On Wednesday, journalist John Bohannon revealed to the world how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.” In a boastful piece for i09, he details how he and German television reporter Peter Onneken performed a faulty clinical trial and used flawed statistics to make it seem like chocolate was a weight loss wonder. The team then wrote a bad paper and managed to publish it in a (non-peer-reviewed) journal. They intentionally concocted an enticing press release to tell the world about their not-so-reliable results, and managed to get a few large sites to bite the hook they carefully baited. “For far too long, the people who cover this beat have treated it like gossip, echoing whatever they find in press releases,” Bohannon wrote to explain why he agreed to the elaborate sting. He hopes that the shame of being called out for bad journalism will be enough to get reporters and the public to be a bit more skeptical of science news.
Of course, some were quick to point out that Bohannon mostly fooled the most well-known churnalistic sites, and that overall, science journalists didn’t fall for the ruse. I’m inclined to agree with their criticisms both of ethics of how the sting was conducted and the bold conclusions about the lazy nature of science journalists drawn from it. But it’s hard to stand on my soapbox, fist in the air, when it seems like every week there’s another example of just how shoddy science journalism often is, even when the studies reported on are actually quite wonderful.
You see, I’m in a particularly sour mood because I didn’t want to bring up John Bohannon or the failings of science journalists today. Instead, I had planned to write this awesome post about a fascinating new paper published in BMC Genomics. I wanted to talk about how this research (which details the venom transcriptome and proteome of the largest of the deadliest class of invertebrates in the world, the box jellyfish Chironex fleckeri) is an incredible, fresh look at an evolutionarily old venom. I wanted to expound extravagantly on the novel toxin types Diane Brinkman and her colleagues from Queensland found in the terrifying tentacles of a species that has killed more than 60 people and caused serious injury in multitudes more. Most importantly, I would have loved to dive deeply into the study’s methods and results, discuss what this new information tells us about some of my favorite venomous animals, and how it builds the foundation for future studies.
But instead, I was so nauseated by the coverage of this study that I feel obligated to take the time to correct the lazy reporting of others. Bohannon’s chocolate fake-out may not have been right, but it’s hard to say he’s wrong about science news coverage.
Perhaps the most common way that we tell different species apart is by looks. Different colors often mean deep-rooted differences, but in some species, color is a fluid concept. Take the chameleons: though it’s a myth that they can match any color they see around them, they are able to modify the patterns on their bodies to blend in, and some are known for dizzying color changes that are used as social signals — a colorful way of communicating with the chameleons around them.
The panther chameleon, Furcifer pardalis, is particularly well known for its vibrant beauty. These lizards are popular in the pet trade, where color ‘morphs’ or ‘locales’ are seen — the rarest highly coveted. These distinct looks are often named after Malagasy villages or islands where such colors are found. The Nosy Be morph is stunningly blue, like the chameleons found in that area, while the Sambava morphs are more mottled with green and yellow. On top of such stark geographic color differences, these little lizards also vary with season, age and mood (related: scientists make chameleon-mimicking material)
Some 150 miles off the eastern coast of northern Africa — about 240 miles south of the Arabian peninsula — lies a set of islands that some have called “the most alien-looking place on Earth.” Socotra, which is both the name of the archipelago and the largest island, is a truly bizarre place. More than a third of the plants that erupt from the soil are found nowhere else. Their odd shapes and forms give the islands a Dr. Seussian quality, an almost cartoonish, comical landscape that stands in sharp contrast to the strict religious practices of the people who live there.
Socotra is a part of Yemen, a country currently engaged in a brutal civil war. But, it is also an island apart; the hundreds of miles of water that separate Socotra from the mainland have not only allowed biodiversity to take otherworldly forms, they have also allowed the people of Socotra to become distinct. The 50,000 or so people that live on the islands have their own language, myths and legends, and are their own governorate. Socotra has an archeological history that dates back to some of the earliest civilizations, complete with inexplicable cave art and 2,000 year old tools. The rich culture of the indigenous Soqotri has been insulated, like the flora and fauna they live alongside, for thousands of years — until the past decade, or so, when the Yemeni government has begun to open the islands to tourism.
In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the islands a world heritage site, citing the incredible uniqueness and diversity of the land’s plants and animals — the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.” In addition to the hundreds of endemic plants, more than 90 percent of the reptiles and land snails that live on the islands are exclusive to them. Culturally and ecologically, Socotra is a place where uniqueness flourishes.
But the uniqueness of Socotra doesn’t end at the waters’ edge. Scientists have found that its coral reefs are pretty special, too — they’re home to a heap of hybrids. Read More
As I’ve described before, the Indo-Pacific lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean are quite possibly the worst marine invasion ever. These toxic predators have been eating their way around for the past few decades, driving down populations of native species and threatening already-struggling habitats. Now, a pair of papers released this month have more bad news: the lionfish are continuing to spread, and they may be eating the very last of critically endangered species.
Last week, agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection here in Honolulu caught an unwelcome stowaway in a container of granite and flagstone from Brazil: a 3.5 inch wandering spider (Phoneutria species). A second spider was found in another container from the same shipment four days later, and was likely another of the same species — though agents are not entirely sure because the worker unloading the container smashed the bugger beyond positive ID. One spider is not so big a deal, but two is dangerously close to an introduction, and the Plant Quarantine Branch is now working with the importer to get the entire shipment returned to sender. But the close call begs a frightening question: could wandering spiders invade Hawaii? Read More
Over the past few days, scientists around the globe have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #IAmAScientistBecause, giving their reasons for why they chose to become scientists. As far as scientist origin stories go, mine is not entirely uncommon. I wrote it years ago, back in 2009 when I was about to embark upon my PhD at the University of Hawaii — a degree which I completed last December. For me, science has always been about the natural world, especially the ocean.
