Thursday, January 25, 2007

Public Abuse of Science

Looking for a gold standard for the public misuse of science? I would recommend wrapping sheep, gay sex, PETA, a bearded scientist, and the tabloid juggernaut into a single 500 word article. Be careful not to combine any of those terms...

Today's New York Times reported a story with the headline: "Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and Bad Publicity." The Times article took a rather objective third person view detailing the struggles one particular researcher. It just happens that this guy studies the sexual orientation of sheep. As a scientist working in a rather controversial field (which happens also to be linked to a sheep named Dolly) I appreciated this perspective. At least the writer stopped short of using some bad puns. If that's what you're looking for, check out, “Science Told: Hands Off Gay Sheep,” “Gay Rams Get Ewe Turn on Hormones” and “Gay Rams So Straight fo Ewe.”

My main gripe is that no regard for checking the facts was made by any of the individuals writing these stories (except for the Times author). The tabloid papers and websites found a story that would cater to their readership (The extremely sheepish countries of Australia, New Zealand and England seem to have the most of these reports.) PETA may have initiated this fiasco, but the media perpetuated it.

This researcher's life has been threatened!

For those of you interested, read the original report (Physiology & Behavior Volume 83, Issue 2 , 15 November 2004, Pages 233-245), and without academic access, read the abstract at the National Institute of Health's scientific database, Pubmed. I could follow most of this work because I am accustomed to the scientific lingo. Should journalists that pick up these stories use "inaccessible language" an excuse to distort fact?

The end results for me are (1) less respect for PETA, and (2) questions why PETA and a small number of gay rights activists are focusing on this guy without taking the time to do their homework? Aren't there more inviting targets than a bearded introvert that has chosen to study interesting questions about sexual orientation? Or is science evil to both the fundementalist right and the liberal progressives?

What do you think went wrong here?


BuddhistValkyrie said...

I think John Cloud got in the best pun over at Time: ewegenics!

I'm still chuckling over it.

...I also think he has an interesting point, which my adviser notes has been raised in the disability rights field for a while now: if they do manage to come up with a hormone-patch/injection/pill/whatever to give an expecting woman, to insure her to-be child will be straight, let them. Better that the homophobes get what they want, and children are raised in environments where they are loved and wanted, instead of shamed into closets. There will be plenty of people who won't care, and who will love their child as they are - gay, disabled, or purple.

Not being strongly versed in disability rights/ethics (my major exposure being a class from Goering a few years back that actually focused on Peter Singer), I found this a very novel idea, and it's been teasing the back of my head for a couple of days now. It's such a practical and simple "solution" that it intuitively feels right, but I'd like an actual grounded, pragmatic reason for it, as well.

thomas said...

Another blog entry about this issue from the science blog, inkycircus