Monday, September 24, 2007

Scientists, Arm Yourselves Against DNA Denialism!

These days it seems that anyone who questions a widely held scientific belief is a delusional "denialist". Are you considering suggesting the hypothesis that global climate change is driven primarily by cosmic radiation rather than human activity? Don't bother. Everyone knows global-warming deniers are in cahoots with big oil. Pondering whether public health and education measures might be more effective than anti-retroviral drugs in combating AIDS in South Africa, or asking exactly how HIV infection eliminates CD4 T cells? Shut the !@#$% and get back on the band-wagon already you HIV-AIDS denialist! You've obviously been brainwashed by the LSD you got from some burnt-out, pot-smoking scientist from California, like Peter Duesberg or Kary Mullis. Have you ever dared to question the prevailing deterministic model of stem cell division? Stem cell denialist! Every day you spread doubt is another day a person with ageing cells will have to go without replacements. Or worst of all, has it occurred to you that all available molecular phylogenetics data does not fit into the "universal tree of life"? Ha! Did God tell you that on a mountaintop, you evolution-denying, modern-day Moses? I hope you burn in hell!

With all the rampant denialism going on out there, we smarty-pants scientists need to prepare for the next outbreak. The question is, which form of denialism will be the next to hit? I think it only makes sense that those conniving little bastards will go after the very foundations of modern genetics and molecular biology - the "theory" that the genes encoding our biological traits are contained in cellular deoxyribonucleic acid (aka "DNA").

So how to prepare? I propose a new tactic. No more bloody and violent exchanges of capital letters and exclamation marks on the battle fields of the blogosphere. Enough with the "YOU ARE A DENIALIST BECAUSE YOU ARE DUMB AND IRRATIONAL AND WILL NEVER ACCEPT REALITY!". No more "it's in a peer-reviewed journal and has been regurgitated by a lot of other peer-reviewed journals so it must be true". No more "this is not even really a debate amongst REAL scientists, so I don't have to bother to explain it to you". No more "I did a PubMed search on your hypothesis, no hits came up, so you're wrong!!!". No more "I hold a BSc, an MSc and a PhD from Oxford, Cambridge and Hogwarts, whilst you barely satisfied the conditions of your community college, ergo I am clearly in the right and you, sadly, are mistaken".

Yes, I would like to propose a radical new approach in the war on denialism. I call it "explaining science". This means doing nothing except explaining experiments and their results. (aka "the evidence"). When people are unconvinced or do not immediately understand, we rephrase and try again. And again. And again. They still don't get it? Maybe we draw a picture. A cartoon. Maybe an animation. Maybe a bulleted list. Maybe use statistics, a pie-chart or a bar graph. Make a video, a hologram or a video-game. Do an interpretative dance. Whatever it takes. Just don't call them denialists, or you'll remind them they're supposed to be denying something (shhhhhhh). And maybe, in the end, we will convert the denial-lovers to science-lovers. Or perhaps some will resist and forever remain beyond our reach. Maybe the disease of denialism is incurable or even genetically encoded in an unlucky few defectives. But I'll be damned if we don't die trying!

So, to prepare for the eminent strike against DNA, all we have to do is remember how we know that DNA is the genetic material. Keeping the experimental evidence at our fingertips, we will be well-armed to defend science from the denialists. What? Can't remember why? Don't worry, me neither. Hey I'm just a graduate student in biochemistry after all. Luckily, Larry Moran, a real scientist who's old enough to still remember the evidence and knows how to blog, points to the experiment in question (that's why they call him 'Professor'). It was Canadian Oswald Avery's 1944 paper which showed that DNA, but not RNA, carbohydrate or protein could transfer the genetically transmitted trait of virulence from bacterium to another. You can read commentary in science blogger John Dennehy's "Citation Classic of the Week". Even better, check out this awesome Cold Spring Harbor animation describing the experiment. No denialist can withstand the power of animations!

So, fellow scientists, be vigilant for the emergence of the DNA denialists when they strike. Know the enemy, but more importantly, know the evidence!

(PS- This was a humor piece, whether you find it funny or not. Except the part about the Avery paper. So don't be sending me any hate-mail.)


Joe Dunckley said...

"explaining experiments and their results."

Looking at the blogosphere -- at least, that little corner that I actually follow -- I'd say that you're preaching to the converted: blogs have done a wonderful job of explaining experiments and their results. The problem is, when we do so, we are largely preaching to the converted as well: we are explaining evidence to people who are already familiar with it. Teaching isn't going to help if nobody's going to turn up to learn. Perhaps what we need is a take-over of the mainstream media.

