Monday, October 10, 2005

science in the media

I feel like my impression of science coverage in the media is quite negative. This is primarily conditioned by their coverage of the evolution debates (sic)*. Then recently their was this article about the debate (again, sic) over how the Grand Canyon formed: couple million years of erosion or in one big shot during the Noachian flood, about, what, 3000 years ago? Dr.Myers over at Pharyngula posts this hilarious (and sad) bit about the Grand Canyon article.

After all this, I was quite pleased to run across two articles recently that I thought were quite well done. I suggest you read them because they're cool too.

The first was in the Sept.17TH-23RD edition of The Economist (also really good for its articles about the history of 19th century English pubs, sailing modern cargo ships and traffic jams). I really wish that they did more science journalism. I think they'd be pretty good at it. It was pretty cool two years ago when I had a class with a science journalism grad student here at IU. She was taking a graduate level history of science class in my department that I was also taking. Sadly, for her I imagine, we didn't learn much science. She could maybe be a historiography of science journalist now, but imagine that isn't exactly a highly sought after specialist. Anyway, she published a big article in The Economist two summers ago about the 13 (?) year Cicadas. It was good.

Ok. Anyway, this Economist ariticle was about Leroy Hood, famous and clearly in the Economist because he's started several successful biotech companies and has a bunch of patents on stuff. He started Applied Biosystems which is pretty huge. We used to use a bunch of their electrophoresis stuff at the lab in North Carolina. But what was cool about the article is that the author did a great job explaining 'alternative splicing', something that Leroy Hood apparently 'discovered' (a pretty big deal if this is the case). He set up the problem (perhaps too simplisitically?) and explained why alternative splicing explains it , all in about 70 words. Pretty cool. I'm no expert on the history of modern genetics, but it was nice to see the media taking some biology seriously.

Although maybe the media is really just a sponge? Soaking up whatever's spilled on them? Now I'm a little dispointed in the Grand Canyon thing and that article on astrology that was in the NY Times a while back, but Intelligent Design might be understandable because the ID folks are really good at lying to people. They know exactly how to make people believe there is a viable debate. In fact, I think they're so good at it they convinced themselves. At least I hope. I would be very very disappointed if they were doing this maliciously. Knowing that they're lying. I often think that's the case though, unfortunately.

But with this molecular genetics stuff, there is no appearance of a debate. At least I'm sure that all molecular geneticists 'believe in' alternative splicing. So the media just doesn't cover it. They're no good at knowing what's a real debate and what's not. They're just I think it is largely the scientists and philosophers jpb to explain why ID should not be taught in schools, and possibly more basic and important, why science shouldn't be influenced by religion, which it will ultimately come down to I imagine, at least I hope, but I also imagine that it won't make a difference. I think the majority of people will not get it and the US at least will plumet into a dark, cultural abyss.

The second article
I liked recently was about something I really don't know much about, but it seems like at least the author was making the distinctions between good science, bad science and social factors influencing science. The article was about 92 year old psychologist Albert Ellis' lawsuit against the institute he founded a long time ago. They pretty much want to fire him and he's pissed. To make a really long story a little shorter, the author does a great job discussing the possible reasons why Ellis is being fired. He is careful to point out though that Ellis' breakthrough work in the 1960s and 70s has been quite successful in empirical studies and that it seems to be a 'good' therapy or theory, maybe, about human emotions etc. I don't know much about psychology, but I appreciate the way the author made the different issues clear (notwithstanding issues about if confirming some therapy is a good therapy, then the underlying theory is confirmed as well...Brian).

HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhh science journalism.

*I picked this 'sic' bit up from Brian Leiter. I think it's funny.

No comments: