This Week In Misinterpreted Scientific Research: Inherited Memories and Brainy Sexism
This week struck me as a particularly exhausting one when it came to that certain brand of provocatively-headlined-but-probably-not-what-you-think-it-is science news that we know and love hate.
As usual, it’s the science media click-machine that’s to blame, which is a polite way of saying that there exists a gaping void of careful, cautious, skeptical, dare I say scientific science writing out there amidst the great internet knowledge machine. It’s desperately hard to get people to read your articles or watch your videos, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to disengage the gravity of reason and drift off into the aether of just-so stories.
PHD Comics has summed up this vicious form of the science news cycle very well:
It’s not all bad, of course. There’s some real diamonds that we can regularly depend on to shine through amid the soiled throngs of pseudointellectual beggars out there, and I, along with others, try to highlight their work regularly. I shall do so again here.
Here, I present two cases of “science things that were badly reported” and some links to better explanations. As usual, the defendants come from that tenuous intersection of neuroscience and behavior, because studying the brain is hard stuff, folks.
1) Mice Can Inherit Memories: No they can’t. Well, maybe they can (although I doubt it), but that’s not at all what this widely-reported paper in Nature Neuroscience says. The poor authors of that study are probably at home, drinking, wondering how, after years of hard work, their paper about how mice may pass on sensitivity to smells got so twisted. Headlines ranged from declaring this the source of human phobias to saying that Assassin’s Creed is based in real science.
What the researchers did was to condition some male mice to associate a smell (cherry blossoms) with a mild electric shock, which is mean, because that’s a nice smell! Naturally, the mice began to avoid the odor. The weird part is that their offspring, even two generations down the line, also seemed to avoid that specific cherry blossom odor, without ever encountering it before (and without their dads showing them). The dads’ noses all had more of the cells that smell that odor, as did the noses of their offspring. This did not happen with female mice and their offspring.
These kind of things aren’t supposed to be possible in a single generation. A mouse dad shouldn’t smell something, become afraid of it, and then be able to pass on a change to his kids. That’s precisely the kind of thing that got Lamarck and his giraffe necks laughed at more than a century ago. But it is possible that these mice were transmitting some sort of epigenetic change.
It’s possible that there was an epigenetic change passed down. But it’s not for sure. Beyond that, the way that statistics are applied to mouse behavior studies make it possible that the differences they see are just due to sample sizes, or not including certain controls, or some other random factor like that the humidity on a particular day happened to make the mice very jumpy. There’s also the fact that there is no known way for nerve cell changes or chemical responses within the olfactory bulb to be communicated to the testes, where sperm are made (there’s literally a blood-testis barrier to prevent that kind of thing).
2) Men and women’s brains are wired differently, therefore men are better at reading maps. That’s almost a verbatim headline from this news outlet. It speaks of “hardwired differences” (our brains are not hardwired) and is loaded with brainsplaining and neurosexism. This story is frustrating notsomuch because of the science, which is so-so, but because it is being misapplied by the media to reinforce cutsie-pie stories about what men are good at and what women are good at and never the twain shall meet and boy is it funny how men and women argue over getting lost?! GUFFAW!
Read this instead: At Discover, Neuroskeptic explains why the spatial resolution of the techniques used are like making a road atlas, while on the moon, using a pair of binoculars, and how the only real difference here may be that men’s brains are just slightly bigger than women’s (which doesn’t account for any noticeable difference in abilities, but can mess with scans a lot). And if you’d like a nice introduction to the idea of neurosexism and pigeonholing gender-based brain research into outdated social molds, might I suggest you read this article at The Conversation?
The fact is that men and women are mostly the same when it comes to their brains, but “Everyone can probably become pretty good at reading maps whether or not they are male or female, suggests common sense, not needing to be backed up by neuroscience” doesn’t make a very catchy headline.
None of this is to say that any of the results presented in the scientific papers are patently or provably false. But as we communicate the vagaries of Science In Progress, we must include the Don’t Knows and the Possiblys and all the other fine (and frustrating) forms of cautious optimism. It doesn’t kill the excitement. It just comes with the territory. I read it on a map somewhere.
I was gonna try and not respond to a couple really frustrating science stories this week, two rather benign research papers that were blown completely out of proportion by less-than-savory news coverage, but I can’t help it.
“Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.”—
Wernher von Braun, pioneering rocket scientist and architect of America’s pioneering manned space program, as recalled by Tom Wolfe.
This passage opens the book Five Billion Years of Solitude, a reminder that life on Earth has an expiration date, but the duration our existence is in our own hands … nay, our brains, certainly here on Earth, and perhaps beyond.
Hi Joe! My name is Gigi, I've been following your blog for quite some time now and I think its awesome! I have a question though, what is your opinion about 23 & me? I've always wanted to trace my DNA back and see if I am predisposed to any genetics diseases or advantages, but with the recent FDA lawsuit against them has chance to know been shattered? The article I read from NBC did not provide any science based details. I want to know if you know more about this company, thank you!! :)
I was just about to order a kit to do an episode on 23andMe when the FDA shut ‘em down! So I’ll have to wait a while to get my first-hand reactions together. For those who don’t know, 23andMe is a company that offers personal genome sequencing and counseling direct by mail, all you have to do is spit in a tube.
Consumer genetic testing is, unsurprisingly, a complicated issue. The economics of DNA sequencing technology, meaning that sequencing whole genomes, billions of bases, is getting really cheap and really fast, makes it clear that someone, somewhere, if they are allowed to, is going to offer consumers the chance to get their own genome read. Getting DNA data, a lot of it, is just plain easy these days. And the ancestry part is cutesie-pie stuff. It’s the medical applications that bring on the comparisons (some warranted, some not) to GATTACA and Star Trek.
The hard part is figuring out what all that data means. Which differences are just sequencing errors and which are mutations? How much is just natural variation? What does a “normal” genome even look like? Most importantly: How do we really tell whether a mutation will increase someone’s risk for a disease to the point that they and their doctor need to do something about it?
Many people think that they should have unobstructed access to discovering the DNA bases that make their genome. But when that genome sequence starts being used to diagnose people or to guide medical treatment, that’s the FDA’s territory, and they take that stuff very seriously. 23andMe wasn’t playing ball, so they got in trouble.
What will happen now? Is consumer genetic testing the Right Way™? Or should this be managed by doctors and federal regulators? I don’t know. Hundreds of thousands of words will be written on this subject before it’s said and done.
If you’d like to read some of those words, and get some opinions from some very smart people, here’s a whole mess of ‘em:
I realize that a lot of the people who watch and read It’s Okay To Be Smart might not regularly tune into the NPR show Marketplace, because one is about stock markets and economics and one is about science (mine’s the one about science). If you did tune in, though, then you got to hear me and Henry from MinutePhysics tonight (along with soundbites from Hank Green and Emily Graslie!), talking about the explosive rise of educational YouTube channels!
If you didn’t listen, that’s okay. I gotcha covered. Listen to it above!
Random tidbit: I strongly considered calling last week’s video “Consider The Avocado” but I’m not sure that David Foster Wallace references are ready for YouTube prime time. But just so you know. That’s what I call it in my heart.