The state of science writing, circa 2012: The summer of our discontent, made glorious by the possibilities of our time

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The summer has not been an easy one for aficionados or practitioners of science writing. There was, of course, the ongoing, death-by-1,000-cuts Jonah Lehrer fiasco, where, over a period of more than a month, one of the most popular and admired science writers working today was revealed to have promiscuously recycled his own work; was caught fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan; was fired from The New Yorker; and had his best-selling book withdrawn by his publisher. Before it was all over, the Lehrer mess had also sullied the reputation of Wired, one of the few popular magazines that runs long, narrative stories about science and technology, and Wired.com, which features a sterling lineup of science bloggers. (This wound was at least partially, and bewilderingly, self-inflicted.)

It would be folly to draw broad conclusions from the actions of one unscrupulous individual — but Jonah was far from the sole case of a journalist who writes about science misleading the public, either intentionally or (as hopefully is more often the case) not. On August 26, The New York Times‘s Sunday Review section ran a piece titled “An Immune Disorder at the Root of Autism” that (no joke) proposed hookworms as a potential cure for autism. (My comment at the time was that  I wished the standard for publication in op-ed pages was “interesting and plausible” as opposed to just “interesting.”) Over at the tech blog GizmodoJesus Diaz, whom I enjoy reading when he’s writing about gadgets, made me want to claw my eyes out with his series of goshtastic dispatches that heralded the imminent arrival of a cancer-free world where the eternally young spend their days pondering their artificial memories, which they’ll be able to do without having to breath – although they will still need to reckon with The Force. More recently, there’s been the spectacle of Naomi Wolf butchering logic and misrepresenting research while promoting her latest book, Vagina. On Tuesday, The Guardian gave her free rein to claim, in a column non-ironically given a “Knowledge is power” headline, that her critics were simply refusing to accept the ”latest neuroscientific and other findings” about female desire.

Even moments that should have been celebratory ended up leaving many of us who care about science, and science communication, grumpy and dispirited. Last week, the massive ENCODE project — that stands for Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements — published dozens of papers that stemmed from a years-long effort to unravel the mysteries of the human genome (The project included more than 1,600 experiments on 147 cell types. The main paper alone had almost 450 authors, who collectively represented more than 30 different institutions.) This was exciting, impressive work — but, as the name of the project itself implies, what was most striking about the ENCODE results were their encyclopedic nature and not any stand-out breakthroughs. Indeed, the realities that the ENCODE research provided evidence for — that it’s essential to examine genetic variation in a population when tackling disease; that variation isn’t uniform across the entire genome; that large swaths of our genome that don’t encode for proteins do serve other important functions — were all principles that were already pretty well understood.

But providing detailed evidence for things we (more or less) know are true is much less compelling than paradigm-shifting conclusions, which is presumably why the main ENCODE paper claimed that the team had been able to ”assign biochemical functions for 80% of the genome” (much of which had been known by the misleading shorthand, junk DNA). That talking point, which was repeated ad nauseam by many, if not most, of the outlets covering the ENCODE results, led John Timmer to post a piece in Ars Technica titled, “Most of what you read was wrong: how press releases rewrote scientific history.” “Unfortunately,” John wrote, “the significance of that statement hinged on a much less widely reported item: the definition of ‘biochemical function’ used by the authors.”

This was more than a matter of semantics. Many press reports that resulted painted an entirely fictitious history of biology’s past, along with a misleading picture of its present. As a result, the public that relied on those press reports now has a completely mistaken view of our current state of knowledge (this happens to be the exact opposite of what journalism is intended to accomplish). But you can’t entirely blame the press in this case. They were egged on by the journals and university press offices that promoted the work—and, in some cases, the scientists themselves.

