Some Links #16: Why I want to Falcon Punch (some) BBC Science Writers

I'm not normally one for violent resolutions to sloppy science, but in taking inspiration from one such perpetrator I'm promoting a Falcon Punch policy. Above is a graphical example of a successful Falcon Punch: the goal being to hurl your target onwards and upwards into a flaming ball of scientific shame.

Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims. I had planned on writing a more substantial article on how yet another science writer, in this case one Howard Falcon-Lang, is claiming that Darwin has once again been felled by a new study. Greg Laden, however, beat me to the punch with a damning critique:

If Howard Falcon-Lang did not a) claim to be a science reporter and b) have a dumb-ass hyphenated name, I'd be nice in my critique of his recent writeup. But no. He left me no choice. I will have to take it apart red in tooth and claw.

Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.

OK, this is a little premature for me to say here, but as you read on you'll see that my assertion is justified: Mr. Falcon-Lang is not really in a position to make any kind of claim regarding the wrongness or rightness of a genius of the level of Dr. Darwin.

He imagined a world in which organisms battled for supremacy and only the fittest survived.

No. That is the world that so many hack science writers, creationists, and various Darwin detractors imagine. Darwin wrote endlessly about differential survival, differential reproduction, mate selection, and all the myriad forces that determine selection (and randomness). He did not imagine the thing Mr. Falcon-Lang imagines him to have imagined.

The paper in question is actually a large-scale study on biodiversity, with the supposed contention arising from how ecological diversity is driven by expansion and contraction of occupied ecospace, as opposed to direct competition within existing niches. It's hardly a new idea nor the revolutionary overthrow of all accepted knowledge on natural selection and other evolutionary processes. As Greg notes, what is new is the use of "good available data that demonstrates this concept".

Altmann: Hauser apparently fabricated data. In keeping with the shoddy science theme... I've been keeping a close eye on the Hauser story, ever since it first came to my attention early this month. I've refrained from saying too much on the subject because I didn't really know what was going on, other than a few of allegations being bandied about concerning said individual. Mark Liberman's post has, for me at least, clarified my position somewhat in that it appears Hauser fabricated data; it wasn't just some accidental coding mistake as previously suggested. So it's looking pretty bad, even though we still know very little about the ins and outs of the situation. Another good recent article on the topic: Hausergate: Scientific Misconduct and What We Know We Don't Know.

Scientists must fight for their funding. Former Liberal MP, Dr Evan Harris, has made an impassioned plea for British scientists and investors to make their voices heard against the prospects of significant cuts in scientific funding:

Cuts to science do not just mean a hiatus in some experiments: they force highly qualified individuals to go abroad or leave research. If they are forced to quit, the nature and speed of global research is such that these people will not be able to resume their careers a few years later when investment picks up again. The research and development labour supply is not a tap that can be turned on and off in line with short-term political decisions.

Coloured Hearing in Williams Syndrome. Kevin Mitchell over at GNXP Classic has another fascinating post, this time on Williams Syndrome and synaesthesia -- and how these two conditions may share some unexpected similarities:

A recent study from Elisabeth Dykens and colleagues adds a new twist to this story. They found in a neuroimaging experiment that in addition to activating the auditory cortex, music also stimulates visual activity and perceptions in Williams patients. In fact, this is not specific to music – non-musical sounds had the same or even stronger effects.

Does Language Shape How You Think. If your after competent and consummate science journalism, then New York Times is never far from the mark: here, Guy Deutscher covers the increasingly popular topic of how language shapes our thoughts. Particularly intriguing is the section on Guugu Yimithirr; a language that's reliant on cardinal directions rather than egocentric ones (such as left or right). Key paragraph:

But there is more to the effects of a geographic language, for the sense of orientation has to extend further in time than the immediate present. If you speak a Guugu Yimithirr-style language, your memories of anything that you might ever want to report will have to be stored with cardinal directions as part of the picture. One Guugu Yimithirr speaker was filmed telling his friends the story of how in his youth, he capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape. Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on. Perhaps the cardinal directions were just made up for the occasion? Well, quite by chance, the same person was filmed some years later telling the same story. The cardinal directions matched exactly in the two tellings. Even more remarkable were the spontaneous hand gestures that accompanied the story. For instance, the direction in which the boat rolled over was gestured in the correct geographic orientation, regardless of the direction the speaker was facing in the two films.

  • sophia

    i am so glad someone else agrees that Howard Falcon Lang isnt that great a science reporter, he seems to glamourise and simplify science WAY too much!!!! its like people are SMART, at least u'd expect those reading the BBC News would be!!!