A conference on hype in science

April 25, 2014 • 6:17 am

Last December, Ford Doolittle, a biochemist at Dalhousie University who has actually done a lot, organized a symposium called “Hype in science“, which I announced on at the time though it hadn’t yet taken place. Now Florian Maderspacher, the senior reviews editor for Current Biology,  has written a three-page summary of the conference for the journal, “Hype in Halifax,” which appears to be available without charge.

Maderspacher reports talks about five areas of research that, though flimsy, have been widely hyped, and he talked about my favorite: epigenetics. Here are some of them.

Arsenic-based life. You all know of the report of bacteria found in a California lake that supposedly had DNA incorporating arsenic. This gave rise to a huge amount of hype about a “shadow biosphere,” one including life that we didn’t have the tools to detect.  In the end, it all proved to be bogus, with biochemist Rosie Redfield the hero in debunking this one—through her blog. Sadly, the lead author of the original paper published in Science, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, has simply doubled down on her debunked claims, and, to their eternal shame, the journal has not retracted the paper, even though it’s simply wrong. Redfield, whom I’ve met, is a real firecracker, and gave the debunking talk at the meeting.

The ENCODE project on “junk DNA”.  If you’re a biologist, you’ll remember the rescent results of the “ENCODE project,” which supposedly demonstrated that much of the 80% of the human genome previously thought to be “junk DNA,” doing nothing, was actually functional. That report, too, was way premature (there were severe problems with how they recognized functional DNA), and was debunked in a talk by Doolittle himself.

Epigenetics.  I’ve posted about this repeatedly. We all recognize that epigenetic modification of DNA is an important and newly-appreciated feature of gene action, but the hype has centered on its putative role as a form of Lamarckian inheritance. That is, epigenetics advocates like Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have argued that the environment can modify DNA in a permanent way, so that something that was induced by external influences can become part of the genome—and a basis for evoutionary adaptation.  Now there is adaptive epigenetic change, but such modifications are themselves is coded by the DNA: bits of DNA tell other bits to become modified in an adaptive way. Although some epigenetic changes that are induced purely by the environment can last for a few generations, we still know of not a single evolutionary adaptation induced in this way. The hype, though deafening, has no substance behind it.

Nevertheless the epigenetics mavens, always touting a big paradigm change, continue to bang on in the absence of that evidence. In his own talk, Florian went after that idea.

Epigenetics is a vast area touching on things as diverse as twin studies, genetic determinism, inheritance of acquired traits, DNA modification, transcription and development. My thesis was that the hype around epigenetics (or the distorted version thereof) is a ‘perfect storm’ as epigenetics is being hyped both inside and outside science for different reasons: the immense interest in epigenetics in the public — there’s even an epigenetics beauty company — comes from the fact that it touches on a very essence of the human sense of agency (much like ‘free will’ does in neuroscience). The idea that your genes can determine your destiny makes people uneasy. The notion that, via so-called epigenetic changes, one’s lifestyle can change that destiny conveys a sense of empowerment that seems to resonate well with people.

. . . Finally, I discussed some examples of induced heritable changes in phenotype. Luckily, just that week a paper had appeared describing such an effect in mice where learned sensitivity to an odour can be inherited into the next generation. Need I say that the media hyped this as “your fears can be transmitted to your grandchildren”, because the authors had used a standard fear-conditioning assay to train the mice and test sensitivity. My conclusion was that, while interesting biology in their own right, these examples don’t necessitate a new evolutionary theory, let alone a Neo-Lamarckian one.

One of the big purveyors of the hype about epigenetics is, of course, none other than Deepak Chopra, who is selling Big Brain kits ($144) arguing that you can change your genome by diet, meditation, and proper thought.

