The Sad State of Science Journalism

One thing that really annoys me is very bad science journalism, and boy oh boy is there a lot of it out there. When I saw PZ Myers’ take down of Danny Vendramini’s positively ludicrous Neanderthal theory, I went to Google to find out more about this crackpot, and found a sterling example of bad science journalism at its worst. It’s an older article (2006), but still worth taking a look at since it has so many diagnostic features of Lazy Science Writing. There’s the cookie-cutter “This changes everything” narrative, the refusal to do any research other than a few interviews, the lionization of the “maverick”, the obnoxious and misleading attempt at “balance” through “he said/she said” reporting, etc etc. It’s all there.

The stupid starts up the moment the article begins. Here’s the title, byline and first paragraph:

Origin of a Big Idea

Crackpot or genius? Danny Vendramini may be labelled both. The anti-religious amateur biological theorist is challenging mainstream evolutionary thought. By Andrew Dodd.

Danny Vendramini didn’t wake up one morning and say to himself: “Today, I’ll shatter half of the accepted beliefs about evolutionary biology.” It has been more gradual than that. In fact, his theory, that a second evolutionary process is at work alongside natural selection, has been percolating away for quite some time, emerging from the primordial soup of the subconscious and slowly taking form over several years.

Jesus Christ. Kissing ass much? You keep this up, Mr. Dodd, and people will start calling you Shit Lips McGee. There’s lionizing the “maverick”, and then there’s giving John McCain a colonoscopy with your face.

And right off the bat, the author shows his complete ignorance of evolutionary biology. We already know of other evolutionary processes that work alongside natural selection. There’s genetic mutation, genetic drift, evolutionary byproducts and horizontal gene transfer resulting in reticulate evolution just to give a few examples. No scientist today thinks that natural selection is the only process in evolution.

Additionally, this is just a matter of style, but one trend in modern journalism (not just science journalism) that annoys me more and more every day is the heavy reliance on easy, obvious puns and wordplay to “spice up” the article. The title of the piece in question, “The Origin of a Big Idea”, and the reference to the theory arising “gradually” “from the primordial soup” are just so lame and lazy that they cannot be passed over without criticism.

Why do people write this way? You immediately know if you see something about evolution and, oh I don’t know, golf, there’s going to be a joking about teeing up on the “missing links”. Or if someone has a new theory about cosmology, it’ll be described as making a “big bang” in the scientific community. Do journalism schools actually offer courses in Lame Wordplay 101?

Anyways, back to this guy’s “theory”.

Could his evolutionary process – known as “teemosis” – really explain the explosion of new species 543 million years ago? Does it really provide a plausible means for environmental information to be passed on to offspring? Does it truly describe the evolutionary purpose for the “junk DNA” that makes up 98.5 per cent of our genome?

Wait, wait, wait. “Teemosis”? You have got to be shitting me. And this process, all by itself, will explain the Cambrian explosion, inheritance of adaptation, and “junk” DNA all at once? If your theory’s really that powerful, you should give it a more mellifluous name. How about “enfuckulation”?

And, even if it all ends up as discredited hocus, there’s another equally fascinating question. What’s it like to generate a brand new theory that challenges many of the big assumptions about the origins of living organisms? How does an amateur without any formal training in biology pull off a feat like that without getting locked up, or, perhaps worse, completely ignored?

As a grad student in history and philosophy of science, how theories come to be is a very important facet of my studies. And I can assure you that the huge amount of stuff you need to know to have even an adequate (much less groundbreaking) understanding of science vastly  exceeds the abilities of almost any amateur. There’s a reason scientists have to go through 7 to 10 years of training with more experienced scientists before they start making a real impact.

As for that last question, I’m pretty sure he’ll be ignored. Call it a hunch. I don’t see “teemosis” finding its way into textbooks any time soon.

Well, according to the infectiously enthusiastic Vendramini, the solution is to read a lot – about 8000 academic papers to be precise-— on anything to do with the human genome, NeoDarwinism and even palaeontology. Initially, his mission was to decipher the gobbledegook but later, as his theory took shape, his task was to find anything that disproves the ideas underpinning his theory.

So he’s a dilettante. Nothing wrong with that. I was too before I decided to go to grad school. But one thing I’ve learned in grad school is that without guidance from more experienced people you make all kinds of errors in your studies that you don’t even know you’re making.

And it’s nice that he (at least claims to be) is looking for potential evidence that contradicts him. The problem is, as we shall see, he doesn’t understand the topic well enough to understand what kind of evidence might contradict him.

