Friday, March 09, 2007

Preaching to the unconverted

I first came across PZ Myers' posts when I was teaching Evolution of Development in the Fall of 2004. I forget which posts caught my eye initially, but I started checking back occasionally. This was before I started paying regular attention to blogs -- I didn't even know what they were... Then I read his piece about our 2005 Nature paper and was hugely impressed. So I started reading him more regularly, and I've done so ever since. Some two years later, he's still my favorite blogger, the one I read most from. Happy Birthday, PZ!

Update: for more tributes see here, here and here.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

What's in a word?

The Science Cafe on Tuesday was a lot of fun. I got stumped a couple of times -- strangely enough I'm not an expert on penguin homosexuality -- but I'm told I didn't do too badly (although my graduate students may not be good informants). I managed to control myself and not mention negative epistasis... The other speakers were great. I might just have to go over to Salento more often (I was already a fan of their coffee).

Janis Antonovics and friends (Hello, MissPrism! Long time no see. Nice blog, by the way...) have just published a fascinating essay on the use of words related to “evolution” in the context of research into the evolution of antibiotic resistance. Their main finding is disquieting:
The results of our survey showed a huge disparity in word use between the evolutionary biology and biomedical research literature (Figure 1). In research reports in journals with primarily evolutionary or genetic content, the word “evolution” was used 65.8% of the time to describe evolutionary processes [...]. However, in research reports in the biomedical literature, the word “evolution” was used only 2.7% of the time [...]. Indeed, whereas all the articles in the evolutionary genetics journals used the word “evolution,” ten out of 15 of the articles in the biomedical literature failed to do so completely. Instead, 60.0% of the time antimicrobial resistance was described as “emerging,” “spreading,” or “increasing” [...]; in contrast, these words were used only 7.5% of the time in the evolutionary literature [...]. Other nontechnical words describing the evolutionary process included “develop,” “acquire,” “appear,” “trend,” “become common,” “improve,” and “arise.”
They do point out that there was no evidence that the scientists involved were trying to cover up evidence for evolution or anything. Just poor choice of words. And, unfortunately, this does nothing to improve the public understanding of evolutionary biology (see this figure).

Some of their other findings are more encouraging. For example, decided to look at whether the use of the word “evolution” changed in NSF and NIH grant proposals and in papers published in general science journals such as Nature and Science. They report:
The results showed that the use of the word “evolution” was actually increasing in all fields of biology, with the greatest relative increases in the areas of general science and medicine (Figure 3). This reflects the growing importance of evolutionary concepts in the biomedical field, and highlights even more the strange rarity with which the word “evolution” is used in the biomedical literature dealing with antimicrobial resistance.
But they follow this up with a deeply troubling passage for me:
It has been repeatedly rumored (and reiterated by one of the reviewers of this article) that both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word “evolution” in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy.
I too have heard the similar rumors -- mustn't upset all those scientifically illiterate representatives in Washington! But it gets better:
Indeed, we were told by one researcher that in the title of one proposal, the authors were urged to change the phrase “the evolution of sex” to the more arcanely eloquent wording “the advantage of bi-parental genomic recombination.”
Talk about politically correct evolutionary biology! I wish I'd known of this story before the Science Cafe...

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