Positive selection for brain-size genes in humans. Sarah Richardson critiqued the evolutionary-genetic studies of Bruce Lahn conducted here at the University of Chicago.  Lahn reported finding two genes (microcephalin and ASPM) that are involved in human disorders that reduce brain size. Lahn supposedly showed not only signs of recent selection on these genes in human populations, but selection in some populations (the ones that left Africa) but not others. This, of course, promoted speculation about population differences in intelligence. In her talk, Richardson argued that not only did the two genes fail to show any correlation with intelligence, but further analysis didn’t even show any evidence for positive selection.

 “Liberation therapy.” While the the four studies above are largely of evolutionary interest, “liberation therapy” has real human consequence. It was a widely-hyped medical operation in which some surgeons claimed that vascular surgery could ameliorate multiple sclerosis by increasing blood flow to the brain. It didn’t work, but of course unleashed a spate of excitement in the MS community, particularly from patients seeking cure from this progressive and fatal disease. The hype was dissected by Jock Murray, Dalhousie’s former Dean of Medicine.


There’s no doubt that hype is increasing in science. It’s always been there in science journalism (and I hasten to add that there are some very good science journalists who are properly skeptical), but is now creeping into science more insidiously. For scientists themselves are learning how to hype their findings. It was NASA, after all, that gave a press conference to the arsenic-bacteria fail, and the American Museum had a press conference to announce the misclassified fossil Darwinius (see below). And, as the number of competitors for jobs in science increases, there will be increasing pressure to oversell one’s findings. I’ve seen this growing even over my short three-decade career in science: evolutionary biology is a particular victim of hype, since everyone seems to want to overthrow the neo-Darwinian paradigm.

But how to stop it, or at least reduce it? Here Maderspacher reports that the conference came up dry:

At the end, the big question of “what can be done?” was put to the speaker panel. As you won’t be surprised to hear, despite lively and interesting discussion, no answer was arrived at. At one point, I tried to play devil’s (read: journals’) advocate in response to a comment from the audience suggesting we should get rid of all the science journals with glossy covers (disclaimer: one such pays my bills). I suggested that not all hype was bad and that getting the public engaged in science was part of the deal of doing science. Sarah put forward the idea of a ‘slow science’ movement, where the often breathless rat race is slowed such that its results can actually be digested before they are disseminated (she phrased it much better!). Rosie encouraged everyone to go out and tweet and blog and contribute to Wikipedia, in order to debunk and educate.

Well, as Maderspacher notes, there is a sense in which the peer-review system is broken: there are simply too many papers submitted, and we don’t have time to review them properly. (I can’t count the number of reviews of my own submitted papers that have been superficial and shoddy.) I tend to favor Redfield’s solution of science blogging, perhaps because it justifies what I do!  If more scientists blogged about recent papers, and singled out their problems (or praised their achievements), the problems with published research would be found and (hopefully) corrected more quickly. Of course that depends on scientists getting some kind of professional credit for blogging. It’s time-consuming, and nothing that counts for professional advancement (I don’t even mention it on my c.v.). Yet it’s valuable outreach, and should be recognized as professional work. (I’m not touting myself here, as I’ll retire soon anyway.)

Blogging by scientists, after all, was the way that both the arsenic DNA and the so-called “missing link” between two groups of primates (Darwinius masillae) were found to be wrong. Bloggers, both science advocates and science journalists (including Carl Zimmer), quickly hopped on the problems with Darwinius, which now appears to fall firmly in one group only.  That hype, too, involved not only a press conference by the study’s authors, but a book deal, a book that breathlessly and erroneously hyped the fossil as a missing link between simians and prosimians. It wasn’t just journalists who were guilty here—it was fame-hungry and careless scientists.

I see science blogging and science journalism as the “free press” that has promise to dampen hype like this. The old system, of scientists submitting corrections to flawed published papers, is too slow, for it takes months and months for such corrections to be reviewed and published, and most big-name journals don’t even put the corrections in the paper version anyway.

One  last plea to the journal Science—would you please retract the arsenic-bacteria paper?



42 thoughts on “A conference on hype in science

  1. Sounds like a great conference. Speaking of hype, though, what about Doolittle’s own “down with the Tree of Life” stuff? No hype and exaggeration there? Not even a wee bit?

