For some reason when people use the word “drivel” it feels like fingernails dragging across a chalkboard. Here’s a comment that followed a little post I wrote about a mistake in a headline.
It's so hard to keep drivel straight.
The headline in question went over a story about how the world was probably not ending on December 21, but the headline said December 12. That would be 12/12/12 which is the kind of date that should go with claims about the end of the world.
Here's today's column, which also ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer's health and science section:
Our highly social species has been behaving strangely of late, and this has been noted in a flurry of recent hand-wringing articles wondering whether technology is changing our nature. The cover of the Atlantic asks whether Facebook is making us lonely, and the New York Times bemoans “The Flight From Conversation.”
The authors observe what many of us have experienced: Friends invite us to get together only to spend the time texting other friends or tweeting. Everywhere, people are ignoring those in their physical vicinity so they can hold court with acquaintances farther away.
I’ve been tasked with coming up with a correction for a mistake (not mine) made in the sub-headline for my story on the Maya. In that story, I debunked the myth of the so-called Mayan prophecy that the world would end December 21st.
The sub head said “The world likely won't end December 12” when I think the copy editor meant to say December 21 – the date certain fringe elements have been pushing as the next doomsday.
We definitely can’t go with the standard correction format, which would lead to this: “A headline in yesterday’s story on the Maya incorrectly stated the world likely will not end December 12.” That might cause some needless alarm.
There are a couple of interesting lessons to take away from that whole nonsense about the Maya and their so-called end-of-the-world prophecy, which was the subject of a story I reported for today’s Inquirer.
One lesson is that plausible misinformation is perhaps more dangerous that preposterous misinformation because people will believe the plausible stuff.
The preposterous, in this case, is the notion that the world really will end on December 21 2012. There are of course a few people who will believe anything, even this, but far more people believe the plausible rumor that the ancient Maya really did predict doomsday with their far-reaching sacred calendar.
The following is a blog post. For this weeks’ evolution column, click here.
I’m hoping to get next week’s column finished in time to go to this talk at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The speaker, Scott Gilbert, is a developmental biologist at Swarthmore. He helped advise the Vatican on stem cells and evolution, and he advised me when I used to write my infamous column about sex for the Inquirer.
I know he has some interesting thoughts on symbiosis – mutually beneficial relationships between species.
On Saturday someone yelled at me following a Science Festival Event. It was a talk presented at a meeting of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking(PhACT) and the scientist giving the talk, Dave Cragin, is a friend. His talk was informative and interesting but I thought he was a tiny but unfair to the press and asked him to clarify one point.
As an example of bad journalism he’d held up a dishonest press release that was put out by an environmental group. Another example of misleading reporting came from Environmental News Network, which is not a journalistic publication but some kind of collaborative effort among environmental groups.
So I just mentioned that if he wanted to criticize the press, he should have at least one example from the press. I asked if he’d seen similarly irresponsible content in the New York Times or the Philadelphia Inquirer. From somewhere behind me a woman cackled, “Are you kidding, they’re hideous!” I found out later she is a scientist.
Today’s column profiles some Penn-led research into the DNA of African Pygmies. To me, the most interesting part of the research project is the way it dispels a prevailing mythology about genetics. Much of that mythology took root when scientists were trying to sell the public and Congress on the $3 billion Human Genome Project. They promised that reading the sequence of code characters in human DNA would lead to cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, mental illness, and autoimmune diseases.
It’s true that the genome has been a useful tool for researchers whose work is improving human health. But where are the cures? In all those promises that went with genome promotion, there was the implication that death was caused by faulty genes. We would live forever if not for little genetic time bombs that would explode and clog our arteries or start tumors. Genome hype also led to myth that our DNA would reveal everything about us. A few were honest about the fact that it wouldn’t be so simple.
One of the early outspoken skeptics was Ken Weiss of Penn State, who was quoted in this story. It reveals the reality that confronts scientists when they try to find the genetic causes behind even seemingly simple traits. Here's the column:
Immunobiologist Ruslan Medzhitov said he was recently discussing evolutionary medicine with fellow Yale professor Stephen Stearns, and Stearns told him that patients often like evolutionary explanations for their ailments. “It helps them with the ‘why me’ question,” Medzhitov said.
Medzhitov is known for his pioneering work on the so-called innate immune system, for which many think he should have shared a recent Nobel Prize. Now he’s turned his attention to the evolutionary roots of allergies. This week he’s lead author on a Nature paper that could help Higgs and other allergy sufferers with that “why me” question. Allergies are not just a malfunction of the immune system, he said. They may also reflect an evolutionary battle between us and the many species that surround us.
The standard theory holds that allergy evolved as a mechanism to help us and other mammals fight parasitic worms, he said. He proposed that allergic symptoms also evolved to help animals to avoid venoms and other noxious chemicals in the environment. Most allergy symptoms function to either expel something or make us run the other direction, he said. We humans vary in how strongly we react and what we react to, but it’s all part of a system for keeping us from being damaged by toxins and irritants.