Monday, May 2, 2011

If you write about a paper at least read the damn thing

Now that I have started writing for the Examiner, I was curious about what the other science writers had to say. One particular article immediately caught my attention. It was entitled New method shines light on dino DNA. I was a bit incredulous but if I was wrong, it would be huge.

Well I read the article and it stated a few things that I found to be even more dubious. For one, the writer says that:

The protein and DNA structures are so complete that a comparison of the monasaur [sic] DNA to present day monitor lizards (a known descendant) was exceptionally highly correlated.

While there is some evidence that monitor lizards and Mosasaurs may be related, it is far from definitive. If they are related it is most likely from a common ancestor and not through Mosasaurs becoming monitors. Oh, and don't forget that Mosasaurs were not dinosaurs at all but an entirely different group.

Thankfully, the writer attached a link to the paper so I sat down and gave it a read. I soon found out that my suspicions were correct. No where does it state that any Mosasaur DNA was recovered. They did attempt to retrieve a section of the most likely to be found, a bit of Mitochondrial DNA (specifically genes for Mitochondrial Ribosomes), but this did not bear out. And even if it had, it would not be a complete DNA structure nor would it be enough to make the kind of comparison that the writer states.

Now monitor lizard tissue was mentioned quite a bit in the paper. Specifically s sample from the long bone of a member of the genus Varanus but this had nothing to do with there being any possible link between the two organisms. Instead, the researchers used the Varanus sample as a consistency control. As the team attempted to extract any possible proteins or other macromolecules from the Mosasaur sample, they wanted a modern sample to go through all the same procedures to rule out errors and check for similar reactions, specifically in the protein collagen.

The suspected collagen from the Mosasaur sample and collagen extracted by the same techniques from the Varanus sample were similar enough that the team could be relatively confident that they really did extract collagen from the fossil sample. This was the only reason the team used the monitor lizard tissue at all. The paper never once mentioned a link between the two other than in how the suspected collagen and Varanus collagen behaved and degraded.

I am irritated by all this for a few reasons. One, here is an intensely interesting paper that, if confirmed with further research, could lead to yet another tool in understanding long extinct organisms. A tool that was thought to never be possible. Two, your average reader will not actually sit down and read a research paper and ever fewer will actually understand what it is they are reading. For this very reason it is imperative that science writers get their facts right. Most readers will take the writers at their word and if that word is wrong, then they will just be spreading misinformation. Three, if and (hopefully) when the readers find out the information they read was wrong, it creates a distrust for science writers and, far too often, in science in general. Fourth, it does a disservice to the authors of the paper. People who have spent countless hours attempting to uncover something new about our universe, only to have their work mangled by someone who is supposed to be a liaison between the researchers and the layman. Fifth and finally, it is an example of sloppy and lazy work.

Now some may claim that it could have been an honest error due to the technical nature of the paper. If this writer were someone who had no experience with such papers, perhaps that argument would have some weight. However, he claims to be a chemist and mathematician, so he must have some experience with them. So such an error becomes especially egregious.

I left a comment detailing the errors in the article and the reasons for it with hopes that it shall be changed. So remember, if you are writing about a topic, do a bit of research, and if you include a research paper, at least properly read the damn thing!
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Infidel753 said...

In my experience, most MSM reporting on the technical aspects of science is worthless. I'm surprised they didn't say monasaurs are the ancestor of monorails.

You've already got a wealth of material that would raise their standards by light-years -- all those posts about lesser-known modern animals.

Cyc said...

Hehe, that would have at least made it more entertaining to read in a pathetic sort of way.

Glad you seem to like those articles. Perhaps other people will as well if I cross-post them.