Why we always get biology wrong

Rethinking Biology: Public Understandings, Edited by Michael Reiss, Fraser Watts, Harris Wiseman (2019: World Scientific)

I’ve a chapter in this new book entitled, The Public Understanding of Biology: a journalist’s perspective, reproduced with permission here.

A personal note might be useful. My scientific training extended to a physics undergraduate degree. I’ve written regularly on science at a popular level for about 20 years, particularly in relation to science and technology, and science and religion. And I’ve faced the difficulties of writing about biology, and evolution in particular.

For example, one article was published in the Church Times. It commented on the significance of the “new science” of epigenetics – “new”, as everyone knows, being one of the ways of attracting a reader and editor’s eye, like “sex” and “chocolate”. It also happens to be an accurate description of the science of epigenetics, I thought. But several letters to the newspaper, from apparently well-informed sources, told me this is wrong. Epigenetics has been around for decades. At the most basic level, the article was deemed by the experts to have failed.

Evolution is Various

The possibility that everything in biology can be contested lies at the heart of the problem journalists face. Without the qualifications of heavily footnoted academic texts, can anything true be said briefly and with clarity?

The challenge comes to the fore particularly in relation to Darwinian theory, the bedrock of modern biology. On the one hand, it is routinely presented as a uniform, unchanging, irrefutable proposition, perhaps in contradistinction to other “flakier” grand narratives that were also born in the nineteenth century, such as Marxism and Freudianism. And yet, on the other hand, in its details, Darwinism has been contested from the start. To this day, arguments blaze in relation to the validity of different approaches. The model that dominates the public imagination, which was explained so lucidly in Richard Dawkins’ bestseller, The Selfish Gene, is now, I understand, thoroughly contested.

Karl Popper called Darwinism a “framework for testable scientific theories”. One of its testable theories is that life adapts by trial and error, with variances being eliminated when they do not successfully survive. The genius of Charles Darwin, Popper said, was to show that this happens over very long periods of time. It’s the essence of evolution as taught by its advocates. It’s what Daniel Dennett calls a “universal acid”, and is heralded as being capable of explaining anything.

However, it is not hard to find mainstream, tenured scientists who wouldn’t agree, even over the core idea of the length of time that adaptation requires. It is regularly questioned, as in the theory of “punctuated equilibrium”.

Further, Darwinism attracts theories that can only be inconclusively tested, such as proposals on the origins of life. They have a lesser scientific status partly because the origin of life cannot be observed and so theories about it must rely not on deduction but induction. They are also of questionable scientific value, according to Popper, because any theory of life’s origins will involve very low probabilities that morph into high probabilities because of the immensity of evolutionary time. That conversion from low to high, given enough time, undermines the science because it is a principle that enables the generation of explanations for almost anything: a universal acid. (In physics, there is a parallel problem, though there it’s recognised as a problem: the Boltzmann brain problem.)

Science is Politics

What this all means in practice is that the communication of evolution inevitably becomes as much a matter of politics as evidence. It’s not to say that evolutionary theory is not in some sense right. It is to say that the way it is right is hard to pin down, and that’s a problem for journalists. Directly or indirectly they must decide on matters that are extra-scientific, such as the reputations and weight of the scientists they might cite.

For the same reason, culture wars invariably play a massive part in reporting. This is arguably worse in the case of evolutionary biology, than say physics, because to the untrained eye it can easily seem as if the uncertainties of Darwinian theory make way for the unscientific proposals of creationism and intelligent design. Journalists who are perceived to have opened the door to these possibilities will receive quite extraordinary amounts of bile and persecution via websites and social media. Until you have experienced it, it is hard to appreciate just how challenging such attacks are.

In short, there is always an agenda in popular writing about biology, and that conflicts with the image of science as having a vantage from which to judge itself and other forms of knowledge. As the historian of science, Peter Harrison, has pointed out, science can implicitly define itself not as a neutral method for producing knowledge but as successful insofar as it can sustain a worldview that supplants other worldviews, notably religious ones. This is the battleground into which step writers on biology.

