False narrative Inception

Inception, Legendary Pictures.

Inception, Legendary Pictures.

David Klinghoffer has responded to my previous post with a post of his own at Evolution News & Science Today. Right out of the gate, he mischaracterizes the dispute:

Georgia Tech biologist Matthew Herron is still chiding me for sharing synthetic organic chemist James Tour’s statements, a “false narrative,” that we — the public, the media, and yes, scientists too — are “clueless” about how life originated.

It was not Dr. Tour’s statements that I characterized as a false narrative; it was Klinghoffer’s. [Read more…]

After “clarification”, a false narrative is still false

I’m not an origin of life researcher. I’m not really a biochemist, either, though I have enough background to muddle through talks and papers on the topic. I do go to quite a few origin of life talks, and read the papers, because I’m interested and because the talks are frequently presented at some of the conferences I go to, such as Evolution and AbSciCon (Astrobiology Science Conference).

There’s a formula to scientific papers and talks, though it’s not always strictly adhered to. The classic formulation is Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion: what did we test, how did we test it, what did we find, and what does it mean. A good Introduction includes some background on the question, explaining what is already known and, crucially, what isn’t. For origin of life work, this usually includes a statement to the effect that we really don’t know how life began. Because we don’t.

So I was surprised to see David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, say that the mystery of life’s origin is “widely unacknowledged by origin-of-life researchers.”

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Motivated reasoning

Like many pseudoscientists, Denyse O’Leary doesn’t understand how evidence works:

Uncommon Descent screenshot

I’ll bet she’s right, in exactly this sense: if there turns out to be a ninth planet, Denyse O’Leary will interpret it as support for fine tuning. There is very little that advocates for intelligent design don’t interpret as support for their worldview. What do you want to bet that if there turns out not to be a ninth planet, she won’t interpret that as evidence against fine tuning?

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Research Outreach responds

Research Outreach cover

In response to my post last week, “Is Research Outreach a rebranded Research Features?”, their Operations Director left a couple of comments. The quick backstory here is that I wrote a post a couple of years ago criticizing an outfit called Research Features, mainly for being less than transparent. Some recent comments on that post led me to believe that a new publication, Research Outreach, was run by the same people and possibly just a rebranded version of Research Features. When I checked out the newer publication, it was clear that at least the first part of that was true: they were run by the same people. I also noticed that Research Outreach was upfront about their business model, which is writing and publishing very professionally produced press releases for scientists, who are charged around $2000 for the service. They also don’t pretend that what they do is journalism, which was my main complaint about Research Features.

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Why carteri?

It’s embarrassing, really. I’ve been studying Volvox and its relatives for 15 years now, and until today I couldn’t have told you who the most famous member of the group, Volvox carteri, was named for. Sure, I know Colemanosphaera is named for Annette Coleman, Volvox ferrisii for Patrick Ferris, and Volvox kirkiorum (“of the Kirks”) for David and Marilyn Kirk, but that’s because they were all named after I started studying Volvox.

But do you recall…the most famous algae of all?

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Research Outreach blocked me on Twitter

Research Outreach Twitter screenshot

Screenshot from June 12, 2019.

When I published “Is Research Outreach a rebranded Research Features” yesterday, I went to Research Outreach‘s Twitter page, which is linked from their homepage. I was going to tag them in the tweet accompanying the post, since I like to let people to know what I’m saying about them. To my surprise, I found that I had been blocked. The reason this was surprising is that I don’t think I had followed them. I certainly never interacted with them.

[Read more…]

Is Research Outreach a rebranded Research Features?

Research Outreach cover

I wrote some pretty critical stuff about a magazine called Research Features after they contacted me as a potential subject of an article. Research Features’ website calls it a magazine, but what it really is is a collection of very slickly produced press releases, which are paid for by the scientists they feature. I found this sketchy, and I said so:

What’s sketchy about this is that it’s self-promotion passing itself off as journalism. Research Features calls itself a ‘digital magazine’…It’s full of what look like articles, though their authorship is not attributed. They’re not articles, though; they’re ads. Ads for researchers, ads for labs.

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What’s the harm?

Demon-Haunted World cover

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” –Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

I spent half a week in May at the outstanding Evolution of Complex Life conference here at Georgia Tech. The organizers, all grad students and postdocs, put together a fantastic lineup of speakers from a wide range of disciplines, including biochemists, evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and philosophers.

Friday was devoted to two panel discussions, one (roughly) on interdisciplinarity in science and one (roughly) on science education and outreach. Given the diverse backgrounds of the panelists, there was a surprising amount of agreement on, for example, the costs and benefits of getting involved in research outside one’s own field and the value to society of scientists stepping outside the ivory tower.

I agreed with most everything that was said in these discussions, so of course I’m going to focus on one of the few things I (mostly) disagreed with. In truth, this isn’t so much a reaction to the panelist’s comment as it is an excuse to finally write about something that’s been slow cooking in the Crock Pot that is my brain for quite a while now.

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Fungi are old

Earlier this week, I wrote that fungi are weird. Fungi are also old. Probably.

Recently discovered fossils from Arctic Canada have been interpreted as fungi, an important finding since the sediments in which they were found date to 0.89-1.01 billion years ago, around half a billion years older than the next oldest unambiguously fungal fossils. Corentin Loron and colleagues have described microfossils from the Grassy Bay Formation and presented several lines of evidence that they represent ancient fungi.

Loron et al. 2019 Fig. 1

Figure 1 a-g from Loron et al. 2019. Microphotographs of Ourasphaira giraldae specimens. a, Sketch of O. giraldae, displaying the main features of the microfossil. b–g, Unornamented terminal sphere (spore). Transmitted light microscopy images show specimens with secondary branching at a right angle (b, d–g), with terminal spheres connected together (c), with a bulbous connection (e) and with tertiary branching (d, f, g). Arrows show septate connections.

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