Telling tales…

The following is an excerpt about the current interplay between science and the media, taken from an article in this week’s Nature by Colin Macilwain:

…thanks to the massive growth in public relations and to online media’s insatiable appetite for ‘content’, journalism in science, as in other spheres, has evolved into an ugly machine — called ‘churnalism’ by media-watcher Nick Davies and others. This machine delivers inexpensive and safe content, masquerading as news, to an increasingly underwhelmed public.

The machine prospers because it serves the short-term interests of its participants. Editors get coherent and up-to-date copy. Writers get bylines. Researchers, universities and funding agencies get clips that show that their work has had ‘impact’. And readers get snippets, such as how red or white wine makes you live longer or less long, to chat about at the water-cooler.

None of these groups is benefiting strategically from the arrangement. Science is being misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of the scientific process, and as a result is beginning to adopt a weary cynicism that can only rebound on science in the long run.

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Strategies for communication…

FURTHER to my recent post on why people don’t accept evidence, it turns out that an editorial 1 and an opinion 2 piece in this week’s Nature, the latter unfortunately behind a pay-wall, actually focus on just this issue. The editorial states:

“Empirical evidence shows that people tend to react to reports on issues such as climate change according to their personal values (see page 296). Those who favour individualism over egalitarianism are more likely to reject evidence of climate change and calls to restrict emissions. And the messenger matters perhaps just as much as the message. People have more trust in experts — and scientists — when they sense that the speaker shares their values.”

So people tend to accept the evidence that supports their personal proclivities, and in fact interpret evidence in a manner than does so, thus people tend to persist in cherished beliefs and views even when confronted with contradictory evidence. This of course is something probably appreciated by most of us. Dan Kahan, in his opinion piece, points out:

“People endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments. As a result, public debate about science is strikingly polarized. The same groups who disagree on ‘cultural issues’ — abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer — also disagree on whether climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe.”

Another factor that weighs heavily in the public perception, and acceptance, of facts is the messenger. Owing to the fact that most people are ill-equipped to evaluate the raw data from scientific studies, they rely on the position of credible experts; it seems that those experts laypersons see as credible are those perceived to share the same values.

Research into the mental processes involved in such public perception is, Dan tells us, being conducted by Donald Braman at George Washington University Law School in Washington DC, Geoffrey Cohen at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, John Gastil at the University of Washington in Seattle, Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon in Eugene and Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard professor of law at Yale Law School. These processes are collectively referred to as ‘cultural cognition’.

So what is cultural cognition? Kahan describes it as, ‘the influence of group values (ones relating to equality and authority, individualism and community) on risk perceptions and related beliefs.’ I would imagine that peer-pressure represents one example within a spectrum of influences in cultural cognition.

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IN today’s issue of Nature is an account of a virus that infects a virus, a virophage. We are all familiar with the ubiquitous plant and animal viruses. Many of us are familiar with the bacteriophage, viruses that specifically attack bacterial cells and are the most abundant organism on the planet; somewhere around 10 million virus particles in a drop of sea water.

Now we hear of a small virus, called Sputnik, which infects an enormous virus, called Mamavirus. This is a larger member of a class of giant viruses, originally discovered in 2003 in a cooling tower in Bradford. The original Bradford virus of that 2003 discovery, Mimivirus, was initially mistaken for a small bacterial cell such is its size. Viruses are parasites, incapable of replicating themselves without a host cell; a virus infects and subsequently usurps the cellular machinery of the host cell to make a virus factory, spewing out replica virus particles. The small Sputnik “virophage” is able to parasitise the large virus’s factory for its own ends.

Having realised that such parasitism exists, and adjusted their views to the sizes of particles involved, researchers believe that this phenomenon may be common in nature, and particularly important in oceanic plankton blooms; the knock on effects of which have implications in ocean nutrient cycles and climate, plankton being one of the major carbon sinks on the planet.

It is a fantastically interesting discovery by Didier Raoult and colleagues, from the University of the Mediterranean, and certainly raises some questions as to the nature of whether viruses are alive or not. If the large Mimivirus is capable of being mistaken for a bacterial cell, and being parasitised by a smaller virus, at what point to we conclude that viruses are a distinct living entities, all be it obligatorily parasitic ones?