The Evolution of Evil Scientists. Part 2: The Public Posts.

This series began with my admiration of the Professor from Gilligan’s Island as an iconic scientist. My wonderment has long since evaporated into frustration because members of a profession I believe have noble motivations are frequently called into question. The two major factors I think are involved: the source of funding for scientific research (previous blog post), and the pressure to communicate scientific findings.

Either voluntarily or by gentle coercion, scientists can no longer hide in their pungent smelling labs, mucking about with gooey entrails, or lurk in general obscurity. Speaking in words as long as a subway train or providing complex explanations full of ifs, ands, and buts, is no longer acceptable. Several factors have culminated in an urgent need for every scientist to have as high a profile as a rock star, be as charismatic as a politician, and as outgoing as a toddler fired by birthday cake.

I ascribe these changes in previously mild-mannered scientists to several factors:

  • Social Media. It’s happened to us all. Used to be, the only people who communicated with the masses were state leaders and award-winning journalists. Social media has evolved all of us into film makers, photographers, opinion-staters, authors, friends, followers and leaders. Why should scientists be any different?
  • Increasing pressure on scientists to explain what they’ve been doing with tax-payers money. Fair enough. The government invests heavily in research programs. It doesn’t seem too much to ask of the scientists to explain what they’ve done with the funds.
  • Universities, where many researchers are employed, face increasingly stiff competition. Like any organization, for-profit or otherwise, when competition heats up, tactics get aggressive. In Canada, I’ve seen a considerable amount of vying to attract the attention of new entrants. The wares that universities hock are the faculty – those that deliver the educational programs. Thus, scientists and other academics are put in the limelight more and more.
  • Research funding. As mentioned in the previous post, the majority of funding for research in the US now comes from industry sources. Universities and other educational institutes are constantly primping and preening to attract the attention of deep-pocketed suitors that will support their research programs. Again, this results in promotion – public acclamation of the exploits and prowess of the researchers.

These four factors are the why scientists communicate about their work more nowadays. None evil in its own rite. The source of evil, I believe, is marketing spin. Scientists are by nature cautious in communicating their findings and thus often fall prey to some form of media training. Done right, media training is an exercise directed to strengthening the muscles required to make positive sounding, definitive statements, rather than the limpid, subjective pronouncements scientists are inclined to produce. Poorly applied media training can lead to stretched, herniated stories about scientific dramas that may not exist.

To appreciate the difference between the scientific and the spun, consider:

  • ‘a new dietary cause for heart disease discovered’ [certain, conclusive and spun]

compared to

  • ‘strong associative link between phosphate rich food and stimulation and production of the FGF23 hormone, which has a negative effect on the cardiovascular system.’ 1 [comes directly from the scientific publication, has jargon and is convoluted]

Thing is, the truth is probably in between. This is not a definitive finding that we need to avoid phosphate rich food, but a suggestion that it has an impact on metabolism which may point us towards things to avoid once we have more information.

Another example is the octopus DNA2. A year ago, there was a publication about the sequencing of the octopus genome, and a popular science story headlined ‘Octopus DNA is not from this world’. My assessment of the situation was that while sequencing the octopus genome was really exciting if you are a geneticist, it was hard to get your head around if you weren’t engaged in DNA micro-specifications. But still, a brave writer tried and came up with the provocative headline. Octopus DNA is unusual, chemically, and functionally, when compared to other species, but that’s as far as the science goes.

Problem is, science advances in very small steps. This is a good, if frustrating, thing. It’s good because there are many checks and balances that go into advancing our understanding of the nature and technology. It’s annoying to anyone trying to communicate excitement about scientific discoveries.

An additional challenge that’s presented by the same phenomena is how easily, with a few twisted words, scientific studies can be made to sound lame.

Consider two different ways of looking at a government grant:

  1. The federal government allocates $30,000 to studying turtle sperm.
  2.  Someone with a MSc, a wife and two kids, is working to earn a doctorate in reptile biology which may find ways to conserve giant tortoises. She’s delighted to be paid $30,000 a year through a government grant to support her sperm collection research, so she doesn’t have to hold a part time job in addition to full time studies.

Between the many sources of encouragement to communicate and pressure to make it all sound as exciting as a date with a Disney Princess, what’s a scientist to do? Again, I retreat to my belief that scientists are generally trying to do the right thing, but may feel pressured to get a little carried away in the limelight.


1 This is such an awesome example, because I made up the ‘new cause for heart disease’ and then googled it and found the perfect example.

2Here’s my blog post.

The New Trust.

Could it be that digital solutions to everyday activities are making us a more trusting society? In this era of paranoia of big business and big government, rampant nonsense news, usurping of reality by the ebb and flow of opinion, is there goodness? Wholesome, warmth towards our fellow strangers?

