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Science vs. PR

Friday, May 11, 2012

How a piece of journeyman work is turned into patently junk science.

One of the major reasons that science is held in low repute among portions of the citizenry is that it has too often allowed itself to become entangled with public relations. The PR connection has nothing to do with peer review, that essential element in the scientific method. The PR connection has to do with institutional politics, funding, and personal ambition.

What happens is this:

1. Some scientists publish a report of their work.

2. An alert PR guy who works for the university or institute notices some potentially hype-able words in the report.

3. He writes up a release, under the impression that he is Arthur C. Clarke.

4. J-school grads at a number of media outlets, whose science education ended in 8th grade, pick up the release, change three words to make it their own, and it is published to an unsuspecting public.

5. The unsuspecting public, which is not as dumb as the PR guy believes, dismisses the story as bushwah and blames the scientists.

Here is a dandy example. The Journal of the American Chemical Society has recently published a paper titled “Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth.” No non-chemist would get beyond the seventh word.

Here’s what the original paper is about. (I am no chemist, but among the formulae and jargon there are patches of intelligible English. I welcome anyone to correct my interpretation.) Many of the compounds that make up organic life exist in mirror-image forms. This is called chirality. So, amino acids, sugars, and other things can have right-handed (D) or left-handed (L) forms. On Earth, almost all living creatures incorporate L amino acids and D sugars. Since, purely as a chemical matter, either form is equally probable, the question arises, why is Earth’s life so strongly biased? We are immediately in the realm of conjecture. Of course, this is fine for science, which begins in “maybe” and proceeds by way of evidence to “probably.”

What is the evidence? Well, there isn’t much, really. Some meteorites found in Australia contained compounds with a slight bias in favor of what is found on Earth. Why might that be? Well, it has been shown that circularly polarized light of just the right directionality and wavelength can produce such a bias. And so the author of the paper tells us:

If there was also [yet undetected] right circularly polarized light with energy in the uv or higher irradiating the asteroid belt when the amino acids were present on a particle that later came to Earth, this could account for the small excesses of the L anantiomers seen in the α-methyl amino acids.

Or not. The key words in that sentence are “if” and “could.” It’s pure speculation, with no foreseeable possibility of being confirmed or disconfirmed. Again, this is not a bad thing in science. Speculation like this points out areas for active investigation.

The author of the paper concludes with a fairly obvious guess: If the L-D arrangement on Earth is the product of chance (such as the presence of circularly polarized light of just the right sort), then elsewhere in the universe there might be life based on a D-L arrangement. Or, as he puts it:

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α-methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth.

That’s it. That’s the whole substance of the paper. Straight-ahead chemistry, exploring a possible explanation for an observed phenomenon and drawing out one tentative prediction. “Showing that it could have happened this way is not the same as showing that it did,” the author most properly concedes. He should have quit while he was ahead. What imp of the perverse induced him to add two more sentences?

Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.

Maybe the PR guy talked him into it. Maybe he wrote that bumf after a celebratory lunch. Maybe he lost an election bet. Who knows? But he provided all that a hungry PR guy needed. The ACS press release begins thus:

Could “advanced” dinosaurs rule other planets? New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.

Cool, no? Stop the presses! Or cue the Internet. A website called TG Daily (which provides “edgy, compelling, and independent news” to “mock, tease, tempt, and tantalize our readers”) upped the ante by posting a piece headed:

Claim: Advanced dinosaurs may rule other planets

What began as a throwaway closer and became a “possibility” is now a “claim.” The piece concludes with a nostalgic look back at a popular episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” complete with a video clip.

The piece then got picked up by Discovery News online—which is to science roughly as were my old Tom Swift books—with an “analysis” under the headline:

Do Intelligent Dinosaurs Really Rule Alien Worlds?

See the trick? PR triggers tabloid treatment, which then is transformed into respectable journalism through the pretense of questioning the premise. Is it really true, or is The Man trying to fool us again? Investigative reporter on the case.

FoxNews.com jumped into the game next with another maybe yes/maybe no piece in which it is asserted that “the rather outlandish prospect of alien—not terrestrial—dinosaur life is explored” in the paper.

Finally, the “intelligent agent” at Google News, probably abetted by a human secretly in the employ of Ming the Merciless, fed this stuff to the great information-seeking public. The downside, as far as ordinary citizens are concerned, is that a piece of journeyman work was turned into patently junk science.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to American.com. He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “Rule Britannica,” “The Problem with Bambi-nomics,” and “Bringing Mr. Smith to Washington.” Jon Entine contributes “Silent Spring, BPA and Toxic Health Scares: Let Science Drive Regulation, not Fear.” David Shaywitz says “Leaders of Science-Driven Businesses Should Understand ... Science.” Jonah Goldberg authors “Republicans Have Bad Brains?

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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