So far, he says, he hasn’t found anything.

Not surprising. But that doesn’t increase my confidence in his theory at all given the considerations above.

In fact, Vendramini’s website, thesecondevolution.com, lists supportive comments from a range of academics, including Noam Chomsky of MIT.

Okay, now this is just ludicrous. Who gives a shit if he got some out-of-context praise from Noam Chomsky, who’s a linguist and not an evolutionary biologist? Worst of all, since the journalist doesn’t bother to reproduce some examples of the supposed praise heaped upon him, this is just downright misleading.  Here are a few quotes from the sidebar on the main page of Vendramini’s website:

“I think TEEM theory is all very scientifically addressable, and can rely on standard genetic techniques.”
Professor David Featherstone,
Department of Biological Sciences.
University of Illinois at Chicago

“If you are right, nearly everything I know about genetics and development is wrong.”
Professor Robert Trivers

“I will certainly look forward to seeing the publication of your book, not least because of some recently developed interests of my own on the evolution (and inevitability) of sensory mechanisms.”
Professor Simon Conway Morris.
Cambridge University

“Your theory is very novel and interesting.”
Professor Kirk Winemiller, Texas A&M University

Notice anything? For one thing, most are addressed in the second person.  These are likely culled from email conversations he’s had while shilling his theory out to scientists. Another is that they all seem to be polite ways to avoid the topic. Along the lines of, “Yes, that’s nice dear, now run along and play.” Most of the endorsements on the page are of this nature. They don’t really amount to much and certainly don’t lend any credence to his theory. But our journalist Shit Lips McGee seems oblivious to this.

We’re sitting under the veranda of a cafe as he explains all this. He has made a day-trip to Melbourne from his home in Sydney and he knows he’s in for a long chat. Somehow, he has to outline the evolutionary process of both his idea and every multicellular species on earth. And, along the way, he’s going to have to distance himself from all those crackpot anti-evolutionists by stressing he’s not a Christian, has little time for creationists and reveres Darwin deeply.

For the 57-year-old sculptor, scriptwriter and all-round Renaissance man, this is an important chat. After six long years developing his ideas, the time has come for some mainstream exposure. So the chinotti are ordered as he takes a deep breath and starts at the beginning.

But because Vendramini’s theory questions some aspects of Darwin, he says he is often befriended by creationists. So the time has come to shatter that illusion. When I ask him about intelligent design – the stream of creationism that is sweeping the US and claims life is too complicated to be left to chance – he reacts impulsively, jerking his hand forwards and knocking over a pepper shaker. It’s as if his own fear-of-religion teem has reacted violently to this external threat.

“There is absolutely no need for an intelligent designer. It’s all a lot of crap,” he fires off before sitting back to reflect, “Yeah, that’ll stir ‘em up.”

I’m always somewhat amazed when someone shows that they are perfectly capable of recognizing bullshit, then they turn around and offer up their own bullshit that’s just as bad.

But anyways, this has been going on for a while and we still haven’t heard just what the fuck his “theory” is. Tell us, please, what this “teemosis” crap is.

We’re not talking about the Big Bang. Instead, Vendramini chooses the moment when he first started thinking that Darwin might have missed something and that perhaps there was an evolutionary process working in tandem with natural selection. He came to this conclusion after thinking about myths and the way so many cultures have sagas in which catastrophic floods are meted out as God’s retribution for bad behaviour. He became curious about the way different nations have the same epic stories about monsters, dragons, good and evil.

“It’s as if they’re hard-wired into our genes,” he says. So he looked for the scientific literature to explain this and, apart from some “esoteric stuff by mythologists”, he says he found a “nothingness”. Eventually, he came up with the hypothesis that it may have something to do with the inheritance of emotional memories.

Vendramini believes that environmental factors, if powerful enough, can trigger changes in non-coding or “junk” DNA, which in turn are passed on to offspring and govern their behaviour. He calls these “teems” or Trauma Encoded Emotional Memories and he believes they’re triggered by lifethreatening events such as attacks by predators or profound emotions such as sexual arousal.

When these emotions are encrypted into an animal’s noncoding DNA, they can be passed on so that subsequent generations begin life with that teem already archived in its emotional memory.

Okay, this is the part where Shit Lips McGee should have started asking some really obvious questions. Like, “How does getting scared rewrite your DNA?” or “How does the TEEM on the junk DNA affect the phenotype if the DNA doesn’t code for anything?” or “How does it get passed on at all?”

