Press offices may be the problem.

In their recent book A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media (which I enthusiastically recommend, by the way), Hayes and Grossman describe the role that university press offices have in disseminating new findings by researchers at their institutions. I agree that this is an important job and that good press releases can have a very positive effect. The corollary, of course, would be that poorly crafted ones can sow confusion. I have been critical of science blogs and science news services in the past, but in some cases they are simply re-posting (albeit uncritically) the stories from press offices, which may be where the actual problem is.

Witness two frustrating examples from genome biology. The first was by the press office at Johns Hopkins [How Neutral Genetic Drift Shaped Our Genome], and was re-posted by some science blogs. The second is by the University of California, San Diego, and is re-posted at ScienceDaily and Scientific Blogging [One Man’s Junk May Be A Genomic Treasure].

Both stories are guilty of over-hyping the significance of the research (which perhaps is not surprising) and of including significant factual errors (which is not acceptable). Notably, the Johns Hopkins release mangles basic evolutionary theory, and now we have this from UC San Diego:

Scientists have only recently begun to speculate that what’s referred to as “junk” DNA — the 96 percent of the human genome that doesn’t encode for proteins and previously seemed to have no useful purpose — is present in the genome for an important reason. But it wasn’t clear what the reason was. Now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have discovered one important function of so-called junk DNA.

The first line is patently false. In my area of study, I encounter far too many speculations regarding functions for non-coding DNA, and this is how the situation has been for decades. It also bears noting that the study in question studied one transposable element, SINE B2, which makes up around 2.4% of the mouse genome and appears to contribute to the regulation of a growth hormone gene. This is not very surprising; recall that McClintock first characterized transposable elements as “controlling elements”, and even the earliest and most vocal proponents of the “selfish DNA” hypothesis surmised that some TEs would have regulatory functions. SINE B2 itself has been implicated in regulation at least since 1984 (see also here from 2001). This is not in any way a critical comment about the work — it is sure to be an interesting study and I look forward to reading the article when it appears in Science this week. But this press release — which I suspect had little to do with the authors of the study — is vastly overstated to the point of twisting the history of the discipline. (They also suggest that protein-coding genes make up 4% of the human genome whereas the real total is less than 2%, but that’s a comparatively minor issue).

I am very interested in working with the media to provide accessible, interesting, and (not or) accurate information to the public. I also realize that writing about scientific research is difficult, and that there are many individuals out there who are very good at it. I don’t like to be critical all the time, but we really must clean up reports on “junk DNA”. I am open to any suggestions on how scientists can help to make this a reality.



8 comments to Press offices may be the problem.

  • Nick

    Hey Ryan — a first step might be to do an opinion piece for a prominent journal, and/or a critical review article on the claims for function in junk DNA. I have the title already: “Junk DNA and Junk Science.”

    There are at least 2 big issues — one is the science press, but another at least sometimes is the scientists themselves. If you go to junkDNA.com you will see that there is no shortage of quotes from scientists along the lines of “Junk DNA is now proven to be functional, weren’t those other scientists blind!”

    So I think what a lot of science journalists, and not a few scientists, would benefit greatly e.g. from a critical piece in Science or someplace that threw a little cold water on the most overheated claims, pointed out the common pitfalls in the science media & press releases, gave the basic big picture (i.e. “your speculations about the function of junk DNA are pointless if they don’t pass The Onion Test”), and then gave advice for future research/journalism on the topic.

    You’ve done much of this on your blog already but putting it in one place in an authoritative publication that everyone reads, like Science, would really help get the message out.

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  • Jud

    Hard to think of ways to curb one of the roots of the problem, exaggeration of the importance of findings, which you mentioned in the post. The incentives in terms of publicity and institutional/researcher reputation all seem to be in favor of exaggeration, with little or no penalty. (Even a coordinated response from the scientific community pointing out the hype can easily be made to seem like sour grapes through the efforts of the press office and/or researchers responsible for the original exaggeration.)

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  • TR Gregory

    …first step might be to do an opinion piece for a prominent journal…

    I do plan to get around to this eventually…

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  • VWXYNot?