I believe so.

Let’s do a few flashbacks to see how easily we accept today what we strictly controlled in the past. Consider:

Now Then
Purchasing stuff from a store Self Check Out. No one pays attention as I scan 45 items and place them in the bags I brought into the store myself and have pushed around in my cart for the last 45 minutes. Cashier can’t remember what green leafy stuff is. Calls for price check. People in the line behind you glare. Bags brought into the store subject to search, or elaborate tagging and stapling routine to ensure nothing could be added to said bags.
Purchasing stuff online We do it. We deal with vendors we’ve never heard of before. Put our credit card numbers into sites that weren’t there yesterday. Correspond with anonymous posters of used items or go meet them in vacant apartments. Pundits poo-pooed the idea that anyone would buy goods from an organization they’d never heard of. Amazon would never sell more than books because people wanted to see what they were buying. Early eBay was intimidating to many.
Cashing cheques/transferring fund If someone emails us money, we decide where and when it goes. We choose the bank account where it’s deposited. Scrutiny. Showing of ID, comparing of signatures, spelling of the name. Cheques rejected for date infractions, use of coloured ink. Banks closed at 3pm, funds held, frowns shared.
Paying bills At some time in the distant past, you knew your account number. So now you can pay the bill. Any amount you want. Paper bill required. Bottom half confiscated by bank. Top half stamped, initialed and annotated.
Transit fares Scan your pass, buy your ticket at a kiosk or online. Prepare for spot checks. Buy ticket at wicket. Show attendance when boarding bus/train. Lose transfer and have to pay double fare. Show attendant on leaving transit system or pay double fare.
Health Benefit Claims Go to the dentist, pharmacist, physiotherapist. Submit online for reimbursement of costs. Have reimbursement immediately deposited to bank account. Click ‘Agree’ to terms and condition to produce proof of payment if requested. Fill out forms. Attach receipts. Put in paper mail. Wait weeks. Wait months. Get response that indicates you failed to sign form. Start all over again. Get denied reimbursement because time limit has expired.

Some of you have never experienced what’s in the ‘Then’ column. Lucky you.

While much of what’s in the ‘Now’ column adds efficiency and convenience, it also suggests a level of trust that wasn’t there then. People don’t have to prove who they are, or that they’ve bought tickets, been to the dentist, have an account with the gas company, or purchased one bunch of broccoli rather than two. Reciprocally, we’ve learned that most vendors are honest, want to deliver goods to us and really own the electronics they’re selling.

Am I being naive? Or does new technology merely replace all the previous checks and balances provided by the seemingly draconian humans at the bank, insurance company or checkout cash? Perhaps emailing money is so fool-proof no one ever makes an error or commits fraud.

Someone’s probably done the math. The added efficiency of not collecting everyone’s proof of payment out-weighs the number of people who cheat the system. That’s kinda cool in itself. Gives me a warm fuzzy about humans – for the most part, we’re okay.

I’d like to believe we’re evolving into a more trusting society at an individual level. It feels good to be trusted and included, even if it’s by an algorithm or encryption key.

Oh, to be an expert. Or not to be an expert.

I went to a talk about marketing1, heard a great story about business strategy2, and learned about The Trouble with Experts, a documentary3  that examines the current ‘Expert’ phenomena. As a big fan of the fundamental interconnectedness of things, the talk inspired me to ramble around the topic of experts while mixing in business strategy and other things.

We’re steeped in information: long posts, short posts, vlogs, interviews, testimonials, opinions – individual, journalistic, shared and trending-, spewing forth every second of every day and night. To add to the confusion, ironically by trying to clarify it, is a preponderance expert opinion about every news story. How does one get membership in this exclusive expert club, garnering the right to earning big bucks just by expressing an opinion?

I’d like to disagree and then agree with The Trouble with Experts on its analysis of various expert groups, including wine tasters, economists, and management consultants.

As told in The Trouble with Experts, studies have been done to test the ability of the wine tasters to distinguish disguised wines and economists to predict the economic future. The wine experts weren’t able to tell expensive from cheap wine when the bottles were switched, and the predictions of economists weren’t often right. In my opinion, although soundly executed, the studies didn’t do justice to the professionals. Wine tasters likely know many things about wine. Like most of us, they are human, and swayed by their expectations, in this case created by the label of a renowned vineyard on the bottle. Economists are trained to analyze and recognize economic trends, patterns that have occurred historically, which we all know are no guarantee of future performance.

The next group the documentary took to task was management consultants, which hit close enough to my home to make me uncomfortable. An interviewee suggested there is no data to suggest business strategists make good recommendations. Funny thing about business strategy: it often boils down to a simple recommendation (for example, produce original media content, or expand into a European market rather than a US one), which sounds like someone came up it in a moment’s thought.

