Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting February 28th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, who gets to speak for science? That was the subject of a really interesting session at the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Our own Wayt Gibbs was one of the presenters and he'll tell us about the session and his particular discussion. We'll also share some reader mail, and in honor of the Oscars we'll have a movie review. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.
First up, Wayt Gibbs. Wayt was a senior writer for Scientific American for many years. He is now a contributing editor for the magazine and is on staff at Intellectual Ventures in Seattle – that's a company devoted to inventions founded by former Microsoft chief technology maven Nathan Myhrvold. At the AAAS meeting, Wayt was part of the session, "Who Speaks for Science? Scientific Authority in the 21st Century." To find out what that was all about, I called Wayt in Seattle.
Steve: Hi Wayt. How are you?
Wayt: Just fine. Hi Steve.
Steve: Hi, good to talk to you. Tell me about your AAAS session. Tell me about the whole session and your particular comments when you were up there at the lectern.
Wayt: The session I participated in was on scientific authority – how it's constructed, how it is used, how it is battled over in the market for ideas. We had four presentations. I talked [a] little bit about how the media defines scientific authority in its everyday work and participates to a certain extent in the construction of scientific authority. There was a presentation by Linda Billings of the Study Institute at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence reporting on the outcome of a study she did about an episode at Harvard where a researcher started studying alien abductions. The researcher involved took a rather credulous approach to his research and wrote a book about it without bothering to publish the results in peer-reviewed literature first.
Steve: And this was John Mack at Harvard.
Wayt: This indeed was John Mack at Harvard, and the research that Linda Billings did looked at how the media responded and more or less wrecked Mack over the cause for violating these tacit rules of how a scientific authority ought to behave, authority in this case being anyone who is on faculty at Harvard.
Steve: Because that, just being on faculty at Harvard in the public's eye makes you a scientific authority.
Wayt: Yes indeed. Harvard and a few other schools are in that stratosphere of academia where the name alone carries significant enough caché to confer a special mantle of respect.
Steve: Let's get a quick rundown of the other speakers and then let's go back to what you were talking about.
Wayt: Rebecca Slayton at Stanford University gave a very interesting talk on research that she has done on software in missile defense. And she tracked how, through [the] 1960s all the way to the present, there's been this debate about the role of software in missile defense, and whether it is even in theory possible for the software that's written for systems such as the Patriot missile defense system or the Star Wars system that Ronald Reagan pushed to work reliably. Because there is no way to test that short of starting a nuclear war, which nobody seems to want to do. So in order to convince people that yes, this can absolutely be done, or no, this is impossible, the various parties
that had to make claims.
Steve: So what were her findings about the quality of the arguments that were used on both sides?
Wayt: She found that both sides appealed to mathematics and the rhetoric of the physical sciences in arguing either that absolutely, software can be made sort of provably reliable or, one can prove that it is impossible to build
a software of this complexity and have faith in its reliability. And the language they use[d] was very similar, but if you look at the arguments in detail, their analogies largely fall apart. There is not really a good correspondence between software and mathematics or these physical sciences.
Steve: And these were on—both sides were really aiming their arguments at voters and policy makers rather than other software code writers or mathematicians probably, right?
Wayt: Slayton was arguing that this is an example of a repeated frequent practice, especially on Capitol Hill, of tapping into this credibility that scientists have, especially when they speak in a certain language, and taking advantage of that to push one's own point of view.
Steve: So the key thing there is to sound authoritative and trust that your audience is not going to have the capability of really understanding the quality of the argument.
Wayt: That's it essentially. The scheme seems to be to take on the appearance of good, sound
s arguments that's based on fundamental scientific laws and observations, even if what one is arguing is actually a bunch of assumptions and guesses.
Steve: Right, and you see this to a really extreme degree in the whole creationism arguments where they'll use, you know, a few people with PhDs, a new scientific-sounding jargon to put forth a completely non-scientific viewpoint.
