Tag Archives: food for thought

Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2017

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

[Above:  Header from an 1884 science magazine called Knowledge, led by British astronomer Richard Anthony Proctor. Its tagline reads: “A magazine of science: plainly worded – exactly described.”  Image via Wikimedia Commons & public domain.]

Late January 2017 saw a shift in science journalism so subtle that you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you make your living writing press releases. I happened to be interning in the press office of a prominent family of scientific journals that publishes basic research almost exclusively, so I felt it. And since our press office tracks the coverage of all studies from its journals, I saw data, too.

What we noticed is coverage of our papers in the first half of January 2017 looked a lot like the first half of January 2016. But on January 20, 2017, coverage of our journals’ papers saw a drop. Our February 2017 coverage stats were below our February 2016 numbers, both in terms of the percentage of studies covered and in the number of outlets that covered the popular studies. The numbers improved since then.

We’re biased, but we think it’s unlikely that our press releases suddenly got worse. The journal family is focused basic biology and chemistry (y’know–octopus RNA, flu-killing peptides in frog mucus, stuff like that), and it seems that science journalists, in aggregate, weren’t writing as many stories about basic research as they did in February-early March last year.

That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, and it may be the standard science journalism community response to a new administration, regardless of party. But in my mind, it raises the question: How do we decide what counts as “science writing”? Where do we draw the distinction between “health policy” stories and “science of health” stories? Is there a distinction to be drawn at all?

Continue reading “Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2017” »

Hybrid Problems: Chimerism, Synthetic Life, and Mixed Heritage

[A hybrid orchid. Photo by Mark Freeth.] 

[“Molecularization of Identity” Workshop Recap, Part 2]

Genomes of indigenous people, which often include genes found nowhere else in the world, can be powerful symbols for nations that want to showcase their uniqueness. 

But when the Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Medicina Genómica  (INMEGEN)  set out to find examples of Mexico’s indigenous genome, they ran into problems. Namely, that pretty much every population in Mexico, no matter how remote, includes people of mixed ethnic ancestry.

INMEGEN’s attempts to reconstruct an indigenous identity were the focus of not one, but two talks at Harvard STS’s “Molecularization of Identity Conference“, one by Vivette García Deister–who teaches in the Science & Technology Studies department at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México– and one by Ernesto Schwartz Marin of Durham University.  Since that conference was chock-full of important studies on the social dynamics around science, I’m writing a 3-part recap, of which this post is part 2. (See Part 1 here).

García Deister began her presentation by introducing the concept of Mestizaje, a blend of Native American, Spanish/European, and African heritage that characterizes Latin American countries. The majority of Mexicans are of Mestizo–or “mixed” descent–so naturally, the Mexican government wanted to know the ratios of  “Amerindian”, “European”, and “African” genes in their country’s population.

To do that, they had to try to establish a baseline “Indigenous” genome to compare to their representative “Mestizo” genome. García Deister calls these hypothetical representative genomes “Genetic Avatars”. 


[Interestingly, the “avatars” in the uber-successful movie Avatar are literally synthetic genetic hybrids, with human DNA spliced into Na’vi genome. Image by Michael Kordahl.]

Colonist outsiders love to look for “Genetic Avatars” because it gives them a way to quantify and tell stories about Latin American hybridity, or MestizajeGarcía Deister argued.  Scientists and policy makers  justify it by arguing that it’s important to know their country’s history and vital to look for genetic clues to various diseases.

But does any of that make the Mexican Genome Project any less of a colonial enterprise? Not really…

Continue reading “Hybrid Problems: Chimerism, Synthetic Life, and Mixed Heritage” »

We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard–Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about why many pieces about the need for investigative science journalism don’t acknowledge the factors behind its scarcity.  Conversations about investigations in science journalism often seem to assume that reporters don’t see critiquing science as important, but journalists’ individual interests don’t set the tone for journalistic coverage  all by themselves. In journalism, economics and politics shape our work. It’s basically impossible to disentangle why an article was written the way it was from simply reading the article.

