Monday, August 30, 2010

Two scare stories: #2

Following shortly afterwards was a rather disturbing report in The Lancet about antibiotic resistance. This is actually much more worthy of concern. Antibiotic resistance is a real and serious problem, and this latest finding reminds us of its importance.

But I noticed how the reporting of this was very confused with many writers clearly not knowing what an enzyme is, references to the enzyme 'living' inside bacteria , and this:

'New Delhi metallo-ß-lactamase-1, or NDM-1 for short, is a gene carried by bacteria...'

'NDM-1 (or more precisely the DNA code for this enzyme) '

Wait, so is it a gene or an enzyme? Does the person writing this know the difference, or are they just using the terms interchangeably (*)? And 'DNA code for this enzyme', but didn't you say it was a gene, and surely a gene is a 'DNA code' itself...

It's just so confused and is transparently, obviously, a case of someone who really doesn't understand what they're talking about trying to put together some fragments of sentences they've read or heard and hoping it makes sense, because they personally have no idea how to tell whether it does or not. And I'm not pointing this out to mock the journalist who wrote it, it's too easy for critique of science writing in the mainstream media to turn into pointless pedantry and mean-spirited sniping, and that's not what I intend. I really do sympathise with the person who wrote that, because I've been there and I know exactly what they're doing.

In one of the first interviews I ever had for a programming job, I was asked for my opinion on Solaris. I didn't know what Solaris was. I had some vague idea that it was some open-source thing, something to do with servers, but was it a programming language? An operating system? Something hardware-related? I didn't know, but didn't want to say that. So I had to make up some answer as well as I could, though I didn't know what I was talking about, the interviewers knew I didn't know what I was talking about, as much as I tried to make it sounds vague and plausible and probably would have sounded all technical and impressive so someone equally or more ignorant than me, to an informed audience I probably just sounded ridiculous. It would have been better if I'd just admitted I didn't know. Needless to say, I didn't get the job!

I understand there's not always a science correspondent available to write the 'breaking news' science stories, but it would be nice maybe if journalists etc were drawn from more diverse backgrounds, so there was a reasonable chance of a 'generalist' writer having had some science education. Also if there was more scientific literacy among the population in general, so even if someone's formal education background was not science, they'd have at least a basic idea of what words like 'gene', 'enzyme' etc meant.

But if none of this is possible, then they should just admit it, like me in that interview. Instead they seem to attempt a sort of cargo-cult science, where they write something nonsensical with sciencey-sounding words like 'gene' and 'enzyme' scattered randomly in it, depending on the fact that most people who read it will just skim and see that it looks all technical and sciencey and everything and be impressed by that, and not make any attempt to actually analyse the content.

The other approach seemed to be the apocalyptic one, like "Are you ready for a world without antibiotics? in the Guardian.

This is about carbapenem resistance in Gram-negative enterobacteria like E. coli, so really it wasn't very relevant to talk about 'incurable' tuberculosis, transplant surgery becoming impossible etc.

And the concern here is that it overstates and overdramatises the case, and much like peak oil and climate change, becomes something that everyone knows 'experts' predict but no one really things is going to happen. Which detracts attention from the very real problem that is antibiotic resistance, and the need not to overuse or misuse these drugs and the need for research into new drugs and emphasis on basic hygeine. Mostly I wondered if this was also just a 'cover' for the writer not really understanding the specific issue here and so wheeling out a generic The End Of Antibiotics story instead. Or assuming that the readers would be incapable of understanding any specific detail nuance in a science story, so not bothering to even try to write about it. Either way it doesn't look good for science journalism.

(*) Guessing this particular confusion came from the standard terminology of giving the gene name in italics to distinguish it from the protein name, a distinction that probably went unnoticed by the journalist...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Two scare stories: #1

I was pleased to see the generally low-key reaction to the recent attempt by the media to stir up panic and 'controversy' (their favourite thing!) about use of cloning in cattle farming.

The story was basically this: a UK farmer bought some animals that were the offspring of a cow produced by cloning in the US, where such techniques are legal. Some products of these offspring (early reports said milk, later was said to be meat) were sold for human consumption. This is technically a breach of FSA regulations as:

meat and products from clones and their offspring are considered novel foods and would therefore need to be authorised before being placed on the market.

and clearly this case had not gone through the proper channels and the relevant authorisation had not been sought.

Cloning is obviously not a good replacement for 'conventional' breeding of animals. There are animal welfare issues - cloned animals have reduced life span and rapid aging thought to be due to having abnormally short telomeres (the sequences at the end of DNA strands) and can have particular developmental and health problems as a result of inaccuracies in the technique. Also the whole reason sexual reproduction (as opposed to just splitting down the middle like single-celled organisms or putting out runners like strawberry plants to produce natural clones) is a good thing because it's a major way in which diversity is introduced to a population, allowing adaptation and evolution and ultimately survival. So cloning is no substitute for this (not that anyone suggested it was). But I can imagine it can still be a useful technique in its place.

But there was no excuse at all for the scaremongering headlines, e.g.

Shocking evidence of how 'super calves' have secretly spread into our food system

and stories reporting 'concern' and 'unease' in the general population without evidence that there was any (my experience is that there wasn't) and asking 'Is It Safe' as though that was a matter to be decided, and repeatedly referring to these unnatural products 'Entering The Human Food Chain' (whatever that means) in a desperate attempt to create 'controversy' where there was none.

I suppose 'farmer makes harmless administrative error' wouldn't really sell so many papers. But I was pleasantly surprised to see people reacted sensibly and generally just did not care.