to import chemical products from God knows where.

      Ahhhh. Finally, “mister”, if you want to be called Doctor So-and-So, blow up at people. Then everyone will know you for the pompous ass you are acting like. Or rather, take life as it comes, and then when people correctly recognize the hard work you’ve put in to garner the knowledge you have, be kind to them, and encourage that behavior. In a perfect world, there are no slips-of-the-tongue, or mistakes, or ignorance. Until then, everyone is human, you included, so do try to tolerate the rest of us πŸ˜€

      P.S. Thank you for the opportunity for an internet argument. (albeit a more carefully thought out one!)

      • You’re completely misunderstanding what I’m saying. In fact, you said the opposite of what I said. I specifically said I can talk sensibly about things I DON’T know anything about, not because I know about them, because I don’t, but because I THINK about them. I’m not better than them because I know things, I don’t make scientific claims that are totally idiotic because I think before I speak!

        > That is one of the things I have come to greatly enjoy
        > about the US. But on to more pressing points!

        Which is a pretty common misunderstanding about what kind of country you live in… There’s no law that says I can’t tell you to shut up, or scientists in general can’t tell you that, or even that the government can’t! The law says the government can’t throw you in jail for speaking a reasonable opinion.

        In fact, if I write a book called “10 steps to drinking bleach to living a healthy life” and encourage people to drink a gallon of bleach, guess what? I go to jail. The homeopaths etc are not doing any better than people who say that!

        >In fact, as a scientist, any time anyone questions
        >anything you do, your first reaction should be to rejoice

        No, if a SCIENTIST questions what you do, that’s good. Some idiot on the street who doesn’t know anything about your field, no.

        > life seems fundamentally contradictory to the universe,
        > as it appears that matter moves towards greater entropy,
        > yet life is a form of decreasing entropy.

        This statement is actually completely fundamentally incorrect… I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how!

      • See, I knew I was probably incorrect somewhere in that point about entropy, and that I really shouldn’t have put it in, and yet some silly part of me wanted to say it. Oh well. I must confess I am not quite sure what is wrong with the statement, although I know my own knowledge of the topic isn’t encyclopedic. Maybe I have an incorrect understanding of entropy. Regardless, I must point out that simply leaving it up to the reader to figure out is exactly what you should not be doing. As a scientist who (I hope) understands the error in what I stated, you should endeavor to educate those who have an imperfect understanding of the world. How else am I to learn what is wrong, and what isn’t, about what I have said?

        And I am well aware that you feel you have a monopoly on thought. I was trying to point out that other people can, and do, think about things too, with great respect for in depth analysis and rational thought. My experience is that those who are engaged in making idiotic claims are best answered by reasoned response, not equally fanatic shouts for them to be quiet. Also, do not get off on the idea that you are better than others. Please. That line of thinking has all of the horrors of the dark side of humanity along it. I have experience with that topic. If people are acting like idiots, take some of your precious time and maybe try to enlighten them.

        I am also aware that there exists no law prohibiting you from telling people to shut up. I am saying that you should not. Why? Because the only way people learn is through asking questions. That is, the act of being skeptical. Now, I never equated skepticism with presenting patently false scientific claims. Those are two different subjects altogether. However, one more distinction is necessary – those who present false science are being un-skeptical, but those who quote false science as a reason to question legitimate science are being skeptical, and are thus doing the right thing. If they quite truly do not understand what is false about the incorrect science, then it is your (job/duty/obligation/the right thing to do) to illustrate the falsehoods of said argument and provide them with a set of tools with which to observe the world differently from then on. I don’t mean provide them with a master’s course, but instead correct them and steer them towards the appropriate literature on the topic.

        If you indeed have scientific evidence showing that the “homeopaths, et al.” are actively causing harm to people, and not simply providing them with “good-negating” advice (that is, telling them not to do certain beneficial things, like getting vaccinated), then by all means, champion having them arrested. If you do find someone inciting others to drink bleach, please, try to have them stopped. However, there is nothing inherently illegal about telling people to not do what science tells us are good things, only in telling us to do what science tells us are bad things. I don’t particularly like it any more than you, but I do not think they are much of a real concern. But again, the same protections that allow them to cite incorrect science allow you to attempt to see them discredited, or even imprisoned if you so choose to try. Otherwise, bemoaning the presence of people who can be fooled is like bemoaning the rising of the sun every morning.