Discussing the economics and politics that shape editorial decisions is a crucial part of addressing the relative absence of investigative science journalism, because for many reporters, quick hits– daily news stories, magazine blurbs, and blog posts– are our bread-and-butter (…when we get any bread at all…). Most casual readers encounter science via casual quick takes more often than they encounter it through investigative and/or longform articles.

There are definitely books and workshops out there to teach journalists how to chase down leads and verify what sources say, but at the end of the day, every investigative reporter I’ve met says that a lot of investigation is just spending a lot of time going through interviews and documents, looking for patterns. It’s very, very hard to justify putting in Spotlight-esque hours without a steady salary.

Unfortunately, the economic realities do not prevent verification issues from rearing their heads in short news stories…

Continue reading “We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard–Part 2” »

We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1

[^^”How do you know?”: The question that science journalists must not forget to ask.]

One night about a month ago, I was at a friend’s birthday party, knocking back tequila and rum with assorted MIT-affiliated twentysomethings. Somehow I ended up talking about tardigrades with a post-doc from an  uber-spiffy genetics institute.


[This is what a tardigrade looks like. Photo via Peter Von Bagh]

Tardigrades are a clan of microscopic but thoroughly adorable invertebrates, that recently found themselves at the center of a huge genomics controversy.  The tardigrade genome “kerfluffle” also happened to be one of the stories I wrote about for MIT Science Writing class.

So when the post-doc told tipsy me something to the effect of: “The guy whose tardigrade genome paper got criticized actually came to our institute and gave a talk. We found out later that some of his slides had been plagiarized from a third tardigrade genome group in Japan!” I was pretty appalled.

Continue reading “We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1” »

Dawkins’ ideas about cultural memes are what lead me to embrace feminism and social justice (So how did he end up being such an asshole?)

[Trigger Warning: rape, anti-theism, and appropriation of scientific authority by bigots.]

Richard Dawkins confounds me.

On the one hand, he’s brilliant. On the other hand, he tweets bulls*** like this series of tweets where he tries to argue that “logically” “stranger rape” is worse than “date rape”, but saying that “stranger rape” is worse is not necessarily an endorsement of date rape.

Those tweets may not constitute an “endorsement” of date rape, but why the f*** is Dr./Prof. Dawkins sitting around in front of his computer trying to rank the awfulness of different types of rape?

He “retracted” his original statement without actually retracting anything by saying “What I have learned today is that there are people on Twitter who think in absolutist terms, to an extent I wouldn’t have believed possible”.

Which makes it even worse. Because the people who were offended by his original tweets were not saying “Rape is rape” because they’ve been brainwashed into regurgitating absolutist dogma; they’re saying it because they want to point out that date rape can be incredibly, incredibly traumatizing and that Dr./Prof. Dawkins is NOT in a position to say that “stranger rape” is inherently more damaging/traumatizing/morally reprehensible. Continue reading “Dawkins’ ideas about cultural memes are what lead me to embrace feminism and social justice (So how did he end up being such an asshole?)” »

Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea

This past Saturday, I got to listen in on an all-star panel sponsored by the Future of Life Institute on the potential risks and benefits of technologies like artificial intelligence, personal genetics, and automated factories.

We heard from George Church, one of the world’s best-known synthetic biologists, on the future of bioengineering; Ting Wu, director of the Personal Genetics Education Project, on how to convince laypeople to learn about genetics; Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Center for Digital Business on how automated factories will impact developing countries’ economies; Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek on the difficulties we’ll face ensuring that robots won’t decide to harm us; and Jaan Tallinn of Skype on the ethics of creating sentient AIs. Alan Alda, of M*A*S*H* and The Flame Challenge was the moderator.

The conclusion: There are definitely both benefits and risks to all of these technologies, and people need to continue discussing these issues because they cannot be resolved in a single two-hour panel discussion. Not even an MIT panel discussion. Continue reading “Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea” »

Why a science journalist is like a seed crystal (and other thoughts)

When I think about what it means to be a science journalist, I think about chocolate.

I’m not kidding.

One night when I went to a talk about the science of food, and one of the presenters, a Harvard professor/master chef, started telling us about the difference between good and bad chocolate. “If you take a bar of good chocolate, like Ghiradelli, and break it in half, you hear a snap.”