Kamel said...

I know it's a humour piece, but I think it's spot on. (I've been following your discussion about HIV denialism over at the Scientific Activist as well). Too often what should be a rational discussion degrades into accusations of hearsay on one side and heresy on the other.

While the problem will always exist that true denialists will hold their position in the face of evidence, I would like to join your 'explaining science' movement. Where can I sign up for the newsletter?

Kamel said...

Joe, that's a good point. I'm certainly an advocat for public understanding of science and the amount of science blogging going on is a step in the right direction. A mainstream media take-over would be nice. If the local paper can dedicate a full section to 'wheels' or 'food' once a week, why not one on science?

There are also other ways to encourage better science understanding - programs like Let's Talk Science or Science Cafe are a start, but like you said you have to lead a horse to water before he can drink.

So what's the answer? When I was in school, science education wasn't required beyond the 10th grade. Do we expand this requirement? Hitting the mainstream media still only helps if people are paying attention to the stories.

Joe Dunckley said...

"If the local paper can dedicate a full section to 'wheels' or 'food' once a week, why not one on science?"

Oh indeed. And it would be so cheap for the newspapers: there's so much great stuff already written by bloggers, who did it because they're enthusuastic about communicating the ideas, or just because they like bashing on a keyboard now and then. If the local paper offered to give them more readers without any effort from themselves, I'm sure they'd be happy whatever the financial arangements.

Actually, I really shouldn't be encouraging that sort of behaviour having just applied for a full time job writing about science!

Bayman said...

Right you are Joe, blogs and the internet in general are a great tool for communicating real science to the public in an interactive manner. And often, perhaps more often than not, this is what happens. However I have also, to my dismay, come across other discussions, wherein a lay-person is quickly ridiculed by the scientist for asking critically questioning a scientific dogma, that, to the scientist's mind is a settled matter and therefore doesn't need to be explained. Once the labels come out (ie "denialist"), positions inevitably become entrenched, minds close, and the electronic shouting matches ensue. I think we have guard ourselves from getting lazy as scientists if we are to take advantage of this tremendous new opportunity to open the scientific process to the larger population.

As for mainstream media, you make a good point. I suppose a lot of the problem does arise when bloggers bring the baggage of sensational garbage and misinformation from TV into the blogosphere with them. I fear that mainstream media may be fatally flawed, however, no matter who's sending the message. As the (in)famamous Canadian Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message", and I tend to agree with Al Gore who apparently points out in his new book "An Assault on Reason" that television is an inherently non-democratic medium by virtue of the fact that it propagates information in one direction only. TV is not interactive and therefore promotes passive uptake of whatever message those controlling the medium want us to get. The internet and blogging type technologies in contrast, promote interaction and participation, the hallmarks of a democratic society and healthy science.

Kamel, if the bayblab were a corporation in need of a mission statement, I think you just said it.

Bayman said...

I agree with your point that education is key. I think we have to be wary of giving kids too much of a one-sided science-specific education, and focus more on basic thinking skills. Mastery of basic mathematics, critical reasoning, language, logic and familiarity with the fundamentals of the natural sciences and humanities are all required to effectively understand, evaluate and form rational arguments. A lot of the more advanced natural science can be reserved for those of us who need it to survive. :)

Looking at it from the other side, our scientists would probably be much more effective at harmonizing science within its societal context if our undergraduate and even graduate science programs were less production-oriented and based on a more comprehensive curriculum.

Joe Dunckley said...

I was reminded of your post when listening to this week's episode of the wonderful Australian radio programme Ockham's Razor. The episode was about the mediaeval "sweating sickness" epidemic. A throw away comment that caught my attention was that some people suggested the presence or absence of something in the diet was part of the problem. Yet, if I remember my history of medicine correctly, it wasn't until the late 18th century that nutrition was connected to medicine. I wonder if those 18th century pioneers were dismissed as germ-theory deniers, resurrecting ancient superstition?

There's so much quakery in nutrition today, that the field could be a good source of examples of signal getting lost in the noise?

Bayman said...

Sounds like an interesting podcast Joe, thanks for linking.

It's an interesting example - medicine in particular is a field with a history of deeply-entrenched dogmatic thinking and resistance to change. It took a lot of crazy taboo-breakers working on the fringes of society to break through to where we are now - grave-robbers as the first anatomists, to name one example that comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

Don't search anymore. I am a dna denialist.