I was a biologist when I was five – not that I knew this until much later. I loved animals of all kinds, and couldn’t get enough of museums and zoos. I also fell in love with the sea. I loved tide pools and whatever creatures I could find in them.
So it just seemed so fitting to me that #IAmAScientistBecause happens to be blowing up this week of all weeks. This week happens to be one of the busiest weeks of the year for me, but it’s a week that perfectly encapsulates why I love being a scientist: I just spent the past two days sharing my lifelong passion for tide pools with the students of Mililani-Mauka Elementary.
Every year, helping out with the Tide Walks is the highlight of my spring. I am a scientist because of tide pools, because of field trips when I was a kid just like the ones I now help with annually. I explained the annual Tide Walks a few years ago like this:
The partnership between EECB and Mililani-Mauka Elementary school is one of those rare gems in outreach where both sides get a tremendous amount out of the relationship. The school gets trained scientific experts that fascinate and amaze the kids with tales of slimy defenses and odd partnerships between crabs and anemones. In turn, the graduate students get to take a day off, get out of the lab, and act like kids playing in tide pools. Sometimes, I think the overworked grad students are more excited to catch critters than the kids!
Here is just a few photos from this week that explain why I love this job so much:
But in case that wasn’t enough of an awesome week to explain why I’m a scientist, there’s more in store for me: I’m spending the rest of this week as an organizer and judge of the 40th annual Albert L. Tester Symposium, which means I get to learn about all of the amazing science that University of Hawaii graduate students are conducting. I couldn’t be more excited to see what my friends and colleagues have been up to! I hope you’ll join us on Twitter with the hashtag #TesterUH.
For four years, the state of California has experienced a devastating drought. It’s not just a little dry—according to scientists, it’s the worst drought in over a millennium, fueled by global climate change. Cali is in such dire straits that Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. just signed two emergency measures to funnel another $1 billion to drought relief and critical water infrastructure projects. No sector is feeling the hit more than Golden State’s agricultural industry, where the shortage of water has already cost farmers billions. And California’s drought is just the beginning; scientists predict severe and widespread droughts globally in the next 30 to 90 years. Given that the world’s farmers account for 75% of our freshwater use, these droughts will cause massive losses in crop production unless the agricultural industry as a whole can find a way to maintain production with less water input.
It’s a puzzle that genetic engineers are eager to solve. Read More
The lionfish eating their way through the Atlantic and Caribbean are among the worst marine invasive species to date. Anything we can do to limit their populations is a step in the right direction, thus it’s not surprising that some are getting creative when it comes to control. One of the most common questions I receive goes like this: What if there’s something worthwhile in their venom? Could we convince people to hunt them in droves if we can find a medical use for their spines?
It sure sounds like a perfect plan: study lionfish venom, find medically-relevant compound, and harvest millions of invasive lionfish to extract it. If only it were that simple.
Chameleons are known for their vibrant color changes. While the old wives’ tale that they change color to match their surroundings isn’t true, they are capable of remarkable shifts in hue, a trait which has fascinated scientists for years.
Now, scientists have learned from the little lizards, and have created a material that, like chameleons, can shift its colors seemingly effortlessly.
The material was created by Connie Chang-Hasnain, a professor of electrical engineering at University of California Berkeley, and her students, Li Zhu and James Ferrara, with the help of visiting student Jonas Kapraun. “One day in our group seminar we started to think about color,” Chang-Hasnain explained. “We looked at what was known at the time about how chameleon skin could change color, and we were fascinated by that, and we thought we could design for it.” And as they reveal in a study published in Optica this week, they were right. Read More
Journalists are held to the highest standards of accuracy, which is why so many seemed shellshocked to learn that Brian Williams, beloved NBC Nightly News anchor, lied about his experiences in the Iraq war. In his most recent accounts, Williams claimed to have been in a helicopter shot down by enemy fire — a claim that was vocally disputed by veterans who were with Williams at the time. Williams has since admitted that he got the story wrong, but what’s most intriguing about his apology is the seemingly-genuine level of remorse and confusion he displayed.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams told Stars and Stripes as a part of his retraction. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
Scientists do. If we assume that Brian Williams didn’t intend to mislead, then it’s actually not that hard to explain why he’d genuinely recall something that never happened. False memories are a fairly well-known phenomenon in human memory research. Early experiments found that people readily remembered things that never existed, like a word on a given list. In more nuanced experiments since, scientists have been able to convince study participants that they were lost in a mall as a kid, had been on a hot air balloon ride, and even committed a crime. In each case, the participants really remembered the events, even though they were completely fake. So it’s not that far of a stretch to think that, after repeating the stories of riding in a helicopter and of another helicopter being hit over and over, Williams got confused and merged his two long-term memories. According to Lars Chittka, a professor of behavioral and sensory ecology at Queen Mary University of London, “It’s psychologically perfectly possible.”
Chittka’s research recently discovered that Williams is not alone: bumblebees, too, experience a similar failure of memory integrity. Read More