Choosing a strategic direction is a prediction of sorts, but a prediction based on many facts, such as the economic environment, fluctuations in consumer demand, technological advances and competitive landscape. These are all real, quantifiable, and of critical importance for managing any business.

The presentation that inspired this post reminded me how real business strategy is, with a real life example: Most drug stores sold cigarettes a few decades ago, until legislation put a stop to it. That presented a certain large drug store chain with the challenge of deciding which of its remaining products to enhance to serve a regular stream of customers that weren’t looking to get their prescriptions filled. The solution, to highlight cosmetics, was genius. Understanding the full impact of taking away tobacco sales on the drugstore’s business required expertise. The focus on cosmetics was never guaranteed to work. But it apparently has. The expert who suggested it is a hero even though it was a prediction. But a prediction based on analysis of industry characteristics, consumer demand, what the competition offers, combined with knowing what the organization could do.

What’s realistic to expect of an expert? Very few humans can predict the future, regardless of their area of expertise. Those trained in a field will recognize patterns, flavours, or trends sooner than the general public, and are able to understand and explain events in their field. However, experts are often asked to gaze into the hazy future and conjure the outcome of current events.

Most of us who claim expertise do so because we understand an area through decades of work and study. Voicing an opinion about something, like the effectiveness of vaccines or the function of air filtration systems, does not require expertise. However, explaining how infectious disease is limited by vaccination or the parameters that govern air flow and particulate removal, does. Reading controlled studies about vaccine trials or the physics of airflow through ducts doesn’t provide a license to predict the future, but does provide a unique grasp on the subject matter.

The Trouble with Experts ends by exploring the most curious aspect of the Expert phenomena: training to become an expert. Modern experts can be created by a perverse version of natural selection. Popular media promotes the most personable, show-worthy individual to speak on a subject. Becoming this sort of expert requires only passion, poise and an unshakable attitude that you are right, about something, like life on Venus, the nutritional value of donuts, or the horse that will win the Kentucky Derby.

This is what we’ve come to. He or she who shouts loudest, with greatest emotion, is right. They may have a deep understanding of their field, or they many not. That isn’t the criteria. It’s sounding credible.

Let’s put the expert back in expertise. Being an expert means a person understands, not that they can predict the future. We’re all entitled to our opinions. The critical thing is to differentiate between expertise and opinion. All of us, listeners and pontificators alike, can make it better. It’s about promoting the truth. Not trending.

And on that note, here are a few sites where I’m experting:

1. As reviewer of business pitches for OCE and Ministry of Economic Development and Growth’s young entrepreneurs

2. As a mentor for entrepreneurs at The Community Innovation Lab

3. As an entrepreneur, in the Core21 community of entrepreneurs (in the video)

1This was part of a new series, called UP! Practical Sales Talks, from the BACD , aimed at inspiring local business people to do better business. If you’re in the neighbourhood, I’d highly recommend it.

2The presentation I attended, from Shawn Palmer, Director of Sales and Marketing, Classic Gourmet Coffee, hit most topics I teach in my business strategy cases, serving as a brilliant reminder of how real business strategy is. More about this later in the post.

3I want to call it a docu-pinion, to reflect a piece with the documentary style of investigative journalism and a conclusion that might be found in an opinion piece. I’m probably insulting someone here, but I think the point of the piece was the question of how experts are defined, which if applied to the documentary, could mean that many of the interviewees in the piece who provided their expertise could be questioned, and therefore the commentary provided was, at best, opinion. I’m slightly dizzy thinking about it.

I was reading a story on the Internet, you’ll never believe what happened next…

Fake News.

Naively, I’d assumed the far-fetched stories I read on social media were either from well-meaning but misinformed parties or commercially motivated. The goal was either to provide information for the general good of society so they could avoid a certain product, or sell an alternative, by suggesting the product could wreck havoc with health, digestion, or the environment. The profit motivation might not be entirely separate from the first, altruistic one, if the originator of the story genuinely believes they have a product of benefit to the people.

At first glance, Fake News, a phenomena that has been spattered all over the media recently and ascribed such lofty importance as helping to determine the fate of a nation, didn’t appear to me to fit into either category, although it does belong in the same general area of misinformation in the popular press.

The tricky thing about Fake News, and other less-than-factual stories, is that they tend to look like real news. Misinformation gets mixed in with real news when people share on social media, and amplified when trending stories are promoted. Stories on the internet often appear in order of popularity, rather than sorted by the creator’s journalistic awards, years of establishment, or history of credibility.