  2. I too think the science blogging is a really valuable way of correcting such hype. It is immediate and it democratizes science so that anyone with access to a computer and a search engine, can find answers to queries. When I first heard of epigenetics, it didn’t past my sniff test; my Google search term was “are epigenetics bullshit”. I learned what really was going on in about an hour of reading.

    This model of outreach also fits the paradigm of how people actually like to work. It is a lot of work to write posts, but it is also fulfilling and if scientists are self organizing like this, it can be very affective. How the reward model would look – I’d hope would take into consideration this type of motivation because you can ironically taint things by reward….notable paradigms of people doing things for “free” (really the reward is the bragging rights and reputation boosts) are Open Source software and services like Wikipedia.

    1. A few years back Pharyngula was mentioned in a magazine article on the virtues of crowd-sourcing in science. Iirc some journal had published a piece of stealth creationism on something like the nematode and PZ savaged it as expected. But what happened in the comments section was interesting. Someone thought something struck a bell, did some research, posted it, and someone else followed up on it and in just a few hours there was some new information.

      Not only did the study suck, but huge swaths of it had been plagiarized from an obscure paper in a small journal which had been published much earlier. At least, this is my recollection. Nailed them to the wall.

      When you have a blog you also have readers who are interested in the topic with all sorts of backgrounds; thus, there’s an even more extended area of expertise. A lot of commenters don’t have the time/interest/ability to have their own blog, but they can contribute in small ways that add up.

      1. Agreed. I’m a regular reader of Derek Lowe’s “In the Pipeline” medicinal chemistry-related blog (what can I say, I’m a chemist by initial training); and when the arsenic-loving bacteria story hit, there were a couple of posts with many insightful comments from people who really had the background knowledge to say useful things in response.

  3. But how to stop it, or at least reduce it?

    I think the zeroeth order question should be answered first: when should we even try to stop it? When is the cure better than the disease? Because it might not always be. While all hype is annoying, I don’t really see a siginifcant ‘social cost’ associated with it when it comes to basic research.

    Now when it comes to medical treatments and research in the late development stages, yes, there I see it. In those cases, excessive scientific hype slides into false product advertising, which can be dangerous and harmful. But I am not sure that the benefit we might derive from heavy-handedly squashing hype about, say arsenic-based life, is worth the cost of using heavy-handed squashing as a tool.

    Its very much related to the value of the free press. Yes, a free press produces misinformation. But trying to censor the industry for truth would almost certainly be worse. Except in limited cases that resemble false advertising, I am not sure the social return on investment of regulating scientific ‘overhype’ is positive.

    1. I can agree that there are different kinds of ‘harm’, and that the hype around claims within pure science is not as harmful as claims leading to bogus medicine.
      I can also add that by publicly rebuking hyped up truth claims that are wrong gives a kind of public demonstration of how science really works. The public has a chance to see that the process of science is not where we are automatically right all the time. That sort of thing is what pseudoscience practitioners would claim for themselves. Science is rather a self-correcting, and very human process that leads to the truth gradually and sometimes messily. When we are wrong, our colleagues show us we are wrong and (hopefully) we can move on from there with a more accurate model of reality. This is completely different from the culture in the various pseudosciences, as they never let go of their truth claims.

      1. I worry about the non-linear nature of the social systems in which the harm will manifest. It’s not predictable because humans can’t really think in non-linear terms, and we don’t have any reasonable models (yet).

        I worry that the harm will be upon us quite suddenly because of those non-linearities. So I suggest it’s never too early to start trying to mitigate the harm.

    2. There are, certainly in the USA, powerful opponents of science that will use any misstep to magnify it and blow it out of proportion in order to use it against you. The only way to mitigate the damage seems to be to quell it soon as possible. I’m not certain what would be the most effective way that does not inhibit the spread of potentially useful, but disruptive, ideas.

