Such expressions as that famous one of Linnæus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent,—the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings,—is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications (Darwin, 1859, p. 413f).

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Investigative Science Journalism: Who Guards the Guards?

Plato’s reaction was simple: they will guard themselves. Distaste for power and a desire for righteousness will prevent them from taking advantage of their position. This is Plato’s Noble Lie – a valiant failure at best.

The media, journalists, editors and reporters, are also the guardians or watchmen of science. Not only do they report news and events, but they also keep politicians or spheres of power in check by questioning their actions and reasoning. Such is the power of the media in Britain that is can (almost) topple politicians and governments.

The same media also cover scientific discoveries and events, but there is a catch. Unlike politicians and government officials, scientists are not subject to critical questioning by the media. Whereas politicians acquire their positions through elections, scientists are assumed get to where they are through expertise and merit.

Any form of expertise may separate one field or profession from another. Take chamber music for example. It takes a typical violinist many years to reach a level of expertise required to perform in a chamber ensemble or symphony orchestra. In addition to other than the extracurricular training they receive as children, their university degrees and auditions, musicians are always open to scrutiny and also in their performances by the media. Newspapers dedicate columns to either praise or rubbish performances. Medical doctors and dentists are also open to scrutiny. Malpractice is often exposed first in a newspaper before it is reported elsewhere. The media also seem to find space to criticize new alternative medicines, the forms of chemicals used in chemotherapy, which diet is best, which isn’t and so on. This aside, scientists appear to be all but immune from critical scrutiny any from of questioning by journalists.

One reason maybe that much scientific expertise differs from other forms in that it does not seem to directly affect our day-to-day lives. While many people have a favorite recording of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, their own opinions on dieting and whether smoking or drinking too much is harmful. However, the average person’s opinion on evolutionary biology for example, is often no more than received wisdom, given little personal reflection. In fact the science press, that is the popular media who report on science, struggle to correctly interpret the scientists message and to attract the attention of the average reader. The recent debate in Framing Science (Nesbit & Mooney, 2007) addresses how scientists and the media can work together to express a scientific idea or discovery in such a way that it informs the public in a clear and engaging manner. The article draws much needed attention to the still burning question: who watches the watchmen?

Recently the popular press reported the discovery of a new fossil 'amphibian' nicknamed the 'frogamander' (Gerobatrachus hottoni). The article went on to state:
"The discovery of a "frogamander," a 290 million-year-old fossil that links modern frogs and salamanders, may resolve a longstanding debate about amphibian ancestry … Modern amphibians -- frogs, salamanders and earthworm-like caecilians -- have been a bit slippery about divulging their evolutionary ancestry. Gaps in the fossil record showing the transformation of one form into another have led to a lot of scientific debate." (Reuters)
The press, keen to promote science, clearly do not question what they are being told. In this case the "showing the transformation of one form into another" is impossible without the aid of a time machine. The media did not concoct the story, they simply translated what the scientists said:
"It's a missing link that falls right between where the fossil record of the extinct form and the fossil record for the modern form begins,' said Jason Anderson of the University of Calgary, who led the study" (Reuters).
This is not a problem of framing, but that of the media blindly accepting a "story".

The science media rarely question the scientist. The level of expertise that separates the scientist and the reporter is the same between that of the violin soloist, general practitioner, attorney general, civil service account and engineer. If a politician clearly fabricates a story in order to win favor with voters prior to an election or, a police commissioner justifying the arrest of a member of a suspects family under dubious terrorism charges, the media wouldn't think twice of questioning their reasoning. If a geneticist however states that the platypus is "...the semi-aquatic animal is a genetic potpourri - part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal" (ABC News), no one questions their poor reasoning or understanding. Clearly the platypus is a mammal (along with the fish-like dolphin and bird-like bat). This distinction was made in the 19th century and every school child would be able to pick this out at once (except perhaps science journalists).

The problem is not one of not understanding the technical nature of science or the way scientist "frame" their arguments. Scientists can be just as uninformed as the rest of us. The media do question the expertise of professionals from other fields excepting that of science. What is needed is investigative science journalism, not glossy parroting. By investigative science journalism, I do not mean exposing practices outside of mainstream science such as anti-science (e.g., creationism), pseudo-science (e.g., homeopathy) or malpractice (e.g., evangelical healing). Neither do I mean exposing scientific fraud (e.g., cloning) or moral issues (e.g., stem cell research) (see Knight Fellowships). Investigative scientific journal would be far more effective in keeping science in check if it uncovers its inner workings, including the politics behind certain ideas and the funding supporting one method or theory over another as well as simple misinterpretations or downright untruths that scientists make which enter the mainstream media as "facts". Through exposing the malpractice of scientists, investigative science journalism can inform the public where their money goes and how it is at times misused. So far there is no such caliber of journalism in science has not been equal to the challenge. Presently, many biologists, geologists, geneticists and astronomers have no representation in the media and no voice. To let them suffer in silence seems unjust when experts in most other fields enjoy the guardianship of investigative journalism and the attention of the public.


Nesbit, M.C. & Mooney, C. 2007. Framing Science. Science 316: 56.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Defining Phenetics ... one last time

The term phenetic is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (online version) as:
"Designating or relating to the classification of organisms on the basis of their observed similarities and differences (often assessed in numerical terms), without reference to functional significance or evolutionary relationships".
The term was first used by Cain and Harrison (1960) "[f]ollowing a suggestion made by Mr. H. K. Pusey, we shall refer to the arrangement by overall similarity, based on all available characters without any weighting as phenetic, since it employs all observable characters (including of course genetic data when available)" (Cain and Harrison, 1960: 3).

The OED defines the term phenetics as "phenetic taxonomy or the systematics of phenotypes". It was first used by Ehrlich & Holm (1963) to refer to "[t]he study of relationships of individuals [which] may permit the creation of a 'population phenetics' which will add new dimensions to the study of microevolution" (Ehrlich & Holm, 1963: 240-2).

If the first definition of phenetic is true, then phenetics by definition cannot find evolutionary or phylogenetic relationships, only similarities.

Cain A.J. & Harrison G.A. (1960) Phyletic Weighting. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 135: 1–31.
Ehrlich P. & Holm R.W. (1963) Letter to the Editor. Science 139: 240 – 242.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The Enduring Legacy of Misinterpreting Darwin

Kevin Padian's (2008) claim that Charles Darwin founded the main principles of biogeography and ecology is clearly incorrect. Biogeography was alive and well long before Darwin's birth, in fact Augustin Pyramus de Candolle and Alexander von Humboldt produced the founding works of biogeography four years before Darwin was born, while the younger Alphonse Candolle and Ernst Haeckel erected the foundations for chorology and ecology in 1855 and 1861 respectively.

Prior to the publication of Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin would have had access to an extensive array of literature, including biogeographical concepts espoused by Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, Joseph Dalton Hooker and Phillip Lutely Sclater. Furthermore, Padain's claim that in "Darwin's day, dispersal through migration was the only mechanism thought possible for species to move among continents" (p. 633) is also erroneous as concepts such as vicariance were already in existence. Darwin's contribution to biogeography and ecology was to provide a synthesis or unifying mechanism that explains why organisms are distributed the way they are today, namely natural selection.

Padian, K. 2008. Darwin's enduring legacy. Nature 451: 632-634.