The rise of “entertainment-science”
September 30, 2012
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I wanted to write about the very interesting back to back Cell papers of c-myc (this and this). But at the last second, I changed my mind. I want to write, instead, about what people have been writing about all week… that is the paper by French scientist attacking the safety of genetically modified food. Genetically modified organisms are crops and animals that have been genetically engineered to improve their efficiency and productivity, from pest-resistance to higher milk productions. They have been around for sometime now and despite countless studies, there is very little evidence threatening the safety of the whole category…
The controversy, however, is alive and kicking and the Seralini et al paper drops the hammer on the safety of GM maize. I don’t want to talk about the short-comings of this paper, you can get that from other sources (e.g. here and here). Instead, I want to talk about a broader phenomenon, the rise of entertainment value in controversial science:
- I am sure there are many world-class scientists who focus on GM-food safety. But I don’t know any of them, do I? Instead, I and many like me (who read science news) know Seralini, mainly because his papers are always controversial and go against the consensus of the field. There is nothing inherently wrong with that… but I think amazing claims require amazing accompanying evidence. It is OK when papers show up that go against the norm… either the whole field is wrong (which sometimes happens) or there is something wrong with that study (which happens quite often, case in point: faster than light neutrinos). But what I think is weird, is that these studies get WAY more publicity than they should. And in the end of the day, it makes us scientists look bad. People hear about all these extraordinary findings that are then debunked in a couple of months… no wonder we have problems with the perception of science in public.
- From linking disease to vaccination to discovering a new Arsenic-based form of life, we have let science down again and again… not by making mistakes. Being wrong is fine, it is the first step towards getting it right, but rather through pushing our results into the spotlight. Holding press conferences, enforcing gag orders on collaborators and pulling off all the PR stops. I assume, soon we’ll see trailers of upcoming publications on TV (“…starring POLR2A as RNA polymerase II”) with entertaining twists of course.
The majority of science is still working the way it should, but that is not the part we read about in science news sections. I want to think scientists are better than this PR stuff… We were supposed to be skeptics, we were supposed to be above this… we were supposed to be living in our ivory towers. We shouldn’t care about the results of our experiments (positive or negative), we are supposed to be searching for truth… or so I thought.