Thursday, June 20, 2013

Science by press release

I woke up today with the news that researchers at the University of Aveiro had, "for the first time", altered the translational apparatus of an organism. I was outraged with the news: not with the science itself, but with the mindless hype surrounding it: actually, such a modification had already been performed in 2011 in C. elegans . I first thought that the "first time evah" pitch had been added by ignorant journalists, but the hype was already present in the press release from Univ. Aveiro!
The research publicized today is good and interesting, no doubt about that, but the quest for "good press" should never come at the expense of the truth. There is no excuse for that. Every bit of "good press" achieved with hype/exageration unfairly benefits those institutions and/or researchers with no moral qualms, leaving those researchers who are honest enough to not misrepresent their results in a disadvantage.

I've always disliked "science by press release", because (all other things being equal) it disproportionately benefits those who have access to the mass media, or who can afford publicists. Hyped press releases are even worse. And this can only end when science journalists stop relying on press releases to decide what is newsworthy. Though I strongly believe that such a day will not happen in the next 5 * 109 years.

Addendum: Previous reports all reassigned a STOP codon to an unnatural aminoacid. The report from Univ. Aveiro is indeed the first time that a non-STOP codon has been reassigned in an organism. This difference is unfortunately not present in the press release. I still stand by all other points on my post.

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