Notes on Science Dust-Ups and Dirty Laundry

The past couple of weeks have been filled with stories about scientists' public dust-ups, intriguing to all, especially non-scientists. Why are they so interesting? Maybe such sordid tales offer something beyond dry research results sexed-up by editors desperate to grab readers weaned on YouTube? Maybe the stories make scientists seem not quite so pocket-protector laden and boring? (We're not boring, really!) But since we all know people who slow down to gawk at accidents, others who link lavishly to tales of disease, distress, death, and dismal demises, perhaps those people are just as enamored, in the same schadenfreude way, to science bickering and wave-making?

  • Ice Floes and Climate Woes: Antarctica is losing ice from the eastern side as well as the west, according to a study in Nature Geoscience, an event that could significantly increase sea levels. But that's not the news everyone's focusing on these days. What interests them are the emails exchanged between a few scientists, stolen from a server at East Anglia University in England and broadcast on the internet.

    Fox News and the usual suspects are gleeful of course, oiling up for a long campaign of undermining science and swaying wishy-washy people. Everyone else spectates, eagerly leaning into the ropes. The Financial Times avidly quoted 'both sides', first the "free-market think tank" CEI spokesperson who called the emails "global warming house of cards", then the scientist whose email revealed that he wanted to "beat the crap out of" a certain scientist, a phrase that one person sincerely explained as "a common pleasantry" among high-calibre scientists. Optimistic climate deniers are talking "smoking guns" and ClimateGate. But as Real Climate: put it in one of their posts:

    "if cherry-picked out-of-context phrases from stolen personal emails is the only response to the weight of the scientific evidence for the human influence on climate change, then there probably isn't much to it."

    "Probably" is understatement. Somehow the media constantly gets away with quoting 'both sides' without signaling to readers the truer story: One side has hundreds of studies - the scientists; whereas the other side is lobbying for some corporation, or out of desperate laziness. The science is depressingly convincing on climate change. But obviously people don't all embrace change, and to that end, the deniers have proven time and time again that hammering away with their fraudulent message will keep people consuming petroleum products.

    My take is that if you unearthed the email trove of any group - government, academic or corporate - you'd find some nasty, flaming emails, but not everyone sees it the way I do of course. Some scientists are calling for increased transparency.

  • Personal Genomics, What Risk? Researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute and Scripps Translational Science Institute compared the results of two personal genomics companies for five individuals and found discrepancies in the disease risk predictions. The two companies, 23andMe and Navigenics DTC, responded to the paper in a recent issue of Nature. The two companies agreed with the criticism on some points and offered explanation on other points -- for instance about the differences between population risk and individual risks, and the importance of doctors' communication about genetic risks to patients.

    In other personal genomics news, Iceland's deCode Genetics went out of business, leaving it ambiguous, although we're assured that the genetic information will be protected, where their vast genetic data bank will end up.

  • Curly-haired Science Populizers Spar: Steven Pinker popularizes cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. Malcolm Gladwell popularizes sociology and social psychology. They both have Canadian roots and very curly hair. Now they're sparring. Pinker critiqued Gladwell's, "What the Dog Saw" in a recent issue of "New York Times. Like any good manager or professor, Pinker offers four paragraphs of compliments before he breaks out the sharp red pen. Gladwell is a "minor genius", Pinker writes, but "unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures", and "frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring."

    Pinker says that Gladwell provides "misleading definitions", and furthermore, he mistakenly calls an eigenvalue an "igon value." The criticism may seem idiosyncratic to the lay person, but subject area experts see things differently. They're more likely to believe that imprecise definitions and simplification lead to public confusion. What's interesting is that such criticism comes from Pinker, who, being a popularizer like Gladwell, must certainly recognize the necessity of selectively choosing what to include in rhetorical writing for huge non-science audiences.

    Gladwell responds that Pinker "is unhappy with my spelling (rightly!) and with the fact that I have not joined him on the lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism." Clever defense and countercharge - in other words, "Igon value" was a typo not a misunderstanding, intimates Gladwell; and Pinker is more or less an intellectual pariah. Gladwell also denigrates Pinkers' sources for being bloggers or online denizens: "our differences owe less to what can be found in the scientific literature than they do to what can be found on Google." Ouch, ouch and ouch.

