Green Bombers

By The Intersection | August 28, 2009 8:36 am

by Joel Barkan 25obbomb1190.jpg

Last week, The New York Times, among other media outlets, reported on the discovery of seven new species of deep-sea worms. While the discovery is important for our understanding of the evolutionary history of annelids, the real draw is the worms’ unique defense mechanism. Some of these worms possess an appendage that, when released into the water, emits a bright green flash of bioluminescence—a “green bomb.” Like an octopus retreating behind a cloud of ink, the worm can flee while its predator ponders this green distraction.

The media coverage of this study made me think about how slowly scientific research is disseminated to the public. One of the scientists who participated in this study is Dr. Greg Rouse, a marine invertebrate biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Dr. Rouse lectured to my class back in June and casually mentioned these “green bombers” he had helped discover. Two months later, the study was picked up and publicized by the national media.

Contrast this to yesterday, when Senator Ted Kennedy’s death was immediately Twittered by thousands. Or the past few weeks, when congressional debates and presidential town hall meetings on health care played out every day on the internet and on television. We’re living in an age with virtually no delay between when news happens and when news is reported. Yet science lags behind.

Is this a bad thing? I’m not quite sure. We call it “the scientific method” for a reason: it’s methodological. Science is supposed to be slow, to make sure you don’t mess up. But is there a speedier way to broadcast scientific information than wading through the muck of the publishing process?

Would you follow Dr. Greg Rouse on Twitter?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education

Comments (11)

  1. Michael D.

    PLoS is trying with its “Currents” rapid communications:

    http://www.plos.org/cms/node/481

    One problem with changing the way science is communicated is that anyone who is not a research scientist–and who is not familiar and comfortable with the way scientific findings and interpretations can change over time as other scientists scrutinize and criticize those findings–will quickly become frustrated when preliminary findings are trumpeted in the news and then turn out not to be worth the hype. The publishing process absolutely needs to be streamlined across the board, but does the communication of science to the general public really need to be immediate, or does it just need to be made more topical, interesting and easy to understand? I, as a scientist, find the “green bomb worm” fascinating, but if I posted a link to the NY Times article about it on my Facebook page, I would get the cyberspace equivalent of a blank stare. (No offense to my Facebook friends!)

  2. Anna K.

    Hmmm. Just off the top of my head, thinking about the news, most ballyhooed news stories have a ‘values’ angle. The first thing that happens in the news media when a famous person dies is a scramble to weigh in on that person’s life with a bunch of value judgments — i.e. was Michael Jackson’s weirdness around children more salient in thinking about his life than his music; how do you weigh Chappaquiddick against Ted Kennedy’s career accomplishments, etc etc.

    Stories on the economy and budget funding and budget cuts also involve value judgments, as well as how does it affect me and mine (“What about my retirement accounts? Why are they shutting down interstate rest stops in the state budget — don’t they know I’ll have to take my kids to McDonald’s for potty breaks and we’ll have to buy food there? What is Obama going to do to my healthcare?”).

    Stories on policy and politics involve value judgments, as do stories on celebrities, people who do things we consider to be bad, and people who do things we consider to be good. People have a stake — or at least an opinion — on values-related stories. And then they have something to talk about with others.

    I think part of the problem with getting science news out there is not just the time and care involved in the methodology (ask a really good investigative journalist how long it takes to get out a well-sourced, nuanced series out about corporate fraud, or, say, to what degree the previous administration was involved in developing policies permitting torture — such stories can and do take years and the work of multiple reporters and researchers and sources).

    I think part of the problem is that without an obvious values angle 0r how-does-it-affect-me angle, you have the ‘so what?’ factor, which in that sense means it’s not newsworthy.

    ‘So what’ stories elicit the reaction of: “Huh. That’s neat.” But if you are not in a group of annelid enthusiasts, you can’t really have a good lunch-time discussion about the green bomb like you can with, say, Ted Kennedy’s life and legacy, where there is more shared general knowledge, or at least opinionated judgments.

    The green bomb is neat, but it doesn’t immediately elicit value judgments or foster kitchen table discussions among nonscientists. So if it’s true that people follow the news to see how things will affect them, or to get a sense of whether we’re headed in the right direction or not, or to have something to contribute to lunchroom jaw sessions, then the ‘green bomb’ is, in that sense, not ‘newsworthy:’ It’s neat.

    It’s similar to the art stories that get bumped because the art is uncontroversial (controversial art, of course, gets lots of press — since value judgments can be made), and, well, neat — like the Lightning Field story that appeared in the Washington Post . . . thirty years after that particular art piece was installed.

    I guess it was a slow news day.