“But if you take a bar of cheap chocolate, it’ll break, but you won’t heat the snap. And it may not break cleanly.” Continue reading “Why a science journalist is like a seed crystal (and other thoughts)” »

Investigating neural patterns in the younger siblings of autistic children – Recap of talk by Dr. Charles Nelson

The Talk:

A Cognitive Neuroscience Approach to the Early Identification of Autism

In Plain English:

A scientist investigates the patterns of neural wiring in infants whose older siblings have autism

The Speaker:

Charles Nelson of Boston Children’s Hospital

The Sponsor:

Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT

What it covered:

Dr. Charles “Chuck” Nelson is one of the best known (and judging from the way he was introduced and addressed at this colloquium, he’s also one of the best-liked and most-respected) researchers in the field of neurological development. Before coming to Boston Children’s Hospital, he made a name for himself by working on face recognition in infants.

He stopped by the MIT Simons Center for the Social Brain colloquium to tell other researchers about his team’s latest findings in  neurological development in autistic infants (and their siblings).

He prefaced his talk by saying that he was really torn about whether this talk should focus on the more mechanistic aspects of his work (“Which neurons are firing?” & “What neurotransmitters are making them do that?” type questions) or the more descriptive aspects (questions about overall statistical trends in “at-risk” populations) of his work. Continue reading “Investigating neural patterns in the younger siblings of autistic children – Recap of talk by Dr. Charles Nelson” »

Neurodiversity & Disability Rights in the Autistic Civil Rights Movement- Recap of talk by Ari Ne’eman

The Talk:

“Autism, Neurodiversity, and Disability Rights: Then and Now”

In Plain English:

Disability advocates are in the middle of an ongoing struggle to ensure civil rights for autistic individuals, and hardly anyone has seemed to notice.

The Speaker:

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

The Location:

Harvard Law School Project on Disability

What it covered:

This event was less of a lecture and more of a roundtable discussion about Disability Rights and Neurodiversity (a term so obscure that the Harvard Gazette mistakenly listed the title of the talk as “Autism, Neodiversity, and Disability Rights”). There were barely a dozen of us in the room, which made for one of the most intense academic conversations I’ve ever witnessed.

Ari Ne’eman began by giving an overview of the history of discrimination against and institutionalization of autistic individuals. Our culture has a long tradition of imprisoning people who are physically and/or mentally disabled, but “medical” institutionalization didn’t begin in earnest until the late 1800s, when the eugenics movement took hold. Ne’eman cited Alexander Graham Bell as one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement.

Bell and his eugenicist compatriots wanted a way to contain “different & defective members of the human race.” So they built massive institutions to house anyone who was considered a threat to mainstream society. Ne’eman emphasized the point that these early institutions were not specifically designed for autistic individuals* but rather anyone who was socially undesirable or difficult to manage. Continue reading “Neurodiversity & Disability Rights in the Autistic Civil Rights Movement- Recap of talk by Ari Ne’eman” »

Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much

What it’s about:

Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s Epidemic of Absence tackles one of the trickiest and trendiest topics in 21st-century biomedical research: the complex relationship between autoimmune disease and the bacteria that live in our guts.

A growing body of evidence suggests that by decimating the number of pathogenic microbes people are exposed to, modern medicine has inadvertently shifted the ecological balance between the human immune system and the human microbiome, leaving millions of people vulnerable to allergies and autoimmune disease.

The basic evolutionary argument is that our immune system evolved to cope with a constant onslaught of opportunistic microbes by developing a complex system of checks-and-balances with our bodies’ microbial populations. With those microbes gone, many of the immune system’s coping strategies are having disastrous side effects. In this book, Velasquez-Manoff implicates the depletion of bacterial biodiversity as a driving agent in the pretty much every non-infectious disease you can think of (cancer, depression, Crohn’s, Celiac’s, allergies, and autism are all covered in this book).

The Upsides:

It’s a rare snapshot of a scientific revolution in progress. And it’s easily the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. Continue reading “Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much” »