    I’ve just started reading the same book. One comparison that I found very interesting is that journalists present politics as an ongoing process (like a movie), but present science as a series of unrelated breakthroughs (like a series of snapshots). There’s almost no coverage of the incremental progress being made every day. This is no doubt due to the nature of scientific publishing, where several years worth of work is often published all at once. And with journalists jumping on what is newest and hottest, there’s very little long-term follow up of stories, so the public don’t get to hear about gradual shifts in the scientific consensus. Everything that’s reported is “new and surprising” or “controversial”. I think that’s what’s happened with the recent “junk DNA” brouhaha.

    I don’t know what the solution is. You won’t find many scientists willing to talk to the media about their research before it’s published. And a lot of accepted, but unpublished, manuscripts are under embargo until the official publication date. Maybe the next few chapters of the book will help…

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  • Blake Stacey

    I’ve been wondering lately if one could get publications to attack one another for mistakes in science coverage. Say, if Wired or New Scientist published something completely goofy (examples here and here, respectively) then Seed and Scientific American could draw attention to it. Turnabout would, of course, be fair play.

    Many popular blogs, from Pharyngula to Language Log, regularly critique bad science reporting. I’ve gotta think that people like to see this. There’s a readership in that genre — not just people who like to be genuinely informed, but also people who like to feel smugly superior. :-/

    If publications knew they were going to draw criticism, then they might shape up their practices (OK, I’m a bit of a dreamer). A magazine probably won’t feel the sting from an angry blog fisking, but the same material delivered via another magazine might have more effect — and, of course, scientists willing to lend a critical eye are easier to find than ever before. Furthermore, if the practices and methods of critiquing science properly became more widely popularized, the readers might benefit.

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  • Andras

    Dear Ryan, Nick, – I respectfully disagree that “press offices may be THE problem”. (For sure they are A problem, see below).

    THE problem IMHO is the biggest paradigm-shift in the history of science/technology with the most profound implications to every individual and entire societies. (Perhaps with the earlier exceptions of our “change of view” that Flat Earth was no longer the Center of the Universe, and our uneasy abandonment of the dogma that the atom would not split and elements could not be changed).

    It would be absolutely miraculous if PostModern Genomics could just seamlessly flow from Modern Genomics without major turmoil. After all, not only the “junk DNA” but also the “Gene”, “Central Dogma” of DNA>RNA>Protein, “Monopoly of WC recombination” etc. became ALL obsolete). Indeed, some of us should be happy that we are not (literally) burned for heretical views (by the way, based on hard-core experimental evidence, also in medieval times…)

    I am speaking with a little experience in paradigm-shifts (child-play compared to the switch from Modern to PostModern Genomics). My earlier experience was with the AI/NN (Artificial Intelligence/Neural Networks) paradigm-shift.

    Cybernetics was taking off in the fifties with McCulloch-Pitts, Wiener, von Neumann and Frank Rosenblatt (etc) towards “BioCybernetics” – until the rival friend of Frank Rosenblatt (Marvin Minsky) “framed” research funds for about 15 years solely to “Artificial Intelligence”. With some hubris, Minsky proposed based on scientifically false “proof” in Perceptrons, 1969 that nothing was to be learned from biological intelligence. This “framing” was very much like dr. Ohno’s “framing” (attempted as “garbage DNA” and stuck 2-years later as “junk DNA” in 1972).

    For AI/NN, it took the pioneers (working diligently on biological neuronal networks) about 2 decades to recover. Finally, in the late seventies, my kind of geometrization of neuroscience led to experimental proof (Stan Gielen in Holland, cf. ibid) and even to a new branch of philosophy (Neurophilosophy by Pat Churchland, UCSD, cf. ibid). I came up with the idea of a Society (International Neural Networks Society) its Journal and Meetings – but those were relatively easy. The harder part was to break through in the media and finally in funding.

    Looking back, nothing can be expected by a “spontaneous” media-transformation, though one should never exclude a slim likelihood that some leading journal/journalist might seize the “ZeitGeist”. For “Neural Networks”, it took a special person (John Hopfield, now at Princeton Advanced Studies) already with NAS membership and highly accomplished career in a related field to fledging neurocomputing (semiconductors) – with masterful skills in communication to the media and Society at large. (When people asked where he published his “Neural Network” research, his true anecdote was “in the Los Angeles Times” – at that time John worked out of Caltech). John Hopfield and I presented to the prestigious “Neuroscience Study Program” in 1978 mathematical inroads to neuroscience.