  4. Hype in science has been a problem in the U.S. for a long time. I remember back about 1980 that many young scientists who had read Thomas Kuhn went around declaring their own work to be a “new paradigm”. In 1981 I published a paper on speciation, and deliberately posed the question as “why are there so few kinds of animals”. I did that very deliberately because I knew that any day now someone would be saying that “no one has ever proposed a mechanism of speciation; I now here for the first time propose such a mechanism!” My paper was instead on how the existing theory worked, in more mathematical detail, so it seemed appropriate to try to immunize the discussion against that kind of hype.

    Ford Doolittle is a good guy who does excellent work. However he has not been completely hype-free: see his pronouncements about there being no evolutionary tree “at least in prokaryotes”. Creationists ignored the qualifying phrase and quoted Doolittle and Forterre’s paper a lot.

    One quibble: The problem with Darwinius masillae was not that it was more closely related to lemurs than to us. Even if it had been more closely related to us than to lemurs, the hype was unforgivable. It was actually being said that Darwinius was “the earliest human ancestor”. As if it emerged from an organic soup in a separate origin of life! The very choice of Darwinius as the genus name was hype.

  5. Maybe I am off the mark on how the study about the antigenic inheritance of fear in mice was setup but I do have one question. Are only the mice that show fear selected to be studied and the others rejected? If that were the case then all that would be shown is that change in the DNA can cause change in behavior which then causes selection by guys in lab coats.

  6. Well, some of my buttons just got pushed.
    The point that the summary of the meeting is locked behind a $ wall at Elsevier reminds me that just last week I was scouring the literature for a description of the phenotype of an obscure mutation in Drosophila. Really. Maybe 3 people on the planet would even care about this thing. I was simply doing some background research for what I was hoping to be a new research project for the senior capstone course that I teach. Sure enough, the key paper was in a 12 year old journal controlled by Elsevier, still behind a paywall! I groaned. It cost waaay more than I was willing to cough up. I could extract some dept. money to get it, but there is no guarantee the paper would even have what I wanted. I decided to move on to a different, and less optimal project idea.
    For those who are not familiar, this is a publishing company that owns a very large number of science journals, and they really jack up the price for access.

    1. I just got a link to that one post that appears to be free. But the problem with Elsevier remains, and I’ve signed the petitiionnoragreeing to neither publish in their journals or review papers for them until they ratchet down their greed.

  7. ResearchGate has a new service called Open Review that lets any member post a review to a paper. While the process is very open (good), it’s not clear that any potential reviewers would have the expertise to review a given paper properly (bad).

    Personally, I like “slow science.” I also like slow eating, cooking, working,…. It at least opens the possibility of being more reflective of what one thinks, does, and says. I think the biggest problem with the current system is that its speed prevents sufficient reflection.

    1. I know some of the people who object to modern science (that is, they reject the parts they don’t like) and I think the phrase “slow science” is likely to appeal to them.

      My understanding is that part of what they dislike about modernity in general and science and technology in particular is that they feel it has yanked us too abruptly from our past, which they romantically (and erroneously) idealize as calm, harmonious with nature, and low on stress. “Slow science” sounds like a pot gently cooking over a fire so that the flavors all eventually come out — unhurried, relaxed, plenty of time to wait for truth to bubble to the surface. You can trust those scientists who do “slow science.” They understand how life was meant to be lived.

      Yes, that’s stupid — but we’re talking marketing. I think “slow science” is a term which might sell very well with the sort of people who ALSO jump eagerly towards the idea of “paradigm shifts.”

        1. The trick is to get them to accept the scientific principle without letting them distort the meaning past all recognition. It’s a fine thing if it can be pulled off.

    2. I also like the idea of slowing things down a bit. I’ve sometimes been dinged for not publishing more, because I wanted to present a stronger case (or “one more experiment”).

      1. That is a shame.

        I’m hard-pressed to think of *any* discipline in which quantity should be prioritized over quality.

