Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Daily Dumb Dvorsky: What Happens When You Put Robot Cult Hype on Your "Science Beat" Edition

Guardian UK (real journalism happens there):
[A] new analysis of the structure of DNA using electron microscopy made me cross yesterday. It wasn't the fault of the scientists involved, but the sloppy way the result was reported that got my scientific goat. The structure of DNA was first determined almost 60 years ago by Watson's and Crick's famous analysis of the scattering patterns recorded by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin as they fired beams of X-rays at narrow fibres of the stuff. We have had a long time to refine and digest this result so I was surprised to run across so much inaccurate information in the internet digests of the new finding… The web-site headlined George Dvorsky's piece "Scientists snap a picture of DNA's double helix for the very first time." No, they hadn't. The accompanying article interspersed fact with fancy before finally concluding that the new imaging technique would enable us to see "how it interacts with proteins and RNA". No, it won't.
By the way, Stephen Curry is very right to point out the role of hyperbolic press releases and the compelling force of decontextualized imagery in the relentless misinformation produced by a pop-tech press thronged by reporters who superficially understand the relevant science in the diversity of fields on which they comment, who garner attention through dramatic pronouncements and narratives describing what are actually almost inevitably slow-moving, qualified results embedded in developmental trajectories driven by enormously complex regulatory, funding, publishing, institutional, investment politics, writing for publications that have come to use flashy sci-tech stories to attract eyeballs and revenue with throwaway pieces amounting to little more than advertorial content. I must say that he blunts the force of his indispensable critique for no good reason at all when he concludes his article with this paragraph:
What all this tells you is that Nature is a bitch who likes to make life hard for scientists. Fair play to the Italians who have refined the techniques for preparing DNA fibres to a new level, but it remains to be seen whether their technique will reveal any interesting new biology. I wouldn't bet on it just yet. Scientists have more work to do, and so too, do science writers.
If I may say so, "Nature" isn't a woman withholding secrets from "Man" -- and eliciting through this perverse withholding a science imagined as a violating assault rather than a respectful awareness and an industry imagined as rape and pillage rather than companionable stewardship and sustainable investment -- and, neither, by the way, to dig down to the underlying metaphor here, is it true that a woman who happens not to be interested in some man's interest is a "bitch" who "deserves what she gets." Yes, I know these figures are as old as the hills, but science is a transformative force and writers who respect its results can surely appreciate that spirit of transformation in talking about it as well, especially when we are speaking of gratuitously sexist and violent rhetoric that would never be tolerated in other professional contexts. As Curry says himself, it would seem that many science writers do indeed have more work to do.


Anonymous said...

fyi: link is borked, you misspelled 'href'

Dale Carrico said...

D'oh! Thanks.

joe said...

Jebus....I think it's time Dvorsky was politely (Or not, I'm Irish so I'll lean the other way) but firmly shown the door from Io9.....Before he does something really stupid and tarnishes the site more.