Statistics is Hard

There are other tensions and conflicts at play. For example, much of the rhetoric around Darwinian ideas declares it’s supreme elegance and simplicity, and yet it is also obviously the case that the theory and evidence are often hard to grasp. The reasons for this are partly conceptual. It is easy to perceive how adaptations work over one or two generations. A finch with a beak that can crack nuts with thicker shells will be better able to survive a seasonal drought that causes shells to toughen. But it is hard to visualize how adaptions work over the extensive periods of time required for fish to evolve into humans. To put it another way, biology is a statistical science, natural selection is a population-based mechanism, and statistics is mostly counterintuitive.

A related difficulty, coming to the fore now, is the relationship between top-down and bottom-up explanations. Some of the most interesting developments in modern biology address the environmental context within which evolution occurs, as opposed to focusing solely on the genome. My piece on epigenetics was an attempt to portray this research. However, reductive explanations are much simpler to convey than the fuller, integrated picture. Parts can be grasped imaginatively, whereas wholes often cannot.

Inadequacies of language show up in other ways. There’s the fact that whilst evolution does not arise from effort or design, metaphors implying effort and design are routinely used to explain it. The very word “selection”, in natural selection, can’t but help imply as much in common usage and other linguistic inconsistencies populate the communication of biology. Keen advocates will describe the science as “soulful”, even “spiritual”, and yet simultaneously insist it is “mindless”. They will say it is “beautiful” as well as “blind”; “inventive” and also “purposeless”.

To the everyday reader, and I expect to the learned scientist, these contradictions are confusing. They particularly show up in the effort to communicate the biology to wider audiences, and why wouldn’t they? As Mary Midgley has pointed out, they expose one of the fundamental challenges for modern biology. It aims to describe life and yet is “life-blind”, as the philosopher puts it. It doesn’t account for many of the basic experiences directly known by living creatures, including humans, such as consciousness.

Celebrity Challenge

Given such complications, journalists adopt various strategies to simplify things. A prevalent one is to turn to the celebrity scientist and treat them as the authoritative source.

Richard Dawkins is the best-known case in point when it comes to biology. Research has shown how his prominence, which is as much to do with style and clarity as knowledge and expertise, distorts the communication of the science. One examination focused on the opinions of biologists and physicists in British universities. It asked them about the impact of celebrity scientists on science communication, and concluded that in the public sphere the scientist is asked to be a provocateur as much as an expert.

“Critics, who include both religious and nonreligious scientists, argue that Dawkins misrepresents science and scientists and reject his approach to public engagement,” the researchers write. They show that scientists without a particular gift for science communication wanted to “emphasize promotion of science over the scientist, diplomacy over derision, and dialogue over ideological extremism.” The difficulty is that, for popular media, the personality of the scientist is more important than the science; derision is more arresting than diplomacy; and ideological confrontations draw readers and viewers more effectively than cool dialogue.

Causes and Correlations

It’s important to stress that basic misunderstandings of science are also rife amongst journalists. One of the most widespread is the conflation of causes and correlations.

A recent review, published in The Lancet, identified risk factors linked to dementia. It generated headlines about how to avoid dementia by making lifestyle changes. These included such diverse strategies as raising levels of education and addressing midlife hearing loss, as well as tackling obesity and smoking. “Risk factors” became causes in the reporting, and what was easy to overlook, too, was that the factors themselves actually accounted for only a small fraction of the overall risk. In fact, two-thirds of dementia risk is thought to be “non-modifiable”, The Lancet reported. In a way, that was the real story, but it doesn’t make for good headlines.

There are other examples of the problem with causation and not all can be laid at the journalist’s door. One that is endemic is the identification of brain activity with everything from memory to happiness. It oversteps the highly controversial identification of mental states with brain states, and is hardly ever challenged.

Genes For

The statistical nature of modern biology presents related problems. It’s found particularly in the reporting of genetic research. The public has, as it were, not yet given up on the hope that genes will be discovered for many, if not most, features of human life and many, if not most, causes of human ills. Again, why would they think otherwise, when the expectation was widely propagated by scientists before the turn of the millennium?

