“Unchanging bacteria” revisited: dreadful science reporting in The Washington Post

It’s a sad situation that the only newspaper in the U.S. that still has a full science section is the New York Times (it’s on Tuesday), and even much of that is devoted to “health”.  Other papers seem to act as “article aggregators,” with poorly-trained science journalists simply accepting a new finding at face value based on the authors’ claims or on what the authors’ universities put out in their press release (Science Daily is notorious for uncritically regurgitating such claims.)

But, as always with striking new results, it’s caveat emptor. Remember how the papers jumped all over the findings of arsenic bacteria (i.e., bacteria using arsenic in their DNA), a finding that was later refuted? Most of the papers that heralded this bacterium as a “new form of life” didn’t devote much (or any) space to the refutation. For showing that a fancy new result is actually a flash in the pan is merely “dog bites man” stuff.

A good example of uncritical reporting is a piece by Sarah Kaplan in Wednesday’s Washington Post: “The mysterious 2-billion-year-old creature that would make Darwin smile.” It is, of course the bacterium that I wrote about the same day: a sulfur-metabolizing microbe whose morphology (and metabolic sulfur products) seem to have been unchanged for over two billion years. Kaplan’s reference to “Darwin’s smile” refers to the authors’ claim that their results supports Darwinism’s “null hypothesis”: we don’t expect evolution in an unchanging environment.

There are two problems with both the original paper by J. W. Schopf et al. and Kaplan’s summary of it. See my critique for much more information:

1. “Darwin’s null hypothesis,” as the authors and Kaplan present it, is flatly wrong: we sometimes do expect evolution in an unchanging environment; and if we found it, it certainly wouldn’t be a severe problem for evolutionary theory (see below).

2. The authors show only relative stasis (lack of change) in the appearance of the sea-floor bacteria and in the compounds they excrete. They have no way of showing whether other traits or genes have remained static over two billion years. For example, any genes affecting the efficiency of sulfur uptake, or of the rate of reproduction of the bacteria, might have changed but simply couldn’t be detected in the material examined.

But Kaplan couldn’t be bothered to dig beneath the surface of the authors’ claims; in fact, the two people she quotes about the paper were both authors of it! Here’s part of her report:

“The microbes we see in the fossils are almost identical to what we see in the ocean now,” study co-author Malcolm Walter, a professor of astrobiology at the University of New South Wales, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “They have similar shapes and are doing similar chemistry.”

But the fact these particular organisms successfully avoided evolving for billions of years doesn’t disprove the theory of evolution — quite the opposite.

Darwin’s theory states that species evolve through natural selection in response to environmental changes — increased threats from predators, new competition from other animals, changes in access to water or air. But the inverse is also true: If there is no change in the environment of a balanced ecosystem, the organisms that constitute it should remain similarly unchanged — a principle dubbed evolution’s “null hypothesis.”

“These microorganisms are well-adapted to their simple, very stable physical and biological environment,” the study’s lead author, University of California at Los Angeles professor William Schopf, said in a university press release. “If they were in an environment that did not change but they nevertheless evolved, that would have shown that our understanding of Darwinian evolution was seriously flawed.”

(Note the reliance on the “university press release,” an organ dedicated to puffing up the results of university scientists.)

Schopf, otherwise a very good paleobiologist, is simply wrong here. I bet if you examined the genomes of the 2-billion-year-old bacterium and its modern descendants (if they are descendants), you’ve find ample genetic change, not just in “neutral” sites, but in genes that actually do something. Of course we can’t study that, for we can’t sequence the genome of an ancient bacterium; but even if we found such change, it wouldn’t violate evolutionary theory in the slightest.

It’s time for reputable newspapers to hire science reporters that do more than simply recycle press releases and do perfunctory puff-pieces based on superficial investigation. There are still some science writers who dig into papers, interviewing a variety of scientists—and not just authors of the paper at issue—who can shed light on new discoveries. These including Faye Flam, Carl Zimmer (who, along with several bloggers, called out the so-called missing link Darwinius), and Natalie Angier. Angier works for the paper, Zimmer publishes there often, and Flam has recently had a piece there. Where are the other papers?

In a world in which science is becoming ever more important, and in which vital political decisions demand scientific literacy (e.g., vaccinations, global warming, and so on), it’s shameful that newspapers are simply pruning the science out of their columns. Or, in the case of the Post, publishing fluff that will produce a serious misunderstanding of what evolutionary theory says.

Naturally the petulant Professor Ceiling Cat has left a comment on the Post site. I hope it stays up.

 

37 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    It is lamentable that journalism is so poor these days and science writing in general seems to be waning. I wonder if this is to do with media outlets wanting to throw out pieces quickly and don’t demand more thorough research that would take the necessary time to vet the material.