Wayt: Indeed. And David Kellogg of Northeastern University, who is actually an English professor there and therefore an expert in rhetoric,
and did subtle uses of language in which he did an analysis on just that phenomenon – the use of subtle rhetoric by intelligence design advocates in Kansas where there's been this battle over the science standards—and in fact over the definition of what science is&mdaash;by the school authorities in Kansas. Kellogg analyzed the amendments that the intelligence design proponents wanted to make to the definition of science and there was a very interesting attempt to replace the criteria that science seeks natural explanations for phenomena with the criteria that science seeks acceptable explanations for natural phenomena.
Steve: Right. (laughs)
Wayt: And this very subtle change is sort of opening the door to supernatural explanations, which of course they'll never come out and say. I would write that they are seeking supernatural explanations.
Steve: By those standards, astrology would have had to have been considered to be a science.
Wayt: And alchemy.
Steve: And alchemy.
Wayt: And phrenology and a whole bunch of other very interesting episode[s] …
Wayt: … of scientific history.
Steve: A recent, or probably it wasn't recent—it was [a] rerun of The Simpsons that I happen to be watching. Professor Frink referred to astrology as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of the sciences. (laughs). Which is only funny if it were a science, which it isn't. But anyway let us talk about your particular discussion there. What does the media consider to be a scientific authority?
Wayt: Well there are a number of components to this. One, of course, is the most trivial is that we take as authorities what scientists themselves have artisaned our authorities and they communicate this to us by first giving these particular scientists a lot of money, very big labs, so the people at the top fit their departments with their research institutions. They are authorities to scientists and they become authorities to the media as well in some cases.
Wayt: They give more to it than that, of course, because there are practical considerations if you are in the media – you have to be able to get somebody relatively quickly on the phone or by e-mail, and you have to able to use what they tell you in your stories, so that means those people who tend to respond well to reporters' queries and who tend to be rather quotable to make good analogies, to use short sentences, to recognize when they are using jargon and stop it, (laughs) to explain things in plain English. Those are much more useful as resources for journalists, so they tend to be quoted more and, of course, the more they're quoted, the more they become famous. I am saying, of course, it's always a powerful component of authority in any field, science included.
Steve: So the caveat there for the, let's say, for the television watcher is, if you see a scientist actually being interviewed on television, be aware that they are the scientist who perhaps was the one who answered his or her phone that day and is able to construct a pretty decent English sentence. Somebody
who may be much more well informed on the particular subject at hand, and that person just might not have been available, or might not be able to speak in ways that regular people can understand.
Wayt: In fact, that's frankly the norm in science. It's the exception that you find somebody who is eloquent about their research and who is willing and able to talk intelligently about other groups' research as well, and that's another component that I talked about in my presentation, which is trustworthiness. Access is great, but for experienced science writers and science broadcasters, trustworthiness is a key component to authority too. We tend to go back to those sources that we have a sense are not just spinning us – they are not just feeding publicity information for their own self interest but are conscientious about pointing out the limitations of their work, about pointing out unanswered questions that still need to be answered before you can put what they've discovered into use, and about pointing towards other groups that are doing good work—maybe even contradictory—in the same field.
Steve: And of course now we've worked in print for a long time,
in and the print situation may be quite different from the broadcast situation, and it may be quite different depending on all kinds of schedule[s] you're on. If you're on a monthly publication schedule, it's very different from being on a daily publication schedule, where as you said before, you know, you just might need the first person who answers the telephone that day.
Wayt: Those of us who work for monthly magazines and publications have this luxury that we can actually find out. We've the time to check what a source tells us against what's been published in the literature and other sources of information, so we can really dig much more deeply than can, as you said, that, that journalist who has to turn something in by that 4 o'clock deadline.
Steve: Yeah. So again, the caveat is, if you are reading Scientific American, chances are it really is a good authority on the subject. If you're watching the local news and there's been an epidemiological story that came out that day and they're not talking to the actual author of the study, they're probably talking to the local person at the, you know, the nearby hospital, who might have read the abstract of the study and might be able to say something about it.