    For funding, it took Yale/Stanford graduate and distinguished Stanford professor Bernie Widrow, to hold in Boston a “Neural Network Study Program” for DARPA initial funding (forgot, it was a meager $1 or 2 M).

    Oh, yes – nothing would have happened, if Soviet submarines did not have to be monitored perilously close to San Diego, and sonar pattern-recognition would not have been something in which neural network algorithms truly excelled. Defense provided vital funding, with NIH coughing up precious little, much later.

    Therefore…

    PostModern Genomics (that we call “PostGenetics” in IPGS, International PostGenetics Society) we need a “Hopfield”, a “Widrow”, a “DARPA” and some strategic application to emerge.

    Nick, it is unlikely that Chief Editor of Science (Don Kennedy) would become the new “Hopfield”. (Don is stepping down from Science, but did not take an opportunity to announce IPGS before “ENCODE” was out, anyway). You can see what Editor-in-Chief of The Scientist Richard Gallagher did with my direct pitch to “formally abandon Junk DNA”. (I have written up a much more elaborated scholarly piece that only appeared in an abbreviated version as an “Obituary” in JunkDNA.com. Should a suitable journal ask for the full manuscript is a question, but I have my upcoming book to publish it without tampering.

    Collins and Venter are pitched (again…) for the pivotal personal role – but I can not speak for them. Quite likely, the paradigm-shift itself will hone and catapult the most suitable person for the required role.

    Now comes the good thing, the part that is just hard work – but thus no problem at all. PostModern Genomics (PostGenetics; “Genomics beyond Genes”) has not one, not two, not three, not four, not five but at least six cardinally important strategic applications see here

    1) JunkDNA diseasesmay (and usually do) effect every one in every society. Accordingly, pressure is enormous. Big Pharma is already buying up IP of “short genome sequences” in $300 M -$1.1 B chunks.

    2) Synthetic Genomics needs software enabling “Algorithmic design” principles that can only come from PostModern Genomics.

    3) Bioenergy applications are essentially based on “better regulated” existing genomical mechanisms – PostGenetics harbors clues for H2-based economy, renewable petroleum, etc.

    4) Biodefense applications need diagnostic and therapeutic methods of “newly regulated” sequences (just as computer defense applications can’t live without “virus checkers”)

    5) Big IT (Google, Microsoft, etc) already positions, both for “Genomics for the masses” and for “Software tools for PostModern Genomics”.

    6) PostGenetics Centers of R&D will spring up, with the steepest growth curve. There are plenty of “Genetics Institutes” – the leading edge is already clear.

    Last but not least, massive paradigm-shifts always stir great turmoil (see a plethora of ideological and fear-driven pseudo-debates), but the most spectacular beneficiaries often are the “just do it” fresh companies. (See paradigm-shift from computer mainframes to home computers; with Apple pitched against IBM with great hype – Microsoft was created by seven brave guys and walked away with by the far largest profit. You can also recall GenenTech for Modern Genomics. Look for PostGeneTech for PostModern Genomics…)

    Getting bogged down in hollow shouting over ideological trenches gets nowhere. Those who *really* care about what used to be called “Junk DNA” before Dr. Ohno’s most harmful “framing” will just find out what the Algorithmic Design of the Genome might be (deferring rushed judgment if the design to be found will be characterized as intelligent or not).

    It is certainly more intelligent than we presently are, or we would know it already :-)

    pellionisz_at_junkdna.com

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  • SteveF

    I think I may have read a press release that reaches new heights of crapness:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070709114540.htm

    Contains the following quote:

    “For a long time, the basic belief of evolution was that all random genetic changes that manage to stick around have some selective advantage,” says Nicholas Katsanis, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Hopkins’ Institute of Genetic Medicine. “But our work adds to the case that frequently, we are what we are largely due to random changes that are completely neutral.”

    Really? Thats news to me. I heard this guy Kimura was playing around with neutral mutations, but obviously it mustn’t have come to anything.

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  • SteveF

    Hmmm, no idea how to do links properly. I was referring to a recent (July 11th) article on ScienceDaily entitled:

    “Neutral Evolution Has Helped Shape Our Genome”

    What a shocker!

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