November 14, 2006

New Physics May Cure Cancer - or: On Hype

Just a commentary on titles, and sometimes content, of scientific news. Not long ago I was lead (by Digg, i guess) to a note titled "Antimatter discovery could launch new era of physics" (the original url is no longer valid, but the whole text is here). Sounds great, doesn't it? And a few weeks later I got a notice on another one (via PhysOrg), called "Particle decay may point to New Physics". Great too! Were they similarly interesting? Let's see.

The first one starts by saying
The discovery that a bizarre particle travels between the real world of matter and the spooky realm of antimatter 3 trillion times a second may open the door to a new era of physics, Fermilab researchers announced Monday.
The incredibly rapid commuting rate of the B sub s meson particle had been predicted by the Standard Model, the successful but incomplete theory aimed at explaining how matter and energy interact to form the visible universe. After 20 years of trying, scientists have now confirmed the rate, providing strong evidence for the theory.

The monumentally precise technology developed to measure the meson’s back and forth dashes also may open the way to discovering a new family of fundamental particles and possibly a set of new forces that could be harnessed for technological applications, physicists suggested.
Huh? A great feat, no doubt! But "antimatter discovery" launching a "new era in physics"? Of course, "Brilliant confirmation of still another prediction by the Standard Model" is not such an eye-catcher. But, come on... Why would someone title the note like that? Let's keep reading...
The discovery comes at a time when the future of Fermilab, located near Batavia, Ill., is in doubt. Its huge 4-mile circular Tevatron particle accelerator may be forced to close by 2010 if Congress does not approve construction at Fermilab of a multibillion-dollar, 18-mile-long International Linear Collider.
Aha. Money is badly needed. And it is not only about science, but also national pride:
Without the collider, the United States would lose its lead position in high-energy physics discoveries to Europe, where a new accelerator seven times more powerful than the Tevatron is to start up within two years at a site on the Swiss-French border.
And of course, the note was from the Chicago Tribune. The rest of the text mixes a few details about the science with sentences like "The meson finding shows that Fermilab, which began operations in 1967, is still capable of making breakthrough discoveries."; "Raymond Orbach, undersecretary for science with the U.S. Department of Energy, called the breakthrough 'a triumph for Fermilab.'"; "Such experiments are big and expensive and require huge workforces." And yes, new physics: "'We hope we will see either signs of the Higgs or the discovery of new physics,' said University of Chicago physicist Ivan Furic."

I fully sympathize with their demands. Fermilab is a great place, two quarks were discovered there, and I hope they will get the ILC. But is the hype really necessary? Need I receive that title in my feed? It not only makes the content a bit puny, when in fact it is very worthy work; it is also misleading, if you consider what the second note linked above was about:
A tiny flaw has caught the attention of physicists: the Standard Model (SM) predicts that the B meson mixing phase should be measured at nearly the same result using two different classes of decay modes. However, observations of the two different decay modes recently gave very different values, resulting in an unexpectedly large discrepancy in the B mixing phase.

Scientists Rahul Sinha, Basudha Misra and Wei-Shu Hou have tried to explain the discrepency, and have shown that it is not possible to reconcile the deviation between the measurements, revealing a possible glitch in the stubbornly persistent SM.
Yes. Here is a possible hint of new physics. Could you tell from the titles?

And now, a similar issue. If you pay any attention to scientific news you will know by now that the genome of the sea urchin was recently completed. The first notice I got about it was from PhysOrg, "Sea urchin genome could shed light on human disease". Unlike the previous case, this time PhyOrg was the hyper. It's good news, no doubt; its position in the tree of life makes this genome very valuable. But why the word "disease" in the title? Reading the note I couldn't detect anything directly related to disease; of course, almost every new knowledge in molecular biology has medical potential in the long term, but...

I read other press notes (which, by the way, didn't have the word "disease" in their titles) and, ok, yes, there are some diseases on which this genome may shed new light. Like most genomes do. Perhaps a bit more? Finally I came across this post by Pharyngula, which I highly recommend as it puts things in the right perspective:
Another trend that compounds the humancentric problem is the taint of biomedical speculation: Sea urchin genome could shed light on human disease, which you can also see in the print media. Here, the emphasis is on odd little factlets: they can live for over a century! They never get cancer! You, too, can someday hope to acquire the virtues of sessile or slow moving aquatic grazers and filter feeders! Again, these reports miss the real excitement of understanding a little more about a different organism.
Yes, that was my feeling all along. Jonathan Eisen from The Tree of Life starts his post on this with 'All I can say is "AAAAARGH"', which I think would be enough, but just in case, he includes some ridiculous quotes from the press (and not by the journalists, but by researchers).

A last example came today, with a very interesting post at Nobel Intent (from Ars Technica) originally titled "Physicists come up with potential AIDS vaccine". Since the text made clear that it was about a model, which actually shows the difficulty of making a vaccine work, commenters quickly complained, and the word "model" was added at the end of the title. Still some people may misunderstand it, but now it's their problem.

You get the idea. Too much information, and the need to grab attention for your news site, or to convince the public that your lab needs funding, and we get hyped titles and misleading news items. Thanks FSM, the blogosphere seems to be alert. Though I wonder if the bloggers, when writing their papers or grant applications, can resist the temptation. How many articles on genuinely interesting biological questions end with some sentence which desperately attempts to make the case for potential medical application of the subject? I've seen almost ridiculous abstracts, but I don't have any at hand. The hype, the hype...

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