As someone who has frequently had his scientific research featured in the popular media, I’m painfully aware of the constant struggle between conveying science accurately and trying to make it sexy and newsworthy. Scientists are perpetually frustrated because reporters are often scientifically illiterate, and reduce the story to a level they can understand—which totally misrepresents what the science is about. The science reporters I know are equally frustrated at scientists who don’t know how to communicate the essence of what they are doing, or who are aloof and uninterested in making the public more aware of the reasons why their tax dollars should support pure scientific research. I’ve had my work oversimplified or misrepresented many times, and I’ve seen the work of others completely butchered by incompetent science reporters. I’ve also seen scientists who make outrageous claims and trust gullible science reporters to buy it, hook, line and sinker—and this happens FAR too often (see my April 4 post about the coverage of a ridiculous claim by an amateur that dinosaurs were aquatic, or my Nov.2 post about gigantic Triassic squids arranging ichthyosaur bones).
One of the problems both scientists and reporters face is how to make the research sound interesting to a lay public that knows almost nothing about science—and much of what the public thinks they know is wrong. Much of chemistry and physics is incomprehensible and uninteresting to people that never took a single class in high school on physics or chemistry, and even something more immediate like biology is full of subjects that are obscure to the lay audience. Geologists usually have it slightly better, since topics like earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, climate change, etc., are easier to relate to.
We paleontologists usually have it even easier, because a few of us work on something immensely popular—dinosaurs—although I’m really a Cenozoic fossil mammal specialist and only rarely has my research ventured back to the Mesozoic. Just add dinosaurs and the research goes to the front page of most science news websites or The New York Times, or gets published in high-profile journals like Nature, Science, or PNAS. But when I make an important discovery on a group such as rhinos or peccaries or camels, I’m lucky to get it published in a third-tier journal, and I typically get no reporters calling at all. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs generated huge interest when the asteroid impact theory first emerged in 1980, with thousands of papers published and dozens of books on the topic. But it’s only the third or fourth largest extinction in earth history. The great Permian extinction 250 m.y. ago, which wiped out 95% of species on earth, is lucky to get ANY press attention. Who cares about productid brachiopods, or fusulinids, or tabulate or rugose corals, among the many victims of this event?
So I guess it’s not surprising when scientists who don’t work with dinosaurs try to find any connection,no matter how ridiculous, with them. Consider, for example, this recent article, which speculates about whether advanced dinosaurs could rule other planets. My first reaction is astonishment—how could there possibly be a legitimate scientist claiming that we have evidence of dinosaurs on other planets? We don’t even have the simplest forms of life on any other planet yet! The breathless reporting by Science Daily buys into the whole argument without any challenges.
But if you read it a little closer, the absurdity becomes apparent. It’s an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society discussing the fact that all asymmetric biochemicals on earth have the same chirality or “handedness”; only “left-handed” amino acids exist on earth (except for a few odd bacteria). Only “right-handed” sugars exist on our planet. Yet meteorites show that both left- and right-handed amino acids are found around the solar system. Scientists have long speculated on why this might be, but the simplest answer is that the amino acids that were found in the earliest life (whether generated on earth or carried from space) happened to be left-handed, and once they establish this template, all subsequent life must follow it.
So far, so good. But the author of this research, Ronald Breslow, goes on to speculate that if other planets had life, they could just as easily have right-handed amino acids or left-handed sugars. Sheer speculation, since no life has been found yet, but possible nonetheless. But then the paper goes off the deep end:
An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D-amino acids and L-sugars. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.
This guy may be a good at chemistry, but at biology and paleontology he is abysmally incompetent. At best, speculating about the existence of life with different handedness predicts only that the life forms on other planets might be simple things like bacteria. As Stephen Jay Gould and others have pointed out many times, life is full of chance, contingent, unpredictable events. There is absolutely no reason to expect that if we started the history of life on earth all over from the beginning, or “rerun the tape from the beginning”, we’d get anything like what actually happened over the past 3.5 billion years, much less such advanced and improbable creatures such as dinosaurs—or humans, for that matter. Life has so many unpredictable possibilities, and there too many chance events (like mass extinctions caused by changes in the environment) that gave us completely different outcomes to expect that we would repeat any of the events of the past beyond evolving bacteria and cyanobacteria—and even that is a stretch. P.Z. Myers made the same point, and argued that the author should be embarrassed at this silly last paragraph thrown in to make the story sexier for reporters. Since the article was “just accepted” for the journal (which means it passed review of several other chemists—shame on them!), it was still possible for him to delete the nonsensical paragraph at the end, and P.Z. wishes that he would do so.
I’m not so optimistic. I think Breslow knows full well that putting anything about dinosaurs in an otherwise yawner of a paper (not even that original, since the chirality debate goes back decades) is a sure trick to get reporters’ attention. Shame on him for a cheesy gimmick like this—and once again, shame on the scientifically illiterate reporters who didn’t ask any paleontologists to see if this conclusion made any sense. Just like the two previous examples I blogged about and cited above, we have a scientist speaking out of his level of expertise and bringing up a ridiculous notion that would never survive full peer review—and a reporter looking for a flashy story and not bothering to track down other scientists with the relevant expertise to comment on it.