To fit Fake News into the spectrum of internet misinformation, I speculated about the motivation of its makers. Leaving aside criminal intent1, why would anyone want to create truth-bending stories?

With real news, a journalist’s goal is to find the truth and enlighten readers. Is the goal of Fake News to make something up and see how many people can be confused? If it isn’t selling a product that’s the cure, a clearly responsible cleaning solution that will save the planet, or a secret, 50¢ remedy that your doctor don’t want you to know about, then what is the motivation for publishing nonsense stories?

Silly me. From what I read, Fake News makes money for its creators the old fashion way: by selling advertising on the basis of having lots of eyes on the website. A simple, old-fashion rule: big readership commands the highest price for third party advertising.

Fake News has spawned a lot of real media recently, on various themes, such as:

  • the potential far-reaching impacts’
  • that it’s nothing new – for example, supermarket-sold tabloids have been selling it for years’
  • how hard it is to identify – academic research shows people2 can’t tell the difference between advertisements and real news,
  • a plethora of advice on how to tell good information from bad.

Why would someone decide to create stories they know are false? Leaving aside those who do it because there’s no law against it and it’s a source of advertising revenue (of which I imagine there are some), and those who do it to sell other things, what motivates a person to provide pure Fake News?

It’s unlikely to be confusion about what constitutes fiction. We humans have been creating fiction for a long time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes through the process of many, many retellings of the same tale over the centuries. Various perspectives suggest fiction originated in ancient Greece, pre-modern era China, or medieval England.

Is Fake News satire gone horribly wrong? Satire, like fiction, is a form of entertainment, which often has an embedded educational element. Satire exaggerates aspects of a situation to amuse and provide commentary. With either fiction or satire, I can imagine people getting carried away, pushing the boundaries of truth for the heady praise of an audience.

Are Fake News purveyors evil pranksters, trying to share a good laugh at the gullible with the not-so-gullible? In a deeply twisted way, this explanation could be seen as simple business, because it provides a product for a niche market. Could Fake News be viewed as a business model for satisfying the in-crowd, providing the elitism that comes from getting the joke over those who didn’t?

There is also the possibility of power or fame as motivation for disseminating Fake News. The equalizing force of the internet, where all stories are presented on the same platforms, gives every writer the potential to influence millions. Imagine the thrill of having your story go viral. This, after all, is the goal of most writers – to have their material read.

It seems to me Fake News is like any other form of misinformation on the internet. It’s there because there’s money to be made and fame to be gained. Is it more harmful than stories from misinformed but thoughtful champions of their cause or the snake-oil hucksters selling products on the free market? The consequences in all cases range from harmless to dire.

One of my mother’s axioms rings in my ears. ‘Keep your wits about you’, she’d say, regardless of whether I was on my way to a foreign country or doing a homework assignment. The words haunt me, in a comforting way.


1While criminal motivations are possible, I’ll leave that area to the law enforcement experts.

2 These studies relate to youngish people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the findings extend to all ages.

Stop Helping, It’s not Helpful.

There is a fine art to understanding how, if, and when a customer wants to be helped. We’ve all experienced it: the difference between the poorly timed, inane, nagging questions and a salesperson who comes to your side just as a question about a product forms in your mind, adds insight to your shopping quest, and has you smiling at the check-out desk. Or the professional who distinguishes between when you’re in a hurry to find one, specific thing, vs. a leisurely browse that might see you buy an entire cartload of items.

The internet has taken the challenge of good customer service to a whole new level. It’s making me crazy. Why? Because pop-ups. There are many fine examples of using the internet to deliver better information about products, and ways to make products more accessible, both financially and physically. However, more thought could go into the implementation of some web browser popups.

Here’s a list of various pop-ups that miss the mark, at least for me:

  • Offering your newsletter before the site has even fully loaded. I don’t know who you are, what you do, or if I’ve clicked on a link by accident. So no, I don’t want your newsletter. Ditto alerts, updates and notifications. If you waited a bit, I’d be more likely to say yes. So wait a bit. In person, this would equate to a person with a clip board, standing at the store entrance, demanding ‘Do you like our store?’
  • Trigger happy sidebar ads, especially ones that scroll down the page with you. If I I’m interested in what you are selling, I’ll click on it. If I click by accident because of poor page design, I will hate your company for the rest of my life. It’s like a sales person holding up jackets when you’re browsing shoes and repeating: “How about this?” “How ’bout this?” “How bout this?” “How ’bout tis?”
  • Chat with an associate before I’ve even read a sentence. Put the dialog box away until an appropriate time to suggest it. Yes, it’s great you have people or bots to answer questions, but why do you have a website in the first place? So people can read about your company/product. This is especially true for logging into email and being offered chat with my friends. If I wanted to chat, I’d open a chat app. I’ve opened an email app, so guess what I want to do?
  • Why are the only two choices for getting rid of an ad that I don’t want to see: it covers the page1, or, it’s offensive? I have reasons for not wanting to see the ad. Maybe it reminds me of my ex-husband or dearly departed pet. Do you really want to push that negative association on me, so I can forever be repulsed by whatever is being promoted?
  • I don’t want extra windows to pop open with suggestions for helpful things like saving my passwords, adding people to my contacts, creating events in my calendar, or downloading an app to make what I’m doing easier2. It would be easier if I wasn’t constantly interrupted with popups trying to do things other than the one I’m trying to do. This is like trying to buy milk and bread while an over-zealous salesperson offers to determine my shoe size, the colour of my aura, or what my family history reveals about the perfect pet for me.
  • Requiring sign-in three screens into a site. There should be a flag (maybe like the toxic waste symbol) for sites that require creating an account to access the info they’re offering. Spending time on a landing page to get excited enough about the content to ‘click here to download’, only to find out that you need to surrender enough personal information for military clearance, is poor communication. Facebook and LinkedIn landing pages make it very clear that you are going nowhere without an account. It’s like getting to the check out at a store with some fabulous finds and discovering that the marked prices are only available to members. Who have signed up. With their personal information.
  • There should be a special place in hell for ads with a hard to find, or absent, close window ‘X’. This is the equivalent of a salesperson who doesn’t understand ‘I’m just looking’ as the signal to GO AWAY but instead follows you around the store, quipping useless information with each item you look at, oblivious to each new sneer.

Maybe everyone except me else loves pop-ups because they provide useful information. Most of us have things to do and don’t want extraneous pop-ups filling out lives with the need to swath though screens, like an explorer with a scythe in the jungle, to see what we came to see.

I might like pop-ups better if they added value. I am curious to know what conclusions fancy algorithms draw from my various searches and posts, akin to the fascination my rational self has with having my fortune read. A clever observer of people can conjure an accurate reading by observing and responding to their subject’s cues.

Know your client. In the modern era, that has to be done without invading privacy, which is how any good human salesperson has always done it – respecting the client’s preferences. The challenge is doing the same online. I’m sure someone or something will figure it out. Soon. Please.


1I’m probably being too honest because I won’t click on ‘it covers the page’ unless it covers the page. It only covers a third or a quarter of the page, so I don’t click.

2I realize this may not be the fault of the designer of the website I’m perusing. It’s the helpful operating system on my device. Still, back off.

The Case of the Mysterious Octopus DNA

Sometimes, exciting scientific things sound lame, so an editor puts a fancy headline on the story to avoid having the average person say ‘MEH’ to a breakthrough. Such could be the case with octopus DNA, and a story titled: ‘Scientific Breakthrough: Octopus DNA is not from this world.’1 Were you skeptical of this headline? Was it because it sounded impossible, preposterous, almost as crazy as someone suggesting the earth is flat or red wine protects against heart disease?

I’m working on a process, a series of five questions, to get an un-hyped understanding of popular media stories on scientific topics. So, let me apply my questions to the octopus situation. By seeing the logic with the octopus DNA story, it may make my method easier to apply to less obvious situations, or situations where your intuition is saying ‘that’s wrong’ but you can’t put your finger on why.

Question 1. What do the numbers really mean?

More numbers might have helped this story. The premise is octopuses are alien and their DNA sequence supports it. How different is their DNA? That wasn’t discussed. But elements in the octopus DNA were found, such as genes, coding sequences, and transposable elements, commonly found in humans and other native earth species. Therefore, octopus DNA can’t be entirely alien.

The story states that Octopuses have 33,000 protein coding genes, far more than humans. Makes them sound more complex, more intelligent, doesn’t it? Until you see this chart2, that ranks number of genes per species and finds grapes ahead of humans. The story could have said that octopuses have more genes than grapes, but that doesn’t sound very special, does it?

2. Is the science in the story from a reliable source and quoted in context?

The original basis of the story was published in the journal Nature, a very reputable source, in Aug. 2015. It does not contain the word ‘alien’. The alien DNA story came along later, quoting a news release titled ‘Landmark sequencing of octopus genome shows basis for intelligence, camouflage’. Neither of these traits are uniquely alien – you can make your own bad pun about how alien intelligence seems in human society sometimes. Camouflage is pretty common in the animal kingdom, ask the spotted leopard lounging in the dappled shade.