The upshot, today, is that the same piece of genetic research can lead to widely disparate stories. Take the publication of evidence from a large study which showed that more than 500 genes are linked to intelligence. One broadsheet newspaper leapt on the findings by commenting that “intelligence could be measured with a swab of saliva, or drop of blood, after scientists showed for the first time that a person’s IQ can be predicted just by studying their DNA.” That was in marked contrast to a leading science magazine, which concluded almost exactly the opposite: “However, even with all these genes, it’s still difficult to predict a person’s intelligence from their genomes.” It took the considered leader of another newspaper to point out that the notion of genes for intelligence is “going beyond the evidence”. At least it was pointed out somewhere.

Beware the Reductions

So, if scientists lament the collapse of crucial distinctions between cause and effect, and the relationship between individual cases and population studies, they are themselves guilty of making similar reductions in other domains.

The theologian, Harris Wiseman, has examined the highlighted hopes for biotechnology, from which is promised human advances such as “moral enhancement”. An oxytocin spray may make someone more generous. Titrating serotonin may reduce anger, it’s said. But this makes no sense to psychologists and philosophers who study generosity and anger and see that these qualities are more than one thing. Generosity, say, may be linked to characteristics as disparate as dutifulness, carelessness, and joy. Causes and correlations are, again, being blurred and journalists aren’t only to blame.

Part of the story here is that well publicized promises help secure funding. It’s been going on within the scientific community ever since pharmaceutical companies promoted antidepressants on the basis that low mood is caused by “chemical imbalances”. There is no evidence for this, but it is an easily understood message and has become the received wisdom.

Occasionally, the reduction of complex human phenomena reaches levels of farce. At the time of writing, there was a news story doing the rounds on the ability of killer whales to speak. Serious publications carried discussions of the emerging world of “cross-species chat”.

Of course, the difference between an animal’s grunt and the human animal’s deployment of vocal symbols and abstract syntax is vast. To conflate the two is comparing chalk with cheese, coupled to the fact that the origins of language are as little proven as the origins of life. But it is not hard for journalists to find evolutionary biologists prepared to overlook these distinctions and, again, I suspect many are politically not scientifically motivated. The story about the talking orca appealed as it was an opportunity to attack the differences between humans and other animals. That so-called “myth” has been a widespread target for contemporary biological science partly because it’s perceived to be one that religions have upheld. Peter Harrison’s point is moot: some feel that science succeeds when it supersedes religious worldviews.

It’s an example of the agendas to which the science is put, and with which journalists wittingly and unwittingly collude. At times, it can seem as if nothing less than the status of biology and science is at stake, which points to one final point: the communication of the limits of biology and awareness of how its great strength, empirical research, is also a weakness, when the data isn’t illuminating.

Limits and Promissory Notes

On some occasions, these limits are admitted. An example was the television documentary, The Secret Science of Pop, presented by the evolutionary biologist, Armand Leroi. It is easy to see why the programme was commissioned. Leroi is charismatic on screen; the backtrack of the film could be compiled from numerous catchy songs; and then there’s the use of that little word, “secret”. Science was going to reveal it all. Only, it didn’t.

Leroi and his team of experts loaded past hits and chart data into computers, explaining how it was going to be analysed by “cutting-edge” and “innovative” artificial intelligence. The promise was that the AI would see what the human creators of chart-topping songs could not. But the number-crunching came up with almost nothing to go on and, at the end of the programme, Leroi confessed to camera that the exercise had been a failure.

It might have been a wise moment for evolutionary biology, a chance to explore what science can and can’t achieve. Only, the programme stuck to script, and what Popper called science’s “promissory note”. Leroi insisted that just because the computers aren’t powerful enough to penetrate the secrets of pop success today, doesn’t mean they won’t tomorrow.

It’s a human hope. It’s the desire for progress, which is another factor that profoundly shapes the reporting of biology. Whether or not it is really part of science is another question entirely.