When science got drunk in 2014

John Hopton for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

For most of the year, science was its usual, dignified self–making discoveries and leaving us in awe. But, like any bound-up, anal retentive nerd, it occasionally let go, got drunk and danced on a table. This New Year’s Eve, we take a look at when science turned silly in 2014.

As summer approached in May, a US skincare company presented us with what they claimed was drinkable sunscreen, an alternative to the greasy stuff that we currently oil ourselves up with. We may wish to avoid looking like we are about to be roasted on a bed of onions, but is a consumable sunscreen too good to be true? A lot of scientists think so.

New York dermatologist Dr Jessica Krant told the Huffington Post that the idea was: “totally unsubstantiated pseudoscience” that did not list “any active ingredients anywhere publicly available that might suggest true efficacy in any kind of protection from sun damage.”

Osmosis Skincare, the company responsible, said they tested the product in August following scepticism in the press, and announced a “successful” outcome because 16 out of 24 participants did not burn when using it. If you consider that enough of a success to try it out, you are a braver sunbather than I.

But there were accusations of timewasting aimed at more reputable organizations which may not be so justified. The annual Wastebook from Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn draws attention to what it sees as careless public spending. Coburn alerted us to the now infamous shrimp on a treadmill in 2011, a story that went viral – probably because the idea of a shrimp on a treadmill is simply funny; but also because it seemed like scientists (in this case the National Science Foundation) were squandering money on frivolous research.

This year, Coburn’s report targets workouts for mountain lions and monkeys who were taught how to gamble. Even if they would all make great comedy sketches, our initial reaction may be to wonder if these projects are indeed a little outlandish. But a closer look brings more clarity.

University of California Santa Cruz scientists put the lions on treadmills not so they could get some early bets down on the Lion v Shrimp World Championships, but in order to obtain calibrating energetics measurements before comparing the energetics of the lions in the wild using high tech collars. The study gave us a huge amount of information on what animals go through to survive in their natural habitats, a broader understanding of ecology in general, and helped us to better tailor conservation efforts for all sorts of species.

As for the gambling monkeys, the University of Rochester study helped us to understand the cognitive mechanisms not only behind monkeys’ behaviour, but behind our own too. The researchers wanted to know if our propensity to look for patterns, in the case of gambling a perceived winning or losing streak, could tell us something about how we gained our evolutionary advantage through looking for patterns in food sources. The findings could help us to understand the inherited, evolutionary importance of cognitive behaviour, to treat addiction, and to understand decision making more broadly, including the nature of supposed ‘freewill.’

It appears that science isn’t so silly after all. What is perhaps silly is the short-sightedness that puts immediate frugality before long-term gain. Criticism of ‘wasteful’ science fails to see the big picture.

And what is really silly is the storm of viral hysteria surrounding stories such as these. Some people read the headline: “Scientists waste money on monkey gambling” and find the accusation of wastefulness a little too easy to accept.

There were even some occasions in 2014 when the public assaults turned away from scientific research and got personal with the scientists themselves. Take the European Space Agency’s Matt Taylor, who helped the Rosetta mission to land the Philae probe on a comet but was then torn apart for wearing a shirt with scantily clad ladies on it.

Fair enough if someone thinks the objectification of humans is a bad thing, so long as they also target every Hollywood movie or music video that uses attractiveness to sell their product (which is most of them). If they were targeted, instead of one unassuming guy who suddenly becomes a viable outlet for rage just because everyone else is doing it, then a lot of our favorite stars might suddenly become very obscure.

The Guardian’s Alice Bell pointed out that science can still be a difficult, even misogynistic environment for women to thrive in. That may well be true, but if so then let’s sort it out properly. Then we can all get back to not having to pretend that humans don’t find each other attractive.

Incidentally, now we have been forced to talk about the human body, 2014 was the year in which news outlets twisted complicated research into over-simplified “Sniffing farts can cure cancer” headlines. But on a more positive note: While Lab-Grown Vaginas might sound like a punk band low down the bill at a small venue, happily the headline “Doctors implant lab-grown vaginas” was entirely based in truth. [Watch the video here]

Another boffin facing sudden, unexpected abuse was Harvard University’s Piotr Naskrecki, who was harassed and harangued by the world for killing a spider in the rainforest of Guyana. He quite reasonably pointed out that taking a single sample back to the lab would mean better protection for millions of other creatures, and that critics, even vegan ones, should pause to think about how many insects they kill with their cars each time they go to the mall to buy stuff they don’t really need.

Some of our scientists must pine for the days when it was just them, the lab and some obscure journals. But, for our part at least, we thank you for your efforts this year, and keep up the good work in 2015!


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