        Frankly, the idea that only someone well versed in your specific field is capable of questioning your line of study is offensive in the extreme. It is a fundamental principle of science that what you state is completely and totally open to both questions and criticism. The attitude that somehow only those who know something about your field of study, or who are “scientists”, can possibly dare question your great masterpiece is not only disgusting, it’s rather unscientific. I would be shocked if Ms. Weinersmith here told me I was unworthy of questioning her in her chosen field of study. It also seems that you are contradicting yourself, as by all rights you have acknowledged that someone off the street, who knows nothing about your field of study, but who can think, is both allowed and not allowed to question your work. Curious, that a Dr. such as yourself would make that egregious of an error.

        Anyways, I would like to reiterate that my original point was that skepticism in general, towards anyone purporting to be scientific, would be helpful. I made no specification that skepticism towards scientists is somehow lacking, but rather that if people were more willing to question what they read, they would discover better science on their own. I believe this still stands true, all other things said notwithstanding.

        And finally, before you go off insulting my ability to understand the country I live in, I will have you know that that is my chosen area of study, and I have numerous experiences both inside and outside said country (the US, if anyone is still interested). I have seen much of what the world has to offer, and if there is anything in this world I can claim to understand, it what kind of country I live in, thank you very much. I will not claim to have a doctorate that I do not have, but I will most certainly claim to have experience in both the executive branch in Washington D.C. and in numerous embassy communities in both Europe and Latin America.

        To use your own arguments against you – How DARE you try and contradict me about the culture of governance in the United States! Although, you are a bright individual, so by all means, go right ahead! πŸ˜€

      • >Regardless, I must point out that simply leaving it up to
        >the reader to figure out is exactly what you should not be
        >doing.

        As every single professor in every single subject and in every single class I’ve ever taken in my life has pointed out, no one learns anything by being told the answer. You learn things by sitting down and carefully figuring something out for yourself.

        Not to mention that I don’t have the time to explain every mistake that everyone ever makes to them in as much detail as they need! If you want to know take responsibility for your own knowledge!

        >My experience is that those who are engaged in making
        >idiotic claims are best answered by reasoned response

        You’ve never taught a intro science lecture class, have you? You’ll have that myth dispelled faster than someone could blow your face off with a shotgun. And then you’ll know the crushing defeat of having an entire class fail to understand your beautiful reasoning because no one bothered to read the book all quarter!

        There are people in my field, who will remain unnamed, who the bulk of out community (as in, everyone but these ~dozen people out of ~thousands-tens of thousands) have done this with for DECADES. We’ve been publishing papers detailing in EXCRUCIATING detail for DECADES why there are literally hundreds of mistakes in their “theories.” Guess what? These same people still write the same papers with the same mistakes and publish them in the same journals with the same editors and same referees!

        And I can’t–and I mean can’t–emphasize enough how wrong the things that are in these papers are. They’re like saying they’ve discovered that 1+1=3 level of wrongness.

        The problem is not even so much that these small numbers of crazy people are doing this, but that they pull funding and graduate students who don’t know any better away from real projects.

        And oh god, there is nothing like the awkwardness and deathly silence caused by a grad student asking a question about these “theories” in a conference. You can literally hear that grad student’s respect and carrier dying. You could not get a more awkward response if you suddenly stripped off your clothes and dove out the window.

        So, having seen a few promising students’ carriers (and lives!) literally ruined by these people, I have to very strongly disagree!

        You see, the grad students, like the public at large, do not have the background to understand the quality of wrongness involved in wrong statements. To them, when they hear a statement like “this theory is wrong because its Hilbert space is nonseperable” they think “oh that’s some technical condition that maybe we can fix later.” Because they don’t understand that what was really just said to them was “magical wombat nazi space genies are the real cause of AIDS!”

        Sometimes, you just have to tell your students, instead of “you need to go learn 3 years of math classes to realize why this is insane,” you need to say “they’re crackpots, don’t listen to them or they’ll ruin your carrier.” Because it’s true! They will!

        Can you teach them why it’s wrong more quickly? No. Not unless they have freakishly amazing physical insight that only the best students possess. There’s a reason physics took 100 years of the smartest people in the world to develop it to the stage it is now, and why you need 10 years of school + 3-5 years of postdoc to get a position as an assistant professor! It’s not easy! This schooling isn’t just for show, or because we have nothing better to do. You really *do* need decades to understand it!

        And, really, any actual science, at past a superficial level, requires pretty significant prerequisites to really grasp what the important parts of the structure are.

        Simple discoveries are often possible, but this is totally different than challenging the existing structures.