How did the story get to be about aliens? A scientist is quoted, who quotes another scientist. The first scientist points out how unusual a the octopus body is. You don’t need a DNA sequence to discover that. All you have to do is observe the octopus and it’s ability to change skin colour with situation, escape predators in a cloud of ink, or unscrew a jar if it’s worth their while. The misrepresented comment is: “The late British zoologist Martin Wells said the octopus is an alien.”1 There have been others who call the octopus alien3, but I believe it’s metaphorical, rather than scientific, even if the quoted individuals were learned professors.

From an evolutionary perspective, octopuses ON EARTH split from the lineage that lead to humans about 500 million years ago. Whatever your definition of alien is, if a creature been somewhere for that long, I think it deserves to be called native.

3. Is the evidence proven or inferred?

The story bounces around through various biological terms, which are connected incorrectly. It states the octopus has ‘incredibly advanced biotechnology’. Biotechnology is not naturally occurring. Biotechnology is technology engineered to make industrial products in a lab based on biologics. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has seen octopuses directing lab operations. There’s mention of transposons, which the story says scientist don’t understand, a spring board to the conclusion that there is something really alien going on in the octopus nerve cells. Why the leap to nerve cells, when DNA specifies what goes on in all cells? Or the conclusion that because scientists don’t understand something, it’s alien. Scientists don’t understand lots of things, like Alzheimer’s disease, selfies, and reality TV, but that doesn’t make them alien.

4. Who has a stake in this?

The folks who posted this story have a long-standing, popular website that deals with spiritual and scientific matters. Perhaps their mission was to demonstrate how science could be taken out of context. Or what the word alien means to different people.

5. Why hasn’t someone done something about this?

Should octopuses be treated differently, now that we know their DNA sequence? I don’t see a reason that the eight-tentacled, water-dwelling creatures are different now that we know more about their biological blueprint.

It’d be easier to declare octopus DNA alien if we had some alien DNA to compare to. It’s not evidence of alienicity that all octopuses have a certain trait, like the ability to change the colour of their tentacles, when no other species on earth can. That means only octopuses can do it, not they are alien. With the same logic, we might conclude that humans are aliens, because we are the only earth species that buys lottery tickets, or wears sunscreen so we can withstand the blistering hot, burning sun, rather than lie in the shade like other sun-sensitive species.

A similar story, with an equally provocative title and equally modest explanation of what’s so exciting is ‘Orangutan DNA is full of surprises’4. Having read the report, I agree, but unless you are a geneticist, I’m not sure the findings will hold the same fascination. Sure, the study told us things we didn’t know before. Orangutans evolve more slowly than humans or chimpanzees (these three are closest evolutionary relatives to each other). This slow rate of change in orangutans could be related to how many transposable DNA elements they have. In the case of orangutans, their DNA contains fewer transposons, and they have evolved slower than humans or chimps. The octopus, on the other hand, has more transposable elements and is more adaptable to changes in its environment.

By the logic of the octopus story, orangutans are less alien that humans. I’ve never seen an orangutan buy a lottery ticket, or apply sunscreen, have you?

3 Such as ‘ “Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” ‘ from

It is really in your DNA?

Corporations might be legal persons but they don’t have DNA.

This expression ‘in our DNA’ is a thorn in the eye of my scientist’s sensibilities when it’s used to describe organizations. I know, it’s just an expression that means something fundamental to behaviour, beliefs or actions. Fair enough as a metaphor.

But, I don’t like it. Because of my propensity to analyze seemingly factual statements to determine if they indeed are factual – a propensity likely influenced by both my genes and my environment.

These are the top hits I found in a google search for ‘in our DNA’:

A company that develops marketing campaigns, has ‘innovation is in our DNA’ as a tagline1

They’re not the only ones who claim innovation is in their DNA. The University of Waterloo says the same.2

Boston University’s claim of what’s in their DNA: “It’s in our DNA: an inherent desire in each of our students, faculty, and staff to vigorously and dauntlessly pursue knowledge—and embrace the unlimited possibilities that come with it.”3

At Princess Margaret Hospital, a cancer-focused treatment and research facility, there’s a ‘why’ gene in their DNA4 while at the Texas A&M University School of Law success is in their DNA5.

Recent news stories suggest that fear of spiders is in human DNA6, while others speculate that space travel is in DNA7, or that our DNA is made of collapsing stars8.

Perhaps the reason ‘in our DNA’ grates on me is that no one completely understands what’s in our DNA.

The genome project has made tremendous inroads into sequencing and mapping human DNA. We have identified all 25,000 odd human genes and given them names and can classify them into functional groups9, but that’s sort of like taking apart a house and being able to classify its parts into nails, pipes, wires and 2’x4’s – useful information but still lacking an explanation of how it all fits together and what it does when it’s assembled.

As far as gene function goes, information is sparse: a few mutant human genes causes diseases such as cystic fibrosis or sudden cardiac death. Another handful are for simple traits, such as eye colour or tongue rolling. Generally, there is no linear map between a complex process, like innovation, and a gene or set of genes.