  3. Elaine L.

    I share the writer’s concern that scientific information is not disseminated fast enough to the public. The gap between what is discovered and what is understood by the public poses a significant problem. In this day and age, it is inevitable that our lives are entwined with scientific discoveries and technological advancements. We do need some scientific knowledge to allow us to understand the implications of many of our actions. Climate change and stem cell research are just some of the important issues that the public might not fully understand.

  4. John Kwok

    Joel,

    Reputable science journalists and newspapers such as The New York Times have to adhere to “black out” issues with regards to the publication of such news. Even though Dr. Rouse told your class about this discovery, it may not have been published yet in a scientific journal. This is often the case whenever a scientist gives a public talk and mentions a scientific finding or outright discovery that hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Have personally seen this happen on numerous occasions.

    Sincerely yours,

    John

  5. I wouldn’t, because I’m not that interested in marine biology. (No offense to sea life, but I’m just not that into you.)

    However, I can be made to be interested if the information is put into an argument that has social or cultural interest attached.

  6. Michael

    Some of us recall the cold fusion stories and the Korean cloning scandal.

    I think a bit of reflection and research is a good thing when it comes to putting any science stories out on the public mass news media. Some delay is usually a good thing when it comes to science reporting.

  7. Maybe science should change its ways and allow unpublished findings to be broadcast with the caveat that these are unpublished findings. I don’t think those of us in science can limit dissemination of findings and then grouse that the rest of America doesn’t know what we’re up to.

  8. But is there a speedier way to broadcast scientific information than wading through the muck of the publishing process?

    The publishing process is just a small bit tacked on at the end of the peer-review process. The peer-review process is, of course, integral to the entire process.

    Maybe science should change its ways and allow unpublished findings to be broadcast with the caveat that these are unpublished findings.

    Unpublished findings have yet to undergo the rigors of scrutiny by the scientific community. Therefore they may very well be plagued by over-analysis, wrong conclusions, etc. Why put out such misinformation when it only takes a bit longer to make it official and peer-reviewed?

  9. TomJoe, the problem is that we’re in an age of Big Science. Scientific research programs depend entirely upon funding, and as we all know, funding can be scarce (or at least it is extremely time-consuming to go through the proper channels). This is good news for science based around entrenched technologies and capital interests, but it isn’t anywhere good enough for innovators.

    Take the case of the late John Kanzius, who discovered a method of separating the hydrogen out of water, allowing the water to appear to “burn”. The prospects of hydrogen-based fuel were tantalizing to the wider public, and the story was snapped up by a whirlwind of media attention. Meanwhile, the academic reception (by Philip Ball in Nature) was remarkable in its deadpan dismissal of fuel applications (rightly so), while entirely ignoring the actual feat of the experiment and of confirmed reports. Well, whatever the media’s excesses, it at least opened Kanzius’s shocking discovery to wide attention and acclaim, while the scholarly reception (left to Ball) did nobody any favors.

    Perhaps Ball was prudent in principle to be so caged in his remarks so as to avoid fraud. But this is one of those surprising cases where sensationalism arguably helped the science.

  10. John Kwok

    TomJoe,

    I concur completely with both of your points. But even with the proper precautions, the media can – and still does – get wrong the implications of an important discovery like that recently of the early primate Darwinius, which was thought erroneously to be the earliest representative of the primate lineage leading directly to monkeys and the great apes, including of course, us.

    IMHO the best means of ensuring safe guards is to publicize discoveries only after they have been “vetted” by the process of rigorous scientific peer review. I’m not sure we need to have more examples of the kind Benjamin S. Nelson has described with regards to Kanzius’s work, and of course, sadly too, the media and public relations hoopla which greated the announcement of the “discovery” of Darwinius and how it fits within primate phylogeny.

    Regards,

    John

  11. TomJoe, the problem is that we’re in an age of Big Science. Scientific research programs depend entirely upon funding, and as we all know, funding can be scarce (or at least it is extremely time-consuming to go through the proper channels). This is good news for science based around entrenched technologies and capital interests, but it isn’t anywhere good enough for innovators.

    Take the case of the late John Kanzius, who discovered a method of separating the hydrogen out of water, allowing the water to appear to “burn”. The prospects of hydrogen-based fuel were tantalizing to the wider public, and the story was snapped up by a whirlwind of media attention. Meanwhile, the academic reception (by Philip Ball in Nature) was remarkable in its deadpan dismissal of fuel applications (rightly so), while entirely ignoring the actual feat of the experiment and of confirmed reports. Well, whatever the media’s excesses, it at least opened Kanzius’s shocking discovery to wide attention and acclaim, while the scholarly reception (left to Ball) did nobody any favors.

    Perhaps Ball was prudent in principle to be so caged in his remarks so as to avoid fraud. But this is one of those surprising cases where sensationalism arguably helped the science.
    OH! You’re my new favorite blogger fyi

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