Wayt: It is worth bearing in mind, you know, as a consumer of science news, that it takes a couple of hours to carefully read a single scientific paper. And if you want to really check that paper,
so[go] look at the references it cites and see whether it's appropriately building on previous work. And if you really want to check that the statistics were done properly and if the conclusions match the data that was collected, that takes a full day's work.
Steve: So you know, you were talking about Ronald Reagan before, to quote Ronald Reagan, "Trust, but verify."
Steve: Speaking of, you know, politics, you're going to be testifying before Congress soon. What's that all about?
Wayt: This is a rare opportunity for journalists – and that's to talk with policy makers directly in Congress itself. I'll be speaking at a hearing of a subcommittee on energy and water development in the House of Representatives. This is a part of the House Appropriations Committee. They are in charge of deciding how much money to give to the Department of Energy every year and as part of their budget deliberations they have formed this hearing to consider a ten-year outlook for energy, so they're very interested in finding about what the prospects are—for existing and also new technologies—for producing energy over the next decade or two. I've been invited to talk because I contributed an article to the special issue, "Energy's Future Beyond Carbon" in last September's issue of Scientific American. My article was called, "Plan B for Energy" and it covered an array of futuristic technologies, some of which have already been proved and are actually going into commercial use and some of which are nothing more than the gleam in the proponent's eye at this point.
Steve: Yeah! I remember reading that article. It's a very interesting article. It's up on our Web site; people can access it at sciam.com. It's well worth reading. Going back [to] the first subject, on February 27th there is a contest in Dublin. Six postgraduate fellows will be explaining their research before a live audience and the winner is the one who explains it the best in the clearest, most simple English without scientific jargon.
Wayt: I heard about that! Yes, that's a tremendous idea and I think it should be replicated in every single university across the United States and they should do it for faculty as well. In fact, they should do it especially for faculty. It should be a condition of tenure in life.
Steve: (laughs) Absolutely. And the listeners may be interested to know that we are scheduled—as we are talking right now that contest has not yet occurred—but we're scheduled … I've been in touch with those folks. We're scheduled to be interviewing the winner of that contest for next week's podcast.
Steve: Wayt, great to talk to you. Thanks very much.
Wayt: Me too. Thanks Steve.
Steve: Again, Wayt's article on our single topic energy issue of last September was called, "Plan B for Energy." The entire issue is available at www.sciamdigital.com.
Now it's time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Early Europeans couldn't digest milk.
Story number 2: For the first time in over 200 years, a beaver has been spotted living in New York City.
Story number 3: Simply opening the windows appears to help decrease the risk of airborne infections.
And story number 4: A new kind of car paint includes an enzyme that breaks down bird droppings.
We'll be back with the answer, but first, we've got e-mail from a listener named James Wyatt in response to something on last week's podcast. I was talking to Corrina Wu on the podcast about some other stories from the AAAS meeting when she said,
Corrina: This year happens to be the 20th anniversary of a really groundbreaking report that was released looking at racial disparities and where hazardous waste sites are located. This was 20 years ago in 1987, and back then it was a study commission by a civil rights organization called the United Church of Christ and it kind of looked at how hazardous waste sites were tended to be located in neighborhoods with high minority population.
Steve: Mr. Wyatt wrote in with the following: "I was amused to hear journalist Corrina Wu describe United Church of Christ as a civil rights organization in this week's SciAm podcast. It might be that, among many other things, but it is first and foremost a church. It's a church with a long record of social involvement and worked for justice like many of the other mainline denominations in the U.S."
Mr. Wyatt went on to say that it might be nice to give credit to a religious denomination that is perfectly comfortable with the findings of science, to which we say, "Amen!" Reminds me of something [the] late Stephen Jay Gould once wrote and that was, "the enemy of knowledge and science is irrationalism and not religion."
