Bug guts and bad writing


I feel terrible for being critical of this science story, but it annoyed me in a couple of ways. First, it’s kind of a cool idea — they’re using micro-CT to scan living insects in 3 dimensions, and then they can just fly through the tissues. Neat!

It’s also significant that they’re doing it on living animals that survive the procedure, so you can repeat it later, opening the door to longitudinal studies of developing tissues in individual animals.

But here’s what bugs (get it?) me about the story: the story is all about the wrong things. There’s a lot of fluffing of the institute that did it (it’s interdisciplinary!), chatter about how new all this is (micro-CT has been around for years, and anesthetizing insects with CO2 has been routine for decades, so no, it isn’t), and then there’s all the clueless bullshit scattered throughout. It starts this way:

Until now, insects have been too wriggly to make good subjects for scientists wanting to understand more about insect innards.

Wrong. Insects have been model systems for development and physiology for ages — if a reporter had come into any of the insect labs I worked with 30 or 40 years ago and announced that the research subjects were “too wriggly” for the work they were doing, they would have been quietly shooed away.

The team has managed to create spectacularly detailed, three-dimensional views of insects’ insides—without harming them in any way—by using carbon dioxide to place them into a state of temporary suspended animation.

That’s nice. The anesthesia is trivial, though. Say something about what they’ve learned.

And this is just irritating.

The resolution shows detail to 20 microns (about five times smaller than the width of a human hair) and clearly shows the organs, reproductive system and other internal morphology.

20 microns is also more than twice the size of a typical cell, 10 times larger than an axon, 200 times larger than a filopodium. This is pretty coarse. The stuff I’m interested in would require subcellular resolution, and this doesn’t even come close — but there are interesting questions that could be asked on the organ level, like how trachea develop, if only the damned article had bothered to ask any of them.

This kind of formless, clueless goo is typical of university PR departments, and phys.org, unfortunately. Science journalists need to be informed enough to ask the right questions and focus on the relevant science, rather than getting distracted by shiny buttons on the gadgets.

Comments

  1. leerudolph says

    Science journalists need to be informed enough to ask the right questions and focus on the relevant science, rather than getting distracted by shiny buttons on the gadgets.

    Particularly, science editors need to be informed enough to demand that of their writers. I’m assuming that the writer was not, in fact, well enough informed. If s/he was, and asked the right questions, and focused on the relevant science, and wrote all that up, and afterwards it was edited out of the paper, then the (worse) problem is with the editors and perhaps the publisher. Your aside about phys.org suggests that you at least suspect the latter (I’m not familiar with phys.org and don’t expect to become so).

  2. Siobhan says

    Until now, insects have been too wriggly to make good subjects for scientists wanting to understand more about insect innards.

    I certainly do not remember any of the Drosophila I had rendered unconscious being “wriggly” back when I was a baby geneticist. Aren’t science writers supposed to have a background in science? o_O

  3. chris61 says

    I actually thought the article was pretty good and the paper on which it was based very interesting. Thanks for posting the link, PZ.

  4. says

    Yeah, yesterday I left a comment on a Phys.org article which characterized salps as “like jellyfish” and called them “jellies” throughout. Of course they ignored it and didn’t correct it. (Salps (chordates) and jellyfish (cnidarians) are as distantly related as metazoans can possibly be.)

  5. unperson says

    “five times smaller than X” also bugs me. I hate to break it to you, but multiplying any positive quantity by a number greater than one yields a result that is *larger* than the original quantity. So this only makes sense if “the smallness of X”, however that is defined, is negative. If you mean “one fifth the size of X”, then say it.

  6. jtdavi3 says

    But now they’ve given all those cute bugs cancer!
    (sarcasm – I’m a radiologist)

  7. anchor says

    Yet another entry in the worthless hyperbole chest of the mostest, smallest, coolest…etc., ad nauseam. Often found in the same strata in association with hideous nuggets like ‘groundbreaking’, ‘breakthrough’,’revolutionary’, ‘never before seen’, ‘much more [insert qualifier] than believed’, and ‘scientists baffled’.

    One big reason why public science literacy is declining is that public outreach campaigns hire from a writer reservoir almost exclusively trained in PR, promo-advocacy and commercial advertising.

    Come to think of it, public literacy in anything that depends on how information is conveyed to them is at the mercy of writers trained not how to inform, but how to SELL.

    Authentic journalism is nearly extinct. Its all just a spiel now…and one ‘alternative fact’ must be as legitimate as any other.

  8. Rich Woods says

    Any mention of the Colorado Potato Beetle still bugs me (with apologies to hemiptera for the bad pun). Back in the early 1970s, these alien invaders were responsible for the price of bag of chips in England going up from 2p to 5p in one season. Bastards!

    I’ll always remember the full-colour identification posters outside every police station in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, warning the public to report any sighting to the authorities. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid they were not.

  9. kevskos says

    At that sort of resolution entomologists will probably be able to id to species some of the more difficult families.

  10. chuckonpiggott says

    @#9, Rich Woods. Thank you for bad mouthing Colorado Potato Beetles. Nasty, nasty things. If they only damaged potatoes I just wouldn’t grow potatoes, but no.

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