Lest anyone think that the ENCODE case was sui generis, just this past Wednesday, a team of researchers based in France published a paper in PLOS ONE titled “Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False: The Case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” (The paper’s authors were intentionally evoking the title of John P. A. Ioannidis’s groundbreaking 2005 piece, “Why most published research findings are false,” which built off of his earlier JAMA paper, “Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research.”) After examining every newspaper report about the ten most covered research papers on ADHD from the 1990s, the authors were able to provide empirical evidence for a troubling phenomenon that seems to be all but baked in to the way our scientific culture operates: We pay lots of attention to things that are almost assuredly not true.

That might sound crazy, but consider: Because it’s sexier to discover something than to show there’s nothing to be discovered, high-impact journals show a marked preference for “initial studies” as opposed to disconfirmations. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever worked in a research lab knows, initial observations are almost inevitably refuted or heavily attenuated by future studies — and that data tends to get printed in less prestigious journals.  Newspapers, meanwhile, give lots of attention to those first, eye-catching results while spilling very little (if any) ink on the ongoing research that shows why people shouldn’t have gotten all hot and bothered in the first place. (I have a high degree of confidence that the same phenomenon occurs regardless of the medium, but the PLOS ONE study only examined print newspapers.) The result? ”[A]n almost complete amnesia in the newspaper coverage of biomedical findings.”

So, to summarize: one of our biggest stars was revealed as a fraud; publications that should be exemplars of nuanced, high-quality reporting are allowing confused speculation to clutter their pages; researchers and PIOs are nudging reporters towards overblown interpretations; and everything we write about will probably end up being wrong anyway — not that we’ll bother to let you know when the time comes.

***

And yet, and yet. Yes, the Times‘s hookworm-as-possible-miracle-cure piece was upsetting — but it also led to the indefatigable and invaluable Emily Willingham, who is both a biologist and a longtime autism expert, doing a wonderful job unpacking that piece and analyzing the sources its author used. Yes, Naomi Wolf made a mockery of what neuroscience can (and can’t) tell us, but she also sparked this excellent David Dobbs post on the “perils of neuro self-help.” (Wolf, Dobbs wrote, is just the latest writer whose “shallow sips from [the] fresh founts” of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology “generate[d] an epiphanous but unjustified confidence.”)

And yes, the ENCODE coverage highlighted some of deep-rooted flaws in how we value and communicate about science  – but the snarled, labyrinthine debate also highlighted the incredible opportunities available to anyone interested* in reading, or writing, about complex scientific issues. Genetics is a subject I know precious little about — and one I hope to write about in the future. Five years ago, it would have been difficult to know where to start. Today, I turned to Princeton genomics and evolutionary biology professor Leonid Kruglyak‘s Twitter stream. Among the many places that directed me was biochemist Mike White’s posts at the Finch and Pea and evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory’s  posts on ENCODE at his blog, Evolver Zone: Genomicron. Once I began pulling on those threads, they lead me to computational biologist Sean Eddy’s “ENCODE says what?” post at Cryptogenomicon, the 4,900-word, “My own thoughts” post that Ewan Birney, the lead scientist on the ENCODE project, put up simultaneous to the ENCODE papers’ publication, and Birney’s response to the reactions/backlash that ensued.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I realized that those are all documents written by people who are not only working scientists but also experts in the fields in question. When I began searching out work by science writers, I found subtle, sedulous pieces like Ed Yong’s “ENCODE: The rough guide to the human genome” and Brendan Maher’s “Fighting about ENCODE and junk.”

The end result of all of my reading was manifold: I now have a good grasp of the ENCODE project; I’m aware of some of the big issues facing genetics; I understand why the initial coverage proceeded the way it did, why that coverage was criticized, and how to avoid similar mistakes in my own work in the future; and I have learned of, and in some cases made contact with, a range of dynamic scientists dealing with these issues.

Oh, also: I’ve been reminded, once again, of why the process of learning about the mysteries of the world, and having the privilege of occasionally explaining what we know about those mysteries to total strangers, is so exhilarating and energizing and, dare I say, sometimes even ennobling.

 * EDIT: September 16, 3:25pm: This was originally written as “interesting.”

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