Last December, Ford Doolittle, a biochemist at Dalhousie University who has actually done a lot, organized a symposium called “Hype in science“, which I announced on at the time though it hadn’t yet taken place. Now Florian Maderspacher, the senior reviews editor for Current Biology, has written a three-page summary of the conference for the journal, “Hype in Halifax,” which appears to be available without charge.
Maderspacher reports talks about five areas of research that, though flimsy, have been widely hyped, and he talked about my favorite: epigenetics. Here are some of them.
Arsenic-based life. You all know of the report of bacteria found in a California lake that supposedly had DNA incorporating arsenic. This gave rise to a huge amount of hype about a “shadow biosphere,” one including life that we didn’t have the tools to detect. In the end, it all proved to be bogus, with biochemist Rosie Redfield the hero in debunking this one—through her blog. Sadly, the lead author of the original paper published in Science, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, has simply doubled down on her debunked claims, and, to their eternal shame, the journal has not retracted the paper, even though it’s simply wrong. Redfield, whom I’ve met, is a real firecracker, and gave the debunking talk at the meeting.
The ENCODE project on “junk DNA”. If you’re a biologist, you’ll remember the rescent results of the “ENCODE project,” which supposedly demonstrated that much of the 80% of the human genome previously thought to be “junk DNA,” doing nothing, was actually functional. That report, too, was way premature (there were severe problems with how they recognized functional DNA), and was debunked in a talk by Doolittle himself.
Epigenetics. I’ve posted about this repeatedly. We all recognize that epigenetic modification of DNA is an important and newly-appreciated feature of gene action, but the hype has centered on its putative role as a form of Lamarckian inheritance. That is, epigenetics advocates like Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have argued that the environment can modify DNA in a permanent way, so that something that was induced by external influences can become part of the genome—and a basis for evoutionary adaptation. Now there is adaptive epigenetic change, but such modifications are themselves is coded by the DNA: bits of DNA tell other bits to become modified in an adaptive way. Although some epigenetic changes that are induced purely by the environment can last for a few generations, we still know of not a single evolutionary adaptation induced in this way. The hype, though deafening, has no substance behind it.
Nevertheless the epigenetics mavens, always touting a big paradigm change, continue to bang on in the absence of that evidence. In his own talk, Florian went after that idea.
Epigenetics is a vast area touching on things as diverse as twin studies, genetic determinism, inheritance of acquired traits, DNA modification, transcription and development. My thesis was that the hype around epigenetics (or the distorted version thereof) is a ‘perfect storm’ as epigenetics is being hyped both inside and outside science for different reasons: the immense interest in epigenetics in the public — there’s even an epigenetics beauty company — comes from the fact that it touches on a very essence of the human sense of agency (much like ‘free will’ does in neuroscience). The idea that your genes can determine your destiny makes people uneasy. The notion that, via so-called epigenetic changes, one’s lifestyle can change that destiny conveys a sense of empowerment that seems to resonate well with people.
. . . Finally, I discussed some examples of induced heritable changes in phenotype. Luckily, just that week a paper had appeared describing such an effect in mice where learned sensitivity to an odour can be inherited into the next generation. Need I say that the media hyped this as “your fears can be transmitted to your grandchildren”, because the authors had used a standard fear-conditioning assay to train the mice and test sensitivity. My conclusion was that, while interesting biology in their own right, these examples don’t necessitate a new evolutionary theory, let alone a Neo-Lamarckian one.
One of the big purveyors of the hype about epigenetics is, of course, none other than Deepak Chopra, who is selling Big Brain kits ($144) arguing that you can change your genome by diet, meditation, and proper thought.
Positive selection for brain-size genes in humans. Sarah Richardson critiqued the evolutionary-genetic studies of Bruce Lahn conducted here at the University of Chicago. Lahn reported finding two genes (microcephalin and ASPM) that are involved in human disorders that reduce brain size. Lahn supposedly showed not only signs of recent selection on these genes in human populations, but selection in some populations (the ones that left Africa) but not others. This, of course, promoted speculation about population differences in intelligence. In her talk, Richardson argued that not only did the two genes fail to show any correlation with intelligence, but further analysis didn’t even show any evidence for positive selection.
“Liberation therapy.” While the the four studies above are largely of evolutionary interest, “liberation therapy” has real human consequence. It was a widely-hyped medical operation in which some surgeons claimed that vascular surgery could ameliorate multiple sclerosis by increasing blood flow to the brain. It didn’t work, but of course unleashed a spate of excitement in the MS community, particularly from patients seeking cure from this progressive and fatal disease. The hype was dissected by Jock Murray, Dalhousie’s former Dean of Medicine.
There’s no doubt that hype is increasing in science. It’s always been there in science journalism (and I hasten to add that there are some very good science journalists who are properly skeptical), but is now creeping into science more insidiously. For scientists themselves are learning how to hype their findings. It was NASA, after all, that gave a press conference to the arsenic-bacteria fail, and the American Museum had a press conference to announce the misclassified fossil Darwinius (see below). And, as the number of competitors for jobs in science increases, there will be increasing pressure to oversell one’s findings. I’ve seen this growing even over my short three-decade career in science: evolutionary biology is a particular victim of hype, since everyone seems to want to overthrow the neo-Darwinian paradigm.
But how to stop it, or at least reduce it? Here Maderspacher reports that the conference came up dry:
At the end, the big question of “what can be done?” was put to the speaker panel. As you won’t be surprised to hear, despite lively and interesting discussion, no answer was arrived at. At one point, I tried to play devil’s (read: journals’) advocate in response to a comment from the audience suggesting we should get rid of all the science journals with glossy covers (disclaimer: one such pays my bills). I suggested that not all hype was bad and that getting the public engaged in science was part of the deal of doing science. Sarah put forward the idea of a ‘slow science’ movement, where the often breathless rat race is slowed such that its results can actually be digested before they are disseminated (she phrased it much better!). Rosie encouraged everyone to go out and tweet and blog and contribute to Wikipedia, in order to debunk and educate.
Well, as Maderspacher notes, there is a sense in which the peer-review system is broken: there are simply too many papers submitted, and we don’t have time to review them properly. (I can’t count the number of reviews of my own submitted papers that have been superficial and shoddy.) I tend to favor Redfield’s solution of science blogging, perhaps because it justifies what I do! If more scientists blogged about recent papers, and singled out their problems (or praised their achievements), the problems with published research would be found and (hopefully) corrected more quickly. Of course that depends on scientists getting some kind of professional credit for blogging. It’s time-consuming, and nothing that counts for professional advancement (I don’t even mention it on my c.v.). Yet it’s valuable outreach, and should be recognized as professional work. (I’m not touting myself here, as I’ll retire soon anyway.)
Blogging by scientists, after all, was the way that both the arsenic DNA and the so-called “missing link” between two groups of primates (Darwinius masillae) were found to be wrong. Bloggers, both science advocates and science journalists (including Carl Zimmer), quickly hopped on the problems with Darwinius, which now appears to fall firmly in one group only. That hype, too, involved not only a press conference by the study’s authors, but a book deal, a book that breathlessly and erroneously hyped the fossil as a missing link between simians and prosimians. It wasn’t just journalists who were guilty here—it was fame-hungry and careless scientists.
I see science blogging and science journalism as the “free press” that has promise to dampen hype like this. The old system, of scientists submitting corrections to flawed published papers, is too slow, for it takes months and months for such corrections to be reviewed and published, and most big-name journals don’t even put the corrections in the paper version anyway.
One last plea to the journal Science—would you please retract the arsenic-bacteria paper?