Seven Sins of Scientists Part 4: hype

I’m discussing the seamier side of science in a seven part series on what I call scientific sinning.

The first three pieces in this series covered Failure to CitePaper or grant killing and a Need for Speed.

Today we talk about how bad it can get when scientists hype their work and I’m going to use the recent story about dinosaur farts and global warming as an illustrative case.

Scientists get excited about science, right? At what point do they cross the line to engaging in outright hype? What should they do if journalists hype their work?

Today a big news story has spiked on the internet about how scientists have reported that dinosaur farts may have caused global warming that killed them off.

No, really, you can’t make this stuff up.

A CBS News story on this explosive area reads:

The researchers, led by David Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, did their best to get an accurate estimate of how much gas these big dinosaurs would have created, but their answers are still just estimates based on multiple assumptions, they warn.

Hmmm…”estimates”, “assumptions”…..it gets worse (emphasis mine):

There is currently no way to tell what kind of bacteria lived in the digestive systems of dinosaurs,what gasses they produced, or what those digestive systems would have looked like, but Wilkinson thinks they would have produced methane like today’s animals.

So for all we know dinosaurs did not even fart at all, right? They probably did fart, but maybe they were petite farters? Maybe their farts were cold and cooled the atmosphere?

To me this paper is just so hyped, but it is actually not that unusual to see this happen in science and certainly it happens in the stem cell field too. There are stem cell research papers that I would call the equivalent of dinosaur farts. They make big news. They might be in splashy journals. But over time do they really amount to anything other than a bunch of B.S. (and associated gases)? Not really.

Why is hype bad? Because while it gets people’s attention it is like scientific junk food and often times it is just totally wrong. Hype also leads to unrealistic expectations and letdowns.

Why do scientists promote hyping of their work? Probably because they think it is good for their careers and they want to be famous? I don’t know.

 

3 Comments


  1. That settles it. I’m going to write a paper that says they couldn’t pass gas and would just eventually “pop” very loudly so the and cave men could find and eat them. That is, when they weren’t riding them around of course… Hey who knows, maybe there was a cave man game of Russian roulette with exploding dinos! Whee!!


  2. Well, you can just guess how this is going to be picked up by the bloviators on talk radio. I remember when I was in Japan in the early 90’s and turned Armed Forces Radio on one day, which unfortunately broadcast hours and hours of Rush Limbaugh to our service men abroad. I thought that was bad enough, but on this particular show he was carrying on about some study that had shown how much methane termites produced. No way global warming is caused by human activities, it is all due to the farts from the termites. He may have thrown cows in as well, I don’t remember.

    I think the take home message from all of this is that to protect our planet, we should not be vegetarians.


  3. Perhaps a study of Rush and his target audience, being as ambidextrous in their flatulence as they are, would give us the proper model for Dinosaurs?

    Eureka!

    Of course this would be an adult study starting at the first sign of onset, involves large probes and 2 specific orifices that ultimately merge at a 90 degree angle nesting one inside the other until the subject expires, and that can take years. Dinosaurs were smarter. Never mind.

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