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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 DNA. 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:

The federal government allocates $30,000 to studying turtle sperm.

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.

Originally posted June 26, 2017

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