We are far from understanding how most human behaviours are influenced by genes. Studies on identical twins [genetically identical by definition] investigated the genetic basis to behaviour10 and found about half of any given behavioural response is determined by what’s ‘in our DNA’ and the other half a result of our environment. However, studies to link specific genes to specific behaviours haven’t been as illuminating as hoped, according to Psychology Today11. A thoughtful article on this topic, which considers studies on the propensity of a human populations to explore and migrate to new areas, the so-called restless or explorer genes, is here12. My crude summation is: there’s a tendency, it probably has a genetic component but that doesn’t fully explain the behaviour.

Might innovation be in DNA? Since there’s an on-going controversy in the business literature13 over whether entrepreneurs are born or made, I’m willing to add ‘don’t know’ the behaviour influences of all genes to ‘don’t know’ what makes entrepreneurs and surmise maybe entrepreneurship is in some people’s DNA. But not organizations.

Is it fair for me to object to ‘in our DNA’ when I don’t have an  explanation to offer? We don’t know if innovation or entrepreneurship or the ability to choose killer marketing approaches is in our genes. That’s a joy of human nature – there’s mystery in what people will come up with, given the chance.

Perhaps we should leave the mystery of what’s in our DNA for artificial intelligence to discover, much to its dismay.


10for example Wright, W. (1998) Born That Way. Genes. Behavior. Personality. Knopf. New York or Steen, R. G. (1996) DNA & Destiny. Nature and Nurture in Human Behavior Plenum Trade New York.

Can Science be for Fun?

This is another instalment about my method to make sense of news stories about scientific research. It ends in a good, end-of-the week kind of way, tasty fodder for chat around the barbecue.

Today, I’ll look at this story about a research study on how flavours are perceived in different situations. The news story focuses on an experience you may have had – drinking tomato juice on an airplane. I chose this article because when I first read it, it seemed of general interest and not about a currently controversial topic (at least, I’m not aware that tomato juice or drinking of same has been linked to any particular issues).

Let me briefly summarize the news story: Airlines serve lots of tomato juice to on-flight guests, many of whom said they don’t drink tomato juice in other situations. The news story highlights a research study that tested whether loud noises, such as those experienced on an airborne airplane, could impact the perception of taste. In the study, volunteer test subjects listened to noise through headphones that simulated being in an airplane and then were asked about how a bunch of food samples tasted. The same people were asked how the same things tasted on another day without the noise. Perception of sweet tastes were inhibited by listening to noise, while the perception of umami, the rich, savoury flavour in tomato, was enhanced 20%. The news article closes with speculation on other factors that might influence juice consumption.

The five simple questions that form my method for accessing any story:

  1.  What do the numbers really mean?
  2. Are all facts from a reliable source? Are the quotes in the context that they were intended?
  3. What is ‘proven’ and what is inferred from the facts?
  4. What else is at stake or who else could benefit by the reported conclusion?
  5. Why haven’t you heard about this before? Or if you have, why hasn’ t something been done about it?

Applying these questions to the tomato juice story:

1. The numbers. The article talks of the consumption of 1.7 million litres of tomato juice in one year. Is that a lot, if the same airline transports almost 90 million people in the same time period? For this discussion, it’s more significant that people state that they don’t normally drink the juice when not flying but do drink it in the air. The umami taste was enhanced by 20% by listening to noise. I’m not sure what that means in functional terms. I can easily image inhibiting taste – the sample tastes bland, not sweet. What is enhanced taste – more intense taste? And is that necessarily a good thing? There is certainly such a thing as too salty, too hot and too sweet for many of us. I don’t think it’s simple to relate the perception of taste to the desire to consume tomato juice.

2. A reliable source. The scientific study cited was from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance which is a publication of the American Psychological Association, the worlds largest association of professional psychologists. If that isn’t enough, there is the impact factor for each scientific journal which reflects how often other scientists acknowledge the work in the journal. This journal has a respectable impact factor, if not a top ranked one.

3. What is proven? The scientific study demonstrates that the umami taste, found in tomato juice, is perceived more strongly on a background of loud noise. This doesn’t explain why people want to drink it on a plane. Despite the title, this limitation is clearly outlined in the news story.

4. Who could benefit from the report? More people might want to drink tomato juice after reading the article but it’s unlikely to have a big impact on juice consuming habits. There are no specific brands associated with the story. The story did get considerable coverage in the press, with many news services running a piece, highlighting the researcher and Cornell university. The area, of how food tastes and ways to make food tastier, is big business so  these findings might be important for planning airline menus which could benefit many interests.