And now in a digitally related subject, I want to tell you about a movie I happened on HBO last week. It's called, Something the Lord Made. It's not a new movie; it came out originally in 2004. But I never heard of it until last week, maybe you haven't either. It's the true story, which begins when segregation was still commonplace, of Alfred Blalock, a prominent white researcher and surgeon and Vivien Thomas, a talented African American who became Blalock's laboratory technician. But Thomas was much more than that. He really co-invented and perfected groundbreaking surgical procedures, including those that went into the first cardiac surgeries ever performed in the 1940s. And Thomas also had to deal with institutional racism on a daily basis, which the movie addresses in many subtle ways. There's one scene in which Blalock, played brilliantly by Alan Rickman and Thomas, also played brilliantly by Mos Def, are so engrossed in a conversation about their research that they together walk into a men's room that's clearly marked "Whites Only," which greatly disturbs a white guy already in the room. There's a lot of little things throughout the movie – doesn't bash you over the head, but it constantly reminds you that this was an undercurrent throughout that period of time. The film also does a terrific job of capturing the process – all the thrills and long hours of boredom and hard work that go into scientific and medical discovery. There are extended discussions of anatomy and physiology and really dramatic scenes of actual
ly surgical procedures. By the way, the title, Something the Lord Made refers to a true incident in which Thomas had invented and performed a procedure on a laboratory animal—called an atrial septectomy—that's repairing a heart defect. Blalock felt the repaired heart and asked Thomas if he had indeed done this, because he said it was so beautiful it was like something the Lord made. I checked – the movie is repeated on one of the HBO channels, HBO Signature, multiple times in March. Go to www.hbo.com/films/stlm for Something the Lord Made, and while there you'll find a link to the entire National Magazine Award-winning article by Katie McCabe on which the movie is very faithfully based on. I read that; it is very good. I highly recommend it. Something the Lord Made is also on DVD. They've got it over [at] Netflix. Find it. Watch it. It's terrific.
Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.
Story number 1: Early Europeans were not able to digest milk.
Story number 2: Beaver found in New York City.
Story number 3: Open windows helpful in decreasing airborne infections.
And story number 4: Car paint dissolves bird droppings.
Story number 1 is true. Looks like Europeans couldn't digest milk till relatively recently in evolutionary terms. DNA analysis of skeletons dating back some 7,000 years finds that the gene for the enzyme to digest lactose is nowhere to be found. Today, 90 percent of northern Europeans have the gene, which was apparently advantageous enough to rapidly spread once it appeared. The study is in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can read more in Nikhil Swaminathan's article on our Web site, www.sciam.com, called "Not Milk? Neolithic Europeans Couldn't Stomach the Stuff."
Story number 2 is true. A beaver has built a small lodge along the banks of the beautiful Bronx River inside the New York City limits. Amazingly, the little guy's home is actually on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. I went there Saturday—it's not far from my home—to see if I can spot him. I didn't catch a glimpse of the actual beaver, but I saw his lodge and some of his handiwork, or toothy work. There are cone-shaped stumps and a couple of felled trees with cone-shaped bottoms along the banks of the river. I am heading back to do an on-site interview, which we'll play next week, hopefully with the beaver, but probably with one of the people at the zoo. In the meantime, check out the SciAm blog, blog.sciam.com, which should have some of the photos I took of the beaver's lodge and his lumber cutting exploits along the Bronx River, just a few hundred yards from Interstate 95 and the elevated Bruckner Expressway.
And story number 3 is true. Airborne infection risk goes down in rooms with good ventilation as a result of just opening the windows and doors. Some hospital areas have new air pumped in, but natural ventilation turns the air over more frequently than even good pumps. This can become a big deal in hospital settings, where infected people may be spreading pathogens through coughing or just speaking. For more check out the Wednesday, February 28th edition of the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 4 about an enzyme car paint that dissolves bird splats is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS, unfortunately. But what is true is that a new kind of paint for ships seems able to keep the hulls completely free of barnacles as according to
a recent research done at Göteborg University at [in] Sweden. The ocean-dwelling fungus Streptomyces avermitilis is poisonous to barnacles. Surfaces covered with paint that includes an extract of the fungus stay clean and that means that ships could save energy by plowing through the water more smoothly. Unfortunately, Oscar Madison's dentist's barnacle glue remains in the early testing phase.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out news articles on our Web site, www.sciam.com and the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.