        It’s no different than walking into a math class and claiming that derivatives are wrong because you can give an incorrect proof that d/dx x^2 = 0. They’ll laugh at you and call you stupid. And they should! And don’t try to argue that other sciences are “less rigorous” than math, because if you do them right, they aren’t. Part of the formal reasoning that every scientist should understand is formal and informal logic, as well as statistical inference, inductive/deductive reasoning, etc. And if you use that reasoning you’re (mathematically!) guaranteed to be “as right as you can be”.

        200 years ago, you’d be right. But not today. Today, believe it or not, to understand how compactification on calabi-yau 3-folds relate to gauge groups and field theories and KK-theories and string theories is not something the average person can get enough grasp on to even understand the words, let alone the physics, without extensive work.

        You think that anyone is qualified to question a field? Go ahead. Tell me your thoughts on the proof of the theorem that isometry groups from compactification on compact manifolds in KK-theories determines the gauge group. I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts about the general applicability of this proof!

        You aren’t any more qualified to answer that than you are to cut someone open and go tooling around in their abdominal cavity to fix their stomach aches. We have experts for a reason!

      • Hehe, I rather enjoyed this! Especially the hyperbole – face blown off with a shotgun, every professor ever, and so forth. Anyways, I find that generalization and hyperbole are more suited to literature and fantasy than reality, but that’s me πŸ˜€

        No, I am not a professor, nor do I have vast years of experience in academia. But to paraphrase Socrates – You sir, seem to think you know quite a bit which you actually do not. I must note that you come across as more of an embittered grad student than anything else.

        I recognize that when we delve down into the extremely specific, it becomes nigh on impossible to discuss with any accuracy the topic at hand unless both parties have extensive pertinent education. The same can be said of any number of topics, none of which can ever truthfully be reported to the populace as a whole, because they won’t really understand. Distinct groups in society, from general aviation, to a county school board, to scientists studying the specific processes by which DNA is copied and rebound, all regularly use knowledge which is by and large useless or far too specific to be explained succinctly to the majority of humanity.

        All of this does not negate the basic premise that those with knowledge should strive to share it, and that the asking of questions, even when the answer to those questions is an unsavory “because that’s how it is,” is fundamentally important to the general improvement of humanity. People should not blindly trust those with “teh nowladge!”, as you yourself point out.

        Also, learning by oneself and the concept of a lecture class are fundamentally opposed – you say that you would prefer I find out on my own what is wrong with my statement, and in the same breath state that I have to simply listen and obey, without questioning, your impressive and all consuming intellect and knowledge regarding KK-theories and whatnot (which, as far as I can fathom, using the wonders of the internets, relates to the search for a Grand Unifying Theorem that pulls the disparate forces in physics into a single expression, namely, bringing gravity “into the fold”. It uses a specific incarnation of space-time to study the effects of quantum level gravity on matter. That’s about all I can pull from what I’ve found.) Please, rather than try and use my lack of knowledge in your specific area of study as a bludgeon, recognize that this is largely trivial in relation to the concept at hand – namely, how to explain “SCIENCE” to laymen, in terms they can comprehend, and whether or not those same people are right to be skeptical of things they don’t understand, that is, to question the world around them.

        Let me finish this up by pointing out that most sources agree (note the lack of the hyperbolic “all”) one is in the right when asking questions of, oh, doctors, and surgeons, and car mechanics, and in fact professionals in general. Yes, we have experts, and the reason we call them that is because they have expertise in their subject, which means one should feel free to ask questions, secure in the knowledge that one will receive a good answer or explanation. I could talk for volumes on the fact that you apply your experience with the hermetically sealed world of academia to the far less “cut and dried” world of everyone else, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I think the two are separated by enormous distances. I think I’ll conclude with a sincere apology to Ms. Weinersmith for sullying her comments section with this debate, which would probably have been better carried on somewhere else. Although I did enjoy it! πŸ˜€

  4. Wow, this Jeremy fellow is a total douchehorse. That is all the information that’s available from the evidence.

    Did those years of studying destroy his mind? How can he imply they let him talk to other students? It’s a good thing he doesn’t believe in teaching anybody, because all this ranting has destroyed any credibility he might have had in any field. Sadly, I’ve noticed another “scientist” with a huuuuge e-peen who liked to rant about how smart he was on the Intarnetz – unless this is the same one. Hopefully it’s not an epidemic. But Mr. Schmeelk, you did egg him on. Why pick on somebody like that?

    Too bad about not having any more updates, this was an interesting blog. Kelly must be busy working, or living her life. Maybe she’ll be back eventually.

    • Oh, of course I egged him on. What else is the internet for? Glad you enjoyed the exchange though. And I keep on hoping that our scientist friend will begin posting again. Hope springs eternal! πŸ˜€

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s