    • tomh
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      I think it has more to do with budget cutting. As Jerry notes, most print newspapers, in the US anyway, have cut out science reporting altogether.

      • Posted February 7, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        Budgets probably depend on advertising. Less advertising, less paper space for news. For example: The Oregonian is significantly smaller; about half-sized and one-fourth to one-third the number of pages.

      • quiscalus
        Posted February 7, 2015 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Miles O’Brien did a great interview on Startalk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson, discussing the rise and fall of science reporting on CNN. well worth a listen if you have the chance.

    • Canoe
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

      Thanks from me too for taking this on. Science Daily is not low-overhead, it’s zero-overhead; the site does nothing more than accumulate propaganda from university and like sources, as stated, written by undereducated morons. The site asks for feedback but never does or answers anything. They should be shamed into harakiri or some such.

  2. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Very happy that you jumped on this again. After you had explained this finding in the first post — poor reporting or journalism was the first thing that stuck out. Possibly it is just part of the disintegration in Journalism in general today. If we get everything else half wrong, why not science as well.

  3. Rod
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Check out Tom Spears in the Ottawa Citizen. He just received an award for his science reporting, well deserved.

  4. skiptic
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Sadly, paper newspapers are going extinct. They are adapting to the internet, or they are going the way of the horse and buggy. I read 98% of my science news on the internet from bloggers like you, Jerry Coyne. Thanks!

  5. Posted February 7, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    thank you PCC

    • Benjamin Branham
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Many thanks indeed for all your science posts on here!

  6. Genghis
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    A bit of Saturday pedantry: shouldn’t it be caveat lector rather than caveat emptor?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Like this?

      Oh wait, you’re using Latin….

  7. PS
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s a sad situation that the only newspaper in the U.S. that still has a full science section is the New York Times (it’s on Tuesday)

    The situation is similarly sad in India, but the one Indian newspaper that still carries an “S & T” section, The Hindu carries a particularly good one.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

      Gee, that does look good!

  8. Eli Siegel
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I am always cautious about Schopf’s work. His 4-30-1993 Science paper showed what he said were 3.5 byo cyanobacteria relatives. Brasier in Nature on 3-7-2002 said the environment in which Schopf’s fossils were found was not suitable for photosynthetic organisms and what Schopf saw may not have even been fossils.

    I think that what you can learn by looking at bacteria in very old rocks is minimal.

  9. Kevin
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Journalists are not the main culprits as much as the scientists. Part of it is human nature: getting excited about a result and making it sound profound, when it probably is not, or not profound for the reasons the scientists are willing to let the general public think.

    BICEP2 did that last year with inflation theory…now, not all was retraction, but a little bit embarrassing for the lack of caution. See Sean’s take:

    http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2015/02/06/the-state-of-the-early-universe/

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Journalists are not the main culprits as much as the scientists.

      I think two distinct cases can be drawn.

      1) In which the science is sound, but the “mainstream media” accounts of it are distorted. Culpability to the scientists amounts to letting their universities put out poor press releases.

      2) In which the scientists themselves seem to lack an understanding of the relevant field of science and the meaning of their work. ENCODE is the poster boy for this.

  10. Edward Hessler
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t PNAS implicated, too? You know much more about publishing there than me. Can’t some papers be published in PNAS without being critically peer-reviewed?

    Perhaps I’m wrong. I’m not trying to let the reporter off the hook but she seems not entirely alone in this–it seems to be a chain.

    I wish MIT was still running its Knight Science Journalism blog for this is the kind of incident that they would critically analyze.

    Perhaps Ms. Flam will publish something in Forbes on this. Or Higgs.

    • Posted February 7, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      PNAS used to have a two-tier peer-review system in which members could publish virtually without review, and in which they could also solicit reviews from their friends, or even not use reviews they didn’t like (Lynn Margulis was famous for that). Now, however, they’ve instituted a more rigorous review system. But papers fall through the cracks in every journal.

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Remember how the papers jumped all over the findings of arsenic bacteria (i.e., bacteria using arsenic in their DNA), a finding that was later refuted?

    Why yes I do. And one of those indiscriminate papers was Science magazine.

  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Science News, which I regularly read, does indeed have a lot of puffery on a regular basis.
    University press releases also do this, as you say. Dan Graur posted an incredible example a while ago about how scientists made a minor contribution in analyzing repetitive sequences in the Drosophila genome. Fine work, mind you, but perfectly ordinary. But the press release from their university says: “Texas A&M Biologists Unlock Non-Coding Half of Human Genome with Novel DNA Sequencing Technique.
    Among the problems here is that human DNA was not used in the study.

  13. Mark R.
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Your comment is still up, but you didn’t link it back to WEIT, it links back to the Post’s article.

