Should scientists nit-pick?

I have some quick questions for the scientists, journalists, and neither-nors who read Genomicron. Should scientists nit-pick inaccuracies in news reports? Does it do any good to keep journalism on track, or is it a waste of time (or maybe even irritating)? What else can we do to improve the accuracy of science reporting, in particular involving cooperation with rather than criticism of science writers? Since I don’t have the answers yet, I will just go ahead with a snarky post in the meantime.

Here is what triggered this query. I was reading this story, How Neutral Genetic Drift Shaped Our Genome, at Scientific Blogging (based on a Johns Hopkins press office release), when I came upon this gem:

When they expanded their study across the whole human genome, they found more than 1200 such pieces of mitochondrial DNA of various lengths [nuclear pseudogenes of mitochondrial origin, or numts] embedded into chromosomes. While chimps have a comparable number, mice and rats only have around 600 numts. Since they increase in frequency as species advance, it suggested there was some evolutionary purpose to keeping them around.

Strikingly, however, none of these numts contained the blueprint (an actual gene) to make a protein that does anything, nor did they seem to control the function of any nearby genes. “At best, it seems numts are a neutral part of our genome,” says Katsanis. “If anything, they may be mildly negative since long repeat sequences can be unstable or get inserted inside genes and disrupt them.”

Ok, the nit-picker in me really wants to point out that evolution is not a process under which “species advance”, that there is no such thing as an “evolutionary purpose”, that genes are not blueprints, that this study deals with a tiny fraction of the genome, that the idea that “they accumulate steadily” makes no sense in terms of either function or neutrality given what they just said about rodents versus primates, and that of course these pseudogenes — of mitochondrial descent, no less — do not encode a functional protein by definition. There is absolutely nothing surprising in the observation that they evolve neutrally in the nuclear genome.

To Larry Moran’s recent post Stop the Press!!! … Genes Have Regulatory Sequences!, we can add Pseudogenes do not encode functional proteins! Next: DNA includes both protein-coding genes and non-coding sequence!

(Update: Scientific Blogging redeems itself with a good post about the ENCODE hype here)
(Another update: Evolution Diary uncritically posts the same nonsensical press release here.)
(Another update: The paper itself is actually far more interesting than this poorly crafted press release would make it appear. See the open access pdf here.)




8 comments to Should scientists nit-pick?

  • VWXYNot?

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of scientists use similar language as a convenient shortcut. I try to stay away from it in written communication, but I know there have been many times when I’ve said something like “the virus needed to evolve in order to bind a new receptor”, or something similar that implies intent or direction. It’s only fair that we cut this kind of language from our own vocabularies before expecting the same standards from journalists!

    Having said that, I can be an obsessive compulsive nitpicker myself at times, especially when it comes to my pet peeve…

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  • SteveF

    No, keep nitpicking. Wider and more fundamental misconceptions (e.g. regarding Junk DNA) need to be pointed out, but the more minor stuff needs sorting too (such as the notion of species advancing). I think nitpicking is particularly worth it if the original author gets to see it. Have you ever emailed a journo with one of your critiques? I think it would be worth it.

    I’ve been with my supervisor when he has done (often painful) media stuff and he has subsequently moaned to me about the end result. I have said he should complain, but as my area of science (Quaternary geology and Palaeolithic archaeoloy) is relatively unimportant and not bedeviled by culture wars, it’s arguably not quite so essential (though obviously we should be endeavouring to get an accurate message across – a research group I am involved in just published it’s own book for example).

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  • Chris Harrison

    Speaking as a student, my opinion is that you and other scientists not hesitate to nitpick and point out other nonsense phrases.

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  • Hank

    “(Update: Scientific Blogging redeems itself with a good post about the ENCODE hype here)”

    Whew. We dodged a bullet!

    Though the redeeming is way down at the bottom and the error with our name on it is up at the top. :)

    Because accuracy in science reporting is a differential equation due to lots of variables and can’t be solved, there is certainly nothing wrong with some nit-picking to at least help science writers ( and especially Science 2.0 sites like ours ) converge on more accuracy as time goes by.

    Thanks for the input!

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  • TR Gregory

    Though the redeeming is way down at the bottom and the error with our name on it is up at the top.

    I posts ’em as I sees ’em.

    In all seriousness, I subscribe to the feed from your site, so obviously I like it. :-)

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  • Pellionisz

    I would not call it “nitpicking” – but I would encourage all scientists to be *precise*, and persisting to be precise, about using proper un up-to-date terminology of science. Who else will this job for us? (Nobody.) If journalists get used to the idea that they can get away with some of the most bizarre misinterpretations of postmodern findings, of course they will certainly seek their goal (publicity, what else) their way. The “checks and balances” are upon us to detect and enforce. In France, the Academie Francais serves such purpose. Our National Academy could not care less about “lowly issues of terminology”. IMHO, a scientist who does *not* nit-pick is guily of letting sloppiness rule the land.

    pellionisz_at_junkdna.com

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  • Jud

    Neither-nor, thanks for asking, and yeah, “nit-pick” away. It isn’t really nit-picking. The depiction of evolution as progress toward a goal is deeply ingrained (as shown by the example you quoted), and helps lead to wrongheaded ideas about probability that can result in attacks of Goddidit-itis.

    It’s going to take all the careful corrections scientists can muster to help facts about the genome, evolution, etc., become dominant in the public consciousness.

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  • TheBrummell

    Pointing out the ladder-of-evolution fallacy doesn’t qualify as a nit-pick, to me. That’s a serious issue of considerable importance, not a minor quibble over rapidly-changing technical terms and definitions.

    Please keep up the good work.

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