Popular Media Sucks At Science

If you wanted to look for a root cause of why the general public seems to often have serious issues with scientific literacy and understanding the true state of current scientific understanding of the world around us, look no further than the title of this post.

Now, I'm not criticising journalists for not being scientists. That's not their job, and I have no desire for it to be their job. What I would like, very much, is if they put a little more effort into making sure their readers kept this fact in mind whenever they wrote stories about science. Case in point...

Recently, in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B, there appeared a report on a study that had been conducted. The title of this report was "DNA Double Helices Recognize Mutual Sequence Homology in a Protein Free Environment"

It's highly technical, it's very complicated, and very very few people who are not geneticists are ever going to actaully read it or fully understand it if they tried. We're not going to make the attempt here, but I am going to produce a block of text from the conclusion of the report for anyone interested in seeing what it looks like, and for purposes of comparison to what we'll look at next:

We hypothesize that the origin of this recognition may be as follows.15 In-register alignment of phosphate strands with grooves on opposing DNA minimizes unfavorable electrostatic interactions between the negatively charged phosphates and maximizes favorable interactions of phosphates with bound counterions. DNAs with identical sequences will have the same structure and will stay in register over any juxtaposition length. Nonhomologous DNAs will have uncorrelated sequence-dependent variations in the local pitch that will disrupt the register over large juxtaposition length. The register may be restored at the expense of torsional deformation, but the deformation cost will still make juxtaposition of nonhomologous DNAs unfavorable.14 The sequence recognition energy, calculated from the corresponding theory is consistent with the observed segregation within the existing uncertainties in the theoretical and experimental parameters (Supplemental Theory). This energy is 1 kT under the conditions utilized for the present study, but it is predicted to be significantly amplified, for example, at closer separations, at lower ionic strength, and in the presence of DNA condensing counterions.10,15

Presently, we cannot exclude other mechanisms for the observed segregation. For instance, sequence-dependent bending of double helices may also lead to homology recognition by affecting the strand-groove register of two DNA molecules in juxtaposition. The juxtaposition of bent, nonhomologous DNAs may also be less energetically favorable under osmotic stress, since it may reduce the packing density of spherulites. In addition, formation of local single-stranded bubbles and base flipping23 may cause transient cross-hybridization between the molecules, as proposed to explain Mg2+ induced self-assembly of DNA fragments with the same sequence and length.16 We consider it to be rather unlikely in this instance, since the probability of bubble formation in unstressed linear DNA of the studied length is very small in contrast to the case where topological strain is relieved by bubble formation in small circular DNA molecules.23 Furthermore, bubble formation would distort the cholesteric order of spherulites and we see no evidence of this in spherulites composed of a single type of DNA molecule.

If you're not usually someone who spends their time reading highly technical scientific papers and you feel your brain dribbling out your ears, no worries, you're not alone. This creates a legitimate need for people who can translate something like the above into a more plain-language presentation that the general public can digest so they can remain somewhat informed about what is going on without needing to earn a PhD in any field they're curius about.

This is where we run into problems... because journalists have a tendency not to just want to clarify when they report on science. Clarifying is boring, and it doesn't attract many readers. No... they want to dress things up and make them exciting too. So they start exercising a bit of what they call "artistic license" in their presentation of the story. Which is how we get from the previous technical discussion of how individual DNA molecules can act on each other across a few nanometers of space through electrostatic effects and whatnot... to this:

DNA Molecules Display Telepathy-like Quality

...which inspires in me the urge to bang my head against a wall. Repeatedly.

Now, if you click on that link the rest of that article actually did a relatively good job of explaining that they were really talking about probable electrostatic effects between molecules over tiny tiny distances and that the "telepathy" was nothing of the kind and no weird supernatural things were happening... but when you're throwing up a headline like that you're asking for trouble.

If only that was all we had to deal with.

While the author of the LiveScience article contented themself with some sensationalist hyperbole in their article title as an attention grabber, as you get further out on the fringe of internet journalism people get less and less concerned with accuracy. Which is how we end up with:

DNA Found to Have "Impossible" Telepathic Properties

Now where the last article went there in the title but then walked it back in the article, if you go click on this one you'll find it stufffed with outlandish claims that science is stumped by this behaviour! That it defies all scientific understanding! That there is no explanation for how these DNA molecules are communicating with each other! That the effect is impossible according to the laws of chemistry and a source of wonder and amazement to scientists!

And at no time will you find them clearing things up by telling people that actually, no, nothing supernatural or scientist-stumping is happening here and they have a pretty decent idea what is going on. Because what fun would that be when you can incite wild speculation about how science has discovered some mystical phenomena that nobody understands?

And then all this leads to some hyperventilating individual who read that last article bursting onto some online discussion forums ranting about how science has shown that DNA has telepathic powers and this means the universe has a concsiousness and blah, blah, blah which is how I was introduced to this particular example and came to write this blog entry after realizing how many more people are going to end up reading that last article than will ever even attempt to read the original research that it's so spectacularly distorting and not realizing how completely wrong the information they are being given actually is.

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