Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bad Pop Science

Like many people who argue for atheism and think independently, I love science. When I went to a science fiction convention last year, on one day I attended almost nothing but panels about science itself. One of the things that was brought up was bad science being reported to the press. They mentioned that professional science writers who have bona fide scientific training have largely gone by the wayside as newspapers and other news media outlets cut budgets.

You might have seen some online yourself, where reporters, perhaps due to scientific incompetence, unintentionally or otherwise exaggerate real scientific accomplishments into headlines that grab your attention (probably not coincidentally, sucking in readers to read the article means more eyeballs on advertisements, which means more profits for those who host the articles). Epidemiologist and science writer Ben Goldacre write about

…the media obsession with "new breakthroughs": a more subtly destructive category of science story. It's quite understandable that newspapers should feel it's their job to write about new stuff. But in the aggregate, these stories sell the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly-contested data. Articles about robustly-supported emerging themes and ideas would be more stimulating, of course, than most single experimental results, and these themes are, most people would agree, the real developments in science. But they emerge over months and several bits of evidence, not single rejiggable press releases. Often, a front page science story will emerge from a press release alone, and the formal academic paper may never appear, or appear much later, and then not even show what the press reports claimed it would

This was written back in 2005, but what he said holds true years later. Here’s an example of one of the things that was brought up by an audience member in the panel, an article written in 2010 titled Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist. Seldom (if ever!) have I seen such an attention grabbing headline for a science article (I can almost hear the cha-ching resulting from the numerous people who clicked to read the article), but was there freaky physics that proved parallel universes exist? No, not even close. From a Science Blogs article titled The Worst Physics Article Ever:

Every word in the title is wrong but “physics”. It’s not freaky, doesn’t prove anything we didn’t already know, and has nothing to do with parallel universes nor does it shed any light the question of their possible existence.

Science Blogs, incidentally, is a good place for real science news because it’s an invitation only group that’s written by bona fide scientists, not scientifically illiterate journalists.

Another example I’ve seen posted by some folks online is an article titled, “Cambridge Study Reveals How Life Could Have Started From Nothing.” The title reminds me of the time that David Z. Albert (author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience, a book I read to happily learn more about the concepts of quantum mechanics) criticized his fellow physicist Lawrence Krauss on his use of “nothing”(and other philosophical missteps) in the book A Universe from Nothing in the New York Times. The afterward of Krauss’s book, authored by Richard Dawkins, says, “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages.” But as Albert explained, the book fails completely in doing this. (I have already put forward a better way to rebut the Leibnizian cosmological argument). In Krauss’s defense, he has a doctorate in physics but not philosophy (whereas Albert has doctorates in both) and Krauss at least made it clear what he meant by “nothing.” Krauss can be forgiven for not being as philosophically literate as Albert, but at least Krauss was scientifically literate. The author of this article doesn’t show literacy in either field in claiming that the scientific discovery he refers to shows that life could come from nothing.

I might be nitpicking about “nothing,” but the author of the article does say, “Rasler's team has been the first to show that life could literally come from nothing.” If nothing else, don’t use misuse the word “literally.” Such misuse drives me figuratively insane.

From the article:

One of the most challenging questions in basic biology and the history of evolution and life stems from the unknown origin of the first cells billions of years ago. Though many pieces of the puzzle have been put together, this origin story remains somewhat murky. But a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge believe they've accidentally stumbled on an answer, and a very compelling one at that.

The mistakes of this article aren’t as serious as the “Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist” but apparently the article has misled a number of people on the internet into thinking the discovery is a lot bigger than it is.

When you see fantastic claims like “[Someone or some team] has been the first to show that life could literally come from nothing,” it’s often a good idea to check the original scientific paper if you can (at least its abstract). It won’t necessarily always be comprehensible to a layperson (even a scientifically literate one), but this time we’re fortunate. From first few sentences of the abstract, with some key parts bolded:

The reaction sequences of central metabolism, glycolysis and the pentose phosphate pathway provide essential precursors for nucleic acids, amino acids and lipids. However, their evolutionary origins are not yet understood. Here, we provide evidence that their structure could have been fundamentally shaped by the general chemical environments in earth's earliest oceans.

I’m not going to say this isn’t progress, but notice what was accomplished here is a lot more modest then the impression made in the pop science article—or at least portions of it. The article does add the caveat that this discovery is “one that is still only a part of an overall picture that's still forming through years of continuing research,” but that’s still no reason to use a misleading headline and inaccurately describe the science as “Rasler's team has been the first to show that life could literally come from nothing.” The actual accomplishment of Rasler’s team wasn’t anything close to that.

There are numerous other examples I could give, but I think something more useful would be looking at this TED talk by Ben Goldacre about battling bad science. Not only does he have a charming British accent, he also has useful stuff to say. One of the things he does is what I did in my “life from nothing” example: he looked up the actual paper.

He also talks about pharmaceutical industries withholding scientific studies, but fortunately that situation seems to be improving somewhat.