Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Notes for a late-summer's day.....

Well, it's a slow day, one of the last of warm ones for the year and I'm about to go for a bike ride, but before I go there are a few little things I'll quickly comment on.

One is the banner headline in the 12 September Science about a huge aquatic dinosaur, proclaiming "Giant dinosaur was a terror of Cretaceous waterways!" The Hollywood image of a massive terror is illustrated in the story; see below.  Wow! One need not doubt that this was a nasty beast and a terror to its predators.  But this is purportedly a science journal, not a Hollywood ad vehicle.  Most species have predators that prey on them, and for those species, the predators are surely terrors.  In this case, those relatively few species big enough to be seen by and yet not so agile as to escape from the giant dinosaur would be those experiencing terror.  And, in fact, this huge predator of the waterways probably left the vast majority of waterway species alone and was not a terror for them at all!  The same applies to the Cretaceous as to any period in the history of life.

Artist's imagination, from the Science article, from their website

We can wonder at how such a huge monstrosity of a species could evolve, much less swim, given the energetic, thermal, and mechanical challenges of being that big, not to mention of finding enough to eat. But we don't need the melodramatic drawing to make the point (after all, what was found were bones, not the flesh).  We may learn from the history this shows, but could do without the histrionics.

Next on the list is the dramatic cover of Nature on 18 September.  This figure reports results that use genomic sequence data to argue that modern Europeans carry genes from three different ancestral populations.  The massive author list is another characteristic of modern science whereby if you as much as walk by the office where someone is working on the paper and ask what they're doing then you qualify as an author and can report to your Chair and Dean that you have a cover article in Nature.

Nature cover, 18 September 2014, from their website
The story reports that genetic data on modern European variation and from some ancient DNA sources suggests a melding of people migrating (or gene-flowing) in from three basic areas, a northern or Siberian, a more expected western European, and a Middle Eastern source.  Taking place millennia ago, and/or over millennia, the result is that Europeans do not constitute a standing discrete 'race', but are a mix, the result of population history.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this paper(as far as we can tell). But note that the cover illustrations (this  is, after all a science journal) are again artist's reconstructions of our supposed distant ancestors, not the data themselves.  This is taking reifying liberties with the science, something Nature does on a regular basis both with illustrations and catchy-cute pun-laden story ads on their covers.

One can and we think should ask why, unless this is just more Hollywood and advertising, this is in any way a Nature cover story.  Interesting as it is, it is no breakthrough of modern science (the issues and evidence have been building for decades--yes, decades).  This story should be in a specialist journal (like the Am. J.  Physical Anthropology), where before our marketing age it would have been.  There, it would be seen by other anthropologists with expertise in human migration history, vetted for other interpretations if any, and would have become part of our knowledge of human origins, and material for textbooks.  But it just doesn't warrant being splashed as if it is some sort of innovative discovery.  Again, the nature of science has changed, and one can ask why we have moved in this pop-sci direction, and whether that's good.

Are we just too, too stodgy?  Probably.  But isn't the translation of science to videographic presentation a pandering to a bourgeois culture that is bored with details?  Will it grab people and draw them into science?  Even if it does the latter, which it may well, doesn't it give the impression that the daily work of science is exciting, and the technical demands of doing good science minimal?  Or is it mainly a way to employ graphic artists and sell magazines?  Of course, this is how our culture works in the Advertising Age, so the answer is probably moot.

Anyway, back out to the bike path and garden, on a day too nice to think about anything very technical, enjoying fall before it passes, and (today at least) getting out before our town is overrun with drunken football fans.


Anonymous said...

I totally disagree on the value of paleoart. The Spinosaurus image was developed in close collaboration with paleontologists. It conveys information about the creature. Of course illustration have long had an important role in scientific communication.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, we certainly disagree. In a museum diarama, supplementing specimens, it's fine. In Scientific American or Natural History, yes. That is trying to give the general public a general idea of whatever.

To me, however, in an actual science journal, I don't think it serves a useful purpose because it is an artist's guess. It is often used essentially as advertising for the research because we have no way, as a reader, to know what liberties have been taken, and how knowledgeably.

Of course, it's just my opinion as a stodgy person who thinks real science journals should be boring rather than exciting in this sense, so we pay attention to the science itself, not the distracting splash.

Anonymous said...

OK, but some of the "splash" can in the "boring" text itself(!) Hype, dubious neologisms, strained models, problematic arguments can all be made by a self-promoter skilled at rhetoric. No multimedia bells and whistles needed.

Scientifically sanctioned paleoart places even more on the table, increases author accountability and reduces confusion for critics. It provides less wiggle for the authors room than text alone - makes clear and explicit description that could be misinterpreted and misparsed without it.

So rather than being a distraction paleoart can be part of communication between scientists.

Ken Weiss said...

The orange patches on the dinosaur? The hairstyling on the paleo-humans? Did the authors sign off on those artistic liberties?

O agree that there's plenty of splash (and, often, plenty of unsplashworthy things buried under the splash).

Our culture rewards showmanship. It's not new in history by any means, but unless backed up with real substance, splash is a substitute for substance and readers, even scientists, are vulnerable to being influenced by it.

Since we are so overwhelmed with hype these days, I think, personally, that it's time for some return to science being as boring as a bowl of wheat bran, and popular science being clearly limited to popular science media.

Of course, nobody will listen to my particular grump, as I know very well!