    “You can see my analysis of this paper (and the reasons why the author of this Post piece is wrong) at my website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/…”

    • Mark R.
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      oops…then I see you saw the error and corrected it.

  14. Posted February 7, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  15. Posted February 7, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Great post, couldn’t agree more!

  16. Posted February 7, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    1. “Darwin’s null hypothesis,” as the authors and Kaplan present it, is flatly wrong: we sometimes do expect evolution in an unchanging environment; and if we found it, it certainly wouldn’t be a severe problem for evolutionary theory (see below).

    Oddly, I came across this last weekend at The Deep (a huge deep-water aquarium) in Hull. They had several panels with a not-bad, school-kid-friendly exposition of evolution, but the last panel ended with this. I kinda wish I’d had a Sharpie with me…

    /@

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Maybe you can contact someone there & point out their error.

  17. Posted February 7, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Shoddy science journalism also reared its ugly head very recently with the media (including the venerable NYT) breathlessly reporting a recent study claiming that vigorous running is as bad for you as being sedentary. Yet even a rudimentary glance at the actual paper showed it was grossly underpowered to come to any conclusions in that respect.

  18. Keith Cook or more
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    “In a world in which science is becoming ever more important, and in which vital political decisions demand scientific literacy…”
    science is and can be demanding and it needs writers to make it accessible and accurate for the science minded and the wider general public. Which in itself is demanding, better quality reporting would go a long way as this post shows, along with more of science in all appropriate media including TV news bulletins as standard fare. Like sport is. This aspect is disappointing holding science is in our lives and face everyday.
    Fortunately, stasis is not an option for science in the 21st century I don’t think we would let it.

  19. Raygray
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Yes, and it’s not just science. Reporting on all subjects has become more flashy and sensationalized in America. I was in Japan during the big earthquake and the reporting on CNN and the local Japanese news channel was night and day. I was flipping back and forth between channels and this stuck in my mind:
    CNN: An uncontrollable fire rages near the reactor.
    NHK (local channel): Smoke was seen near the reactor.

  20. Posted February 7, 2015 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    One reason the breathless, credulous reporting is problematic, especially on papers like the one on sulphur eating bacteria, is that it feeds the public perception that science is always “changing its story” – or at least that’s the takeaway when the next story comes out refuting or refining the theory as presented in the last story.

    Of course, it’s also the public’s fault for expecting a science story to be scientists’ “last word” on whatever topic: there is no last word! And the scientists usually are not saying what the reporters claim they are saying anyway! What that phenomenon has to do with rejection of evolution and climate change – on which topics there is remarkable consensus among scientists – is open to discussion, but it seems to me the generally hostile posture toward science is the common denominator. Can’t imagine where people developed that attitude … !

    • BillyJoe
      Posted February 7, 2015 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, it conflicts with their non-evidence based un-scientific gut instincts and brain washed dogma.

  21. quiscalus
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    so, did I understand this correctly, but neither of the authors of the paper were microbiologists or bacteriologists? I’m all for interdisciplinary collaboration, but wouldn’t actually having someone in the field have been helpful? I’m no expert either, but
    perhaps it will also be helpful, to the reporter and the authors if I quote the Textbook of Bacteriology (2nd ed, 1938) by Thurman B. Rice that I purchased today at a used book shop:

    “All other species of plants and animals are classified upon a strictly morphological basis as determined by gross appearance or by careful dissection. Bacteria cannot be so classified…Morphology (of bacteria) is responsible for the major divisions and for some of the smaller details, but staining reactions and cultural tests for physiological functions play a larger part in classification. We identify a bacterial species largely by finding out what it will do-whether it will liquify gelatin, ferment a particular sugar, or produce indole…For the final identification of a given species it will usually require days or weeks and may require months.”

    I hope this doesn’t come across as a rant, but I’m pretty sure that this was covered to a degree in my Biology 101 or 102 course, and is quite well known, at least since 1938.

  22. BillyJoe
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    Jerry:

    “we sometimes do expect evolution in an unchanging environment”

    If you include other organisms in the “environment” this could still be an example of evolution in a changing environment couldn’t it?

    Genetic drift or a mutation produces a bacteria that more efficiently uses the available unchanging energy supply. It will come to predominate and eventually replace the pre-existing bacteria.

    But perhaps they were using the word “environment” in its usually more constrained definition.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      Also…

      The abstract says the following:
      (I haven’t got access to the article)

      “The marked similarity of microbial morphology, habitat, and organization of these fossil communities to their modern counterparts documents exceptionally slow (hypobradytelic) change that, if paralleled by their molecular biology, would evidence extreme evolutionary stasis”

      This could mean they recognised the limitations of their study but still allowed it to be hyped.

  23. Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    The phrase “university press release” really bothers me – at least with the current state of journalism, etc.


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