Think about it. Each of us is formed from two gametes — an egg and a sperm. These are produced in the gonads of our parents, and each has one half of their DNA. The DNA, then, comes from these cells in that part of the body. In order for “teemosis” to work, a dude’s testicles would have to have both a memory of emotions and a method for *somehow* writing that emotion into the DNA of the sperm. Let’s call this the Nutbag Memory Theory.

How the fuck is this supposed to work? There is no mechanism for it. He doesn’t even attempt to give one. There’s no organ in the body that rewrites the DNA in the gametes. The testes certainly can’t do it. And even if there were one, it’s supposedly being written into the non-coding DNA, so it won’t do anything. And beyond even that, there’s no way to write a very specific experience into DNA. DNA is a chemical that sets off a series of chemical reactions that lead to development. It doesn’t store episodic memories like the brain does. None of this makes any sense. But Shit Lips McGee just blithely passes it on like it’s big news in science and continues to finger Vendramini’s teem hole.

Also, I can’t help but notice that TEEMs sound quite a bit like L. Ron Hubbard’s bullshit theory of “body thetans”, which are also emotional traumas that build up in our system and can be passed on from one generation to the next. Maybe Vendramini just needs to go to his local Scientology center and get an e-meter reading. I’ll get John Travolta on the phone. Just, whatever you do, don’t give him a back rub.

But this works only in certain life forms. To experience a teem you’ll need not only non-coding DNA but also a central nervous system and sensory organs. Vendramini says these are important because it’s the central nervous system – not the brain — that is the real emotion-producing organ and because sensory organs are the means of collecting the data that generates the emotion.

Evidence, please? The central nervous system includes the brain and the spine. So if it’s not just the brain, then the spine plays a role too? Does that mean if someone severs their spine they won’t be able to generate emotions? If not, then what the fuck do you mean and what evidence do you have for it?

Vendramini then goes a step further, proposing that teemosis helps explain something Darwin could not, namely the rapid profusion of species, especially multicellular organisms, during the period palaeontologists describe as the Cambrian Explosion, about 543 million years ago. It was at the moment he made this link that Vendramini reckoned his theory started feeling good because, suddenly, organisms had some control over their destiny and weren’t completely dependent on random mutations for evolutionary success.

He believes Darwin explains incremental or microevolution whereas teem theory explains the complexity of creatures, biodiversity and behavioural evolution.

And he wonders why creationists like him so much. This is standard creationist claptrap, and it’s just as wrong when it’s being peddled for a materialistic theory as it is when it’s peddled for a supernatural theory.

And how the fuck does emotional trauma building up in DNA give animals “control over their destiny”?

There’s a maverick streak in Vendramini. He calls himself a theoretical biologist, but happily tells you his only qualification is this theory.

So all it takes to be a scientist is to make up your own bullshit theory. Gotcha.

He says he relishes his amateur status because it has allowed him to escape the shackles that bind professionals.

“Being an amateur is usually a disadvantage, but, for me, it was fortunate because I didn’t have the normal respect for the paradigms that scientists work within.”

He says established scientists won’t leap at his theory because “if they’ve been teaching a certain paradigm all their lives and then discover that Darwin needs updating, it would be a violation of their core beliefs”.

Ugh. Is there a single crank in the universe who doesn’t abuse Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy in order to justify having no expertise in his purported field?

Look, crackpots. Kuhn never argued that you can be a scientist without expertise. He never claimed that paradigms are so rigidly dogmatic that scientists are incapable of even considering other ideas. He certainly never claimed that just any ludicrous idea with no connection to the existing body of scientific knowledge could cause a paradigm shift.

But one thing that Kuhn did say was that paradigms rarely shift back. That is, once a paradigm has been abandoned, it usually stays that way. And Vendramini’s “theory” sounds a lot like one of those abandoned paradigms. Lamarckism, a theory of evolution by acquired characteristics, had quite a following among biologists before it was rendered pretty much impossible by genetics. “Teemosis” is also inheritance of acquired characteristics, and has the same problem: How the fuck does the DNA get “rewritten”? There isn’t an organ in the body that does that.

So I went in search of academics to make a comment on the theory. The first port of call – a leading biologist in one of our prominent universities – appeared to vindicate Vendramini’s pessimism.

Fuck you, Shit Lips.

After offering the scientist a potted overview of teemosis, he replied in a derisive tone. “It sounds to me like the second cousin to the flying saucer. I’d prefer not to run with it. There’s enough genuine stuff based on natural history and, if it’s coming off a website rather than proper scientific study, I’d prefer not to be quoted. It sounds like a great Doctor Who story,” he concluded.

