Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reading assignments, vol. 5

Despite the widely celebrated secular/pagan holiday this week, science-related journalism trudged on. Some interesting posts below related to the fiscal cliff, science education (creationism is sneaking back), scientific imagery and creativity, and some science- (and pseudoscience)-related awards.

Science and politics

  • New Statesman guest editors Brian Cox and Robin Ince have written a pointed commentary on the role of science in policymaking. They highlight that non-scientific political issues have invaded public interpretation of science; this risks damaging society's confidence in scientific truth. It's a good read. A couple of responses quickly followed, including two weakly critical responses from Rebekah Higgitt (The Guardian), Jack Stilgoe (also The Guardian), and a favorable reply from Jon Butterworth (still at The Guardian). I commented on this earlier this week here.
  • Discover Magazine blogger Keith Kloor (Collide-a-Scape) comments on the above article and also on the current toxic environment of the science-vs-religion fights. He argues against the "Puritanical" zero-tolerance policy of Richard Dawkins and like-minded skeptics.
  • Bill Nye has written a sort of open letter to the federal legislature regarding the impending fiscal cliff; he urges (like most of us do) a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but makes the case that legislators avoid cuts in science. His argument is that science drives innovation which drives American economic superiority. Is science going to be immune from the cuts? I doubt it, unfortunately.
  • Antibiotic use (also discussed last week) in livestock is a major contributor to widespread drug resistance. Laura Rogers reports on recent issues and developments in laws and regulations regarding antibiotic use, including increased oversight of how and where the drugs are used, an end to non-prescription antibiotic use for animals, and stopping the practice of using antibiotics when they're not needed.

Bad science and bad journalism

  • Under the "bad journalism" theme comes a Fox News (!!!) science section piece titled "Duh! 12 obvious science findings of 2012". I have a problem with pieces that pander to readers by highlighting "obvious" research (especially since many things previously considered "obvious" are now known not to be true). To be fair to Fox News, this same piece appeared at Huffington Post.
  • Complementary to bad journalism is bad science. Christopher Wanjek writes on HuffingtonPost about  the top five science retractions of 2012. The first one (the scientist who made up his own peer reviewers and clued editors in by responding too favorably and too quickly) is the best. This, too, is cross-posted to Fox News. Although the retractions highlighted are certainly disturbing, the tone of the article's introduction sets an atmosphere of general mistrust of scientists and science. Of course, scientific misconduct is serious (and increasingly we are being made aware of it) but the author seems to de-emphasize the role of kneejerk journalism in public disappointment.
  • Disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield (the guy who had that fraudulent study linking autism and vaccines) has been given the Golden Duck award for 'lifetime achievement in quackery'. The award is part of an effort by scientists and science advocates to spread awareness of bad science and pseudoscience. However, some, such as Frank Swain of SciencePunk, feel the award is counterproductive: things like this come across as smug and contemptuous, and the group giving out the Golden Duck isn't influential enough to matter.
  • To the long list of "people at The Ohio State University who have gotten caught committing research fraud" we can add pharmacologist Terry S. Elton, who apparently manipulated over two dozen figures in papers and grant applications. (For other examples see pharmacy professor Robert J. Lee and, most familiar to chemists, Leo Paquette).

Science education

Imagery in science

  • Imagery and aesthetics are usually the last thing on scientists' minds, but they can be instrumental in promotion of science. See not only this post by Alex Wild asking readers to submit the year's best science imagery, but also this fascinating blog where a chemist uses large quantities of materials and takes beautiful high-resolution -- and artistic -- photos of labware and reactions.
  • Wired features a gallery of what they describe as the best scientific figures of 2012 (i.e. figures in journals, not "figures" as in people/scientists). I like "The Essence of Tomato" -- it's the one that looks like a DNA microchip heat map and it describes relative abundance of various flavor compounds in varietals of tomatoes. There's also an image of a lonely yttrium atom.
  • On a related tangent, there's a piece by Virginia Hughes on Only Human over at National Geographic regarding perception of science and the importance of creativity. It's short and well-written and highlights important issues in how children at impressionable ages are losing interest because they don't see creativity in it. The piece also addresses strategies for combating this notion.



  1. I did myself no good by clicking on that last link; there's a lot of oddness that people associate with their digestive systems.

  2. This is the culture at Ohio State University. For example, Robert J. Lee, in the same academic unit, obtained multiple NIH grants under pretense. In spite of the NIH ruling (see NIH report: Page Two ), Lee was promoted to full professor! Don't miss the story on R. W. Brueggemeier (page one). He's the Dean of the College of Pharmacy.

    1. I'm sure there are other universities with similar ethics issues; OSU seems to get its fair share, though...

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