  • Fantastic FOXP2 - The Speech Gene? David Shenk provides his blog at The Atlantic as a forum for a scientist and a New York Times journalist to spar about the journalist's presentation of science. Shenk posts a letter from University of Iowa neuroscientist and Behavioral Neuroscience Editor-in-Chief Mark Blumberg, to Nicholas Wade's about his New York Times story, "Speech gene shows its bossy nature." Blumberg takes Wade to task for calling FOXP2 the "speech gene".

    "the distinct possibility that the mutation influenced a myriad of other brain and body functions that, in turn, affected speech. Indeed, given all that we know about how genes work - as well as our sad history with grandiose claims about single-gene effects on behavior - wouldn't it be wise for all of us to be more cautious when communicating these findings to the public?

    In turn, Wade writes:

    "The role of this article was to update readers on a new finding, not to review the history of ideas about FOXP2. So there's no space to go into the argument about the gene's precise involvement with speech and language, much of which we have covered in earlier articles."

    Of all our notes, and all the other dust-ups in play in the news recently, I really enjoyed this presentation by Shenk because it gets to the heart of challenges with science communication and the work that scientists and writers must do to get science across to non-scientist audiences without generalizing or leading readers astray. Definitely worth reading.

  • Do Names Portend Profession? Yes, we're joking. But if you're into astrology and anti-vaccination, if you think global warming is a giant hoax, you may steer clear of certain girls' given names. "Isabella", for instance, is a pretty name, second in popularity for girls in 2008, but, like Arabelle, Anabelle, Belinda, Elizabeth, Isabel, Isabella, Mirabel, Rosabel, Sybil or Mabel, it comes with troublesome nicknames, like "Bella"" or "Belle", which can also stand alone. Bella is the wan female protagonist of new popular movie, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon". Bella loses her mind (according to reviews) when her vampire boyfriend goes missing. OK there may be worse things then your daughter mooning around for months over her missing vampire boyfriend...but what are they again?

    "Belle" of course, was the nom de plume of the anonymous British scientist, named after the movie, not the name "Isabelle", who blogged about her second life as a prostitute. News of the scientist blogger outed as "Belle de Jour" elicited delighted and scurrilous musings online and in real life. Online, BoingBoing posed a "takeaway debate", asking: "Is this good or bad for scientists/science bloggers?" In real life one scientist acquaintance told me that he'd read that women with Asperger's syndrome were often "loose" because they could compartmentalize (we didn't check his source). He then continued, thinking aloud, that "of course they might be scientists too", and his eyes lit up at his connection and all the potential relationships he would have previously discounted. So in that case, to BoingBoing's question, it might be good for scientists.

    But "good or bad" is not necessarily the only takeaway, as British columnists tell us. Rowan Pelling wrote: "Interviewers have been asking me breathily what I thought of Belle when I met her, as if my eyes must have been out on stalks at the idea of a PhD student turning tricks." Actually, it wasn't her "trade", but the excellent "quality of her writing", that "shocked" Pelling.

    To be honest, the parts of Belle de Jour that I read I found about as captivating as reading a Martha Stewart description on how to stuff pillows with barley husks, so clearly I'm not the best judge of this sort of thing. But columnists babbled on and there seemed to be no debate about her "writing" prowess. Clive James of the BBC gushed:

    "And what a female...she was Ernest Hemingway...a woman of outstanding beauty and brilliance...student of informatics, epidemiology and forensic science...a student of military strategy...the thinking man's dream girl...There is nothing this woman can't do, and you can tell by the history of her blogging...She knows everything. She even knows what informatics is. I looked it up, and basically it means information theory.

    Yikes. Chill, pal. Perhaps they edited my Scribner Classics Hemingway edition, but I don't recall Hemingway writing such doozies (albeit rare) as Belle's 'my pussy makes men cry'. So now then, (and speaking of names, we won't even go into the name "Brook[e]), back to BoingBoing, what's the takeaway for scientists? Actually, I would debate, not much with this flash in the pan story.

    But here's my takeaway from Brooke Magnanti. Magnanti works for the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health and studies toxicology, most recently on organophosphate chloropyrifos (CPF) used in pesticides. An abstract in Toxicology Letters by Magnanti et al, (Volume 189, Supplement 1, 13 September 2009, Pages S268-S269) suggests the EU policies on CPFs be changed to the more restrictive one of the US which limits indoor use. I find this interesting. Many people, myself included, tend to think of US policies for environmental hazards as laxer than EU policies -- but be careful about generalizations. Acronym Required wrote about US and EU policies, and the EU's REACH protocol here and here and here, and here. I know, science, far less interesting, sigh.

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