When I explained that Vendramini had published his work in the British journal Medical Hypotheses, there was a haughty laugh down the phone. “Well the name says it all,” he scoffed. Would you like to have a look at the website,” I inquired?

“No, I’d rather not run with it.”

Medical Hypotheses will publish anything. Shit Lips didn’t even bother to check what kind of journal they are. They publish highly speculative work by scientists with almost no peer review, and publishing there does not in anyway entail anything about the quality of the work.

If Shit Lips had done any independent research, any at all, he would have known this. But instead he’s a typical science  journalist, getting his information entirely from interviews, taking everything said at face value, interviewing an “opposing view” for “balance”, then working it all into a narrative about a lone wolf scientist who changed everything. Cast the working scientists (you know, the ones who actually know what they’re doing) as cartoon mustache-twirling villains and the subject of the piece as the brave David going up against the scientific Goliath, and you’ve got a “story”. *Grrrr*

Dr Martin Burd of Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences was more accommodating and, after reading Vendramini’s paper and navigating his way round his website, he concluded that he was “very sceptical” about the theory for at least two reasons. The first is that plants have as much repetitive non-coding DNA in their genomes as animals, a fact not explained by Vendramini. He hints that Vendramini might be tempted to argue that repetitive non-coding DNA serves a different function in plants than the teem function in animals. But, according to Burd, this would amount to “special pleading” – something scientists frown upon.

Okay, this shit should have been brought up MUCH earlier in the article. These are really, really obvious questions for which Vendramini has no answers.

And it’s not just scientists that frown on special pleading. Any rational person should. It’s a logical fallacy for crying out loud. I’m not a scientist, but I sure as fuck frown on special pleading. And why is it in scare quotes? Is Shit Lips trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of special pleading as an objection to an argument?

He also accuses Vendramini of failing to explain the mechanics of it all adequately. He concludes it’s “not very convincing” because Vendramini doesn’t reveal how teems are actually written into non-coding DNA and how that affects emotions or creates instincts.

Yes! Yes yes yes! Why did it take this fucking long to bring this up?

Vendramini responds to this criticism with characteristic optimism. “Given that the history of science shows that radical new scientific ideas are initially almost universally disparaged, these comments seem quite moderate. I’m encouraged.”

I knew we’d see the Galileo Gambit at some point. And of course Shit Lips passes it along without even a hint of skepticism or any critical analysis. I mean, there’s already a stock response to this: “Yes, they laughed at Galileo, but they also laughed at Bozo the clown.” Shit Lips would barely have to exert himself at all to demonstrate at least a modicum of journalist integrity here. But no. Twas not to be.

So now the maverick Vendramini is seeking acceptance – or at least the courtesy of having his ideas tested to assess whether they have anything to offer. And, as he braces for the reviews, he has taken heart from Darwin himself: “Darwin loved to have his mistakes pointed out. I’d have an enormous sense of pride if my theory adds just a little to his noble edifice, but if I see evidence that it’s wrong, I just have to admit it.”

And that’s the final paragraph of the article. It should be obvious by now that I see Shit Lips as the villain in this. Vendramini is certainly a quack and a bozo, but he seems mostly harmless to me. At least he’s creative–his ideas might make for a good sci-fi series, if not for good science. I’d be willing to read a comic book about a superhero group called T.E.E.M who can control their own DNA with their emotions and give themselves superpowers. That might be cool. As long as Joe Quesada and Jeph Loeb don’t get involved with it.

Shit Lips, on the other hand, is a shitty fucking journalist. This article is little more than a puff piece, and it’s structured to mislead the public on just about every topic it “reports” on. This is certainly due more to laziness and incompetence than to malice on Shit Lips’ part. But that’s no excuse.

This is the shoddy state of science journalism in today’s media. It might be better than it was 50 years ago, but it’s still horrible. And while a single crank can do little more on his own than annoy the scientists he continually emails his self-published book to, a lazy/incompetent journalist at a large publication can legitimize his bogus views to thousands or even millions of consumers who don’t know enough about science to differentiate between the real thing and the Asylum Films style knock-off. This is the equivalent of Roger Ebert reviewing Alien Origin but telling people it’s a review for Prometheus. (Ebert would never do that, but I wouldn’t put it past Armond White…)

But, hey, at least it’s “balanced” and “open-minded,” right?

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One response to “The Sad State of Science Journalism

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