Wednesday, August 17

Um, No.

AP: Harvard to Investigate Origins of Life

Mon Aug 15, 9:03 AM ET

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Harvard University is joining the long-running debate over the theory of evolution by launching a research project to study how life began.

The team of researchers will receive $1 million in funding annually from Harvard over the next few years. The project begins with an admission that some mysteries about life's origins cannot be explained.

"My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention," said David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard.

My wife has a soap opera. This is my primary reason for blogging anonymously.

No, really, The Young and the Restless, "Y&R" to the headline writers at TV Guide™, was the slog of choice of her crowd at college, and she tunes in now and then out of incontinent nostalgia. Or it may be she only turns it on when I'm also at home just to hear me hoot at the thing, or do my Victor Newman/Eric Braeden/Hans Gudegast monotone--the man reads every goddam line exactly the same, plus he's been in this country for forty years and his accent is now thicker than it was on The Rat Patrol. Anyway, the point is, I've watched this nonsense over the years, and it frequently is moved along in its glacial fashion by writing which is so utterly, incomprehensibly stupid as to defy explanation. Forget the fact that toddlers are regularly packed off to "boarding school", forgotten about for two years, and return old enough to vote. The silly manipulations of bedrock reality based on the dictates of soap peddling I understand. It's when jaw-droppingly idiotic events take place which could just as easily have been written to conform to a non-delusional view of the world that I begin to despair for the future of the race. Like the time Paul Williams, PI, found a cassette tape containing vital evidence and there was a two-day delay while he found a guy he knew who owned a cassette player. Or the Abbott family, who took their privately-held international cosmetics giant public and managed to sell 51% of the stock.

This AP story is right out of that same stable. Evolution is a theory, yes; it is also an observable fact. There is no "debate" over the theory of evolution which Harvard is joining, let alone one it has been standing on the sidelines of until now. The announced project concerns abiogenesis, which, while no where near as established as evolution, is considerably less controversial than creationists try to portray it. And evolution does not rise or fall based on what Harvard may or may not discover; evolution is established whether the ultimate source of self-replicating molecules was primordial soup, a cosmic Thunderer in long white beard and sandals, or two giant turtles humping.

So just how difficult could it have been to write this story in accordance with the facts?


D. Sidhe said...

Science journalists established decades ago that they get pedantic letters correcting their idiocies on points both vital to the story and obscure-to-the-point-of-vanishing regardless of how much research they do on any given subject.
They naturally concluded that there's no point to bothering with the research.
Coupled with the then-increasing and now-solidified tendency of owners to regard newspapers as profit makers rather than anything approaching information, science writing has maintained a fairly stable level of support from editors *provided it's done cheaply*.
It's not as expensive as local reporting (which requires reporters in each bureau as opposed to just some guys who can read a wire), it doesn't piss off advertizers like investigative reporting (which can expose the misdeeds of advertizers but mostly just keeps readers in a gloomy mindset not receptive to ad pitches), and it's fairly popular and non-controversial.
But to be done cheaply, you can't let a bunch of reporters learn something about fields they're interested in and research and write stories--you have to have just the one guy you send to write every story with rapid deadlines.
In addition to the economic realities, you now have nutjobs who will write and threaten boycotts every time you mention evolution in anything other than a mocking tone, etc.

This leads to reporters asking clueless questions of scientists, and writing down verbatim what the scientists say, relying on them to say it in such a way that the reporters A) understand and B) can dumb it down for the mentally-deficient South Dakotan housewife whom they assume to be their prototypical reader.
Some organizations, like the CDC, that spend a lot of time dealing with this, have learned how to interact with idiot reporters for the benefit of idiot readers to produce a story that approaches factual accuracy.
Many of them, like NASA, have PR personnel that help them positively take advantage of the laziness of reporters.
And then you have organizations like the USGS, which deals with reporters rarely, and send actual educated scientists out to talk to reporters, scientists who tend to assume that the reporters have done some homework, because certainly that's what they would have done, and you get really stupid questions being asked of scientists who don't understand how to respond in a way that fits the "Explain It To Me Like I Was A Child" format.

Frankly, all of this produces a fabulous dynamic with scientists who are totally unaccustomed to doing press conferences, and totally unprepared to deal with reporters, doing press conferences and dealing with reporters.
I know it's not fun for them, and I know it doesn't result in anything approaching good journalism, but it's fun to watch, because I'm a geek-loving sadist.

Hokie said...

I know that, by and large, it's a goddamned sideshow, but there is so very little that I have more contempt for than creationism.

coriolis said...

"... two giant turtles humping."

Do I detect a Terry Pratchett fan?

Neil Shakespeare said...

It would have been VERY difficult to write "in accordance with the facts". We do not want FACTS, sir! We want MYSTERY! MYSTERY, GODDAMMIT!!

D. Sidhe said...

Hokie, is it possible you need your horizons expanded? Check out John Stossel's latest Townhall column. Next week, he'll show us what's in Andy Rooney's desk drawers and bitching about Andy's junk mail. (If you need to read it with the snark-buffer enabled, TBogg has it.)

I admit I have a great deal of contempt for creationism, in that I am a follower of the two-space-turtles-humping-*then*-evolution school, but, and forgive me, it's nowhere near the top of my list, if only because it hasn't racked up much of a body count yet.
Yes, I said yet.

harry near indy said...

neil, not just mystery -- miracle, mystery and authority. read the grand inquisitor in the bros karamazov.

this is one reason i have contempt for christians -- not the evangies, for whom the bible is 100 percent correct, but the middle of the road denominations -- the methodists, the presbyterians, etc. -- who won't call out the evangies on their idiocy.

the evangies are overreaching. from hubris comes nemesis. abortion and homosexuality are somewhat icky subjects, but i believe most semi-educated people accept the theory of evolution and realize they won't go to hell because they do.

golombek said...

Sorry, Dog, but gotta correct you on this one. If the World's Greatest University says the origin of life was two giant turtles humping, you better believe it.

Actually, it sounds to me (a WGU lackey) that somebody wants to throw a crumb to some wealthy but dumb potential donors. There's a bunch of new buildings on campus that have naming rights for sale.

Daniella said...

Eric Braeden is one of the best actors on TV. Clearly, you don't really watch him much. He's the only reason I still tune in to Y&R.