5. Why haven’t you heard about this before. Obviously this doesn’t fall into the ‘someone needs to do something about this’ category. But it is interesting to know that noise can effect how our food tastes.¹

The news article caught my interest because it was about something I knew nothing about. If my method of reading articles about science is going to be useful, it has to be useful for many circumstances. After the analysis, I’m enjoying the story for the shear joy of learning.

Isn’t that cool?

New knowledge about human is interesting. Why is there a link between how things taste and what we hear? What evolutionary setting made this an advantage? I can imagine that it would be a good idea to not be so wrapped up in our lunch that we ignore the sound of a sabre tooth tiger crashing through the jungle in our direction, i.e. loud sounds divert attention away from food.

But it makes me wonder, what other non-intuitive influences does modern technology have on the way we perceive our environment?

¹ The study would imply that in other situations where there was loud noise certain things might taste better. I haven’t noticed that the beer tastes better at rock concerts I frequent, but there might be other factors involved.

Scientific Self-help

What can you do about a report on millions of dead bees in Ontario?
This post may not be what you expect but it could give you the power to understand articles like the one with this headline: ‘37 Million Dead Bees in Ontario‘.

What could empower you to understand the science behind such stories?

Wisdom. The wisdom to put stories into the right context and make your own decisions.

Back to the bees. I’ll use this story as an example of a method I’m developing for non-scientists on how to interpret articles on social, environmental or other issues based on scientific findings. My method helps you understand and make informed decisions about the issues. The wisdom comes from something you already know how to do – ask questions.

The method consists of asking these five questions which can be applied to most news stories:

  1. What do the numbers really mean?
  2. Are all facts from a reliable source? Are the quotes in the context that they were intended?
  3. What is ‘proven’ and what is inferred from the facts?
  4. What else is at stake or who else could benefit by the reported conclusion?
  5. Why haven’t you heard about this before? Or if you have, why hasn’ t something been done about it?

Before applying these questions to the story, let me say:

  • I don’t know if bees are being killed by neonicotinoid pesticides sprayed on seeds and planted in the fields. What I do know is how to analyze the way the evidence is presented.
  • This is not a judgement on the value of the story. I chose it as an example because I saw it on Facebook recently. My plan is to follow with many other examples. 

1. What do the numbers really mean?
The implication of the title is that a large number (37 million) of bees have died.

How many bees are there in Ontario? If there are 37 billion bees in Ontario, then the death of 0.1% of them is not all that significant. If there are 37.4 million, then we are indeed in trouble as we’ve lost 99%. Here’s an interesting article with numbers about Canadian bee populations. From these, I make the Canadian bee population to be about 70 billion.

In what time frame did the 37 million bees die? Under normal circumstances, bees would die all the time. How long would it take for 37 million to die of natural causes (whatever those are). How unusual is it for an entire hive to die? This article reports losses over the past decade of over-wintering colonies.

2. Are all facts from a reliable source? Are all the quotes in the context that they were intended? and
3. What is proven and what is inferred from the facts?
The article cites the findings of a study publication (Oct. 2013) in a scientific journal. The journal, PNAS, is very reputable. The study shows that at a certain dose, the neonicotinoid pesticides can change the level of a protein in the bees responsible for mediating immune response. And that makes the bees more susceptible to viral infection. This is cause and effect.

However, I understand from other sources, such as this CBC story, that the question about the neonicotinoids is whether a sufficient dose reaches the bees to have the effect that the scientific paper describes. The pesticides are sprayed on the corn seeds, which are planted in the ground, so how much pesticide gets to the bees, even if some is airborne in the planting process?

The article quotes one of the study authors on the significance of the work as it ‘will allow additional toxicological tests to be defined to assess if chronic exposure of bees to sub-lethal doses of agrochemicals can adversely affect their immune system and health conditions’. In other words, the scientists are not concluding that their work shows the pesticides are killing bees on the farm – their work was done in a laboratory and not directly applicable to the field. It is only by inference that the same effect might happen in the field.

4. What else is at stake or who else could benefit by the reported conclusion?
Bees are important, for many reasons, including pollination of our food crops. But what else is at stake? One of the criteria for certified organic food is that it is GMO free. Thus both producers of organic food and GMOs have a stake in this issue.

5. Why haven’t you heard about this before? Or if you have, why hasn’ t something been done about it?
There is a wealth of information about the impact of neonicotinoids on bees, for example, from the Ontario government (with links to many other sources) and from the government of Canada . Investigations are on-going.

Is asking questions useful? (punt intended) Maybe you feel less satisfied than if you believed the story, or that it’s too much work to be a skeptic. Asking questions helps to see all sides of the story, lets you decide, even if you decide there isn’t enough information to decide.