        But, most of the time, if you want a seat at the table you’ve got to play the game.


  8. It’s nice to see epigenetics included as one of these over-hyped areas of science. It’s a little different from the arsenic life and ENCODE (“no junk DNA”) stories because it’s been a bit “stickier” in the scientific community. Even among some of my colleagues, folks seem to think epigenetic inheritance is this new big important part of evolutionary theory. But they fail to make your distinction between environmental modification leading to evolutionary adaptation and inheritance of epigenetic changes across a few generations.

  9. The idea about using bl*gs to mitigate hype and erroneous claims in science is a good one, but of course that is being done now and we still have plenty of new hype and embarrassing errors to bl*g about.

    Another suggestion which can be done in parallel is to fight fire with fire. It would be great to have an annual ‘award’ for over-hyped science claims. This could be released to the public press, CNN, etc., with educational explanations of the likely problems with the hyped claims. In a touch of irony, the announcements of the winners could be done with breathless fanfare. Bl*gs are great, but they do not reach the public as much as a good scandal will. Done in good taste, of course. I suggest it be called the ENCODE! ENCODE! award, just to give that one a well deserved kick in the happy sacs every year.

  10. The problem with blogs as peer-review is that in that world, pretty much anyone can claim to have peer-reviewed research. It’s often been helpful in the past to have had some easy dividing line between obviously crap research and possibly good research, but I don’t know how I would easily express disdain for research that has received only disrespect from the good blogs.

    1. I would introduce the blog step (so to speak) before the conventional peer review. Hard to keep the latter blind, then, admittedly. But then the latter can be shortened, perhaps, as some work has already been done.

  11. I am somehow reminded an English course I was required to take in the Quebec CEGEP system. It was a course focused on my program of study and related areas (pure and applied science -before I did philosophy) and was quite an interesting one. But in that, the instructor made a point of us learning to “sell” our research. I agree scientists and engineers and everyone else should learn to communicate orally and in writing their stuff, but it is perhaps easy to go too far the other way. It exasperbates the problem of the “charismatic scientist” – or rather the one with the “stunning breakthroughs”, Einstein and such, not all the second tier. (Even Maxwell and Faraday fall into *that* category, in my experience asking and talking with people about the matter.)

    1. I’m reminded of a press story some years back reporting a fossil mandible, making several claims to priority and significance (oldest known example, ancestor of diverse later group etc.) and conspicuously failing to mention the complete skulls of two previously named species in the same genus (which I happened to have been involved in describing).
      It turns out the specimen was being described by a student who was also doing a course on ‘public outreach’ or something, for which he’d constructed a press release that happened to press the right buttons in order to get picked up by the press. Several of those buttons are of course the same ones that the Darwinius team also pushed, and they’re nearly always lies. Presumably got excellent results in ‘Hype 101’ though.

  12. We really should be able to turn science itself to the question of how best to improve science.

    My own thought is that there are ranking systems that could likely work well. Seed it initially with high rankings given to Nobel laureates and other highly-recognized individuals; lesser rankings given to members of the National Academy of Science and foreign equivalents; and work on down the ladder to undergraduates and anybody in the general public who wishes to participate. There probably needs to be some partitioning, as well; a Nobel in biology gets you a top ranking in biology, but not necessarily any ranking at all in physics. Once the initial rankings are set up, the system would take care of revising and maintaining them.

    A new paper by a highly-ranked person would have a high initial rating; a new paper by a nobody would have a low initial rating. Anybody could review any paper in the system and vote it up or down. Highly-ranked people could choose to move the paper’s rating more than lowly-ranked people. The rating of the paper would feed back into the ranking of the author. At the same time, if somebody gives a high rating to a paper that everybody else rates into oblivion, that would reduce the ranking of the outlier.

    The specifics would need a lot of careful thought and consideration and especially fine-tuning, likely done with the assistance of computer modeling. The project would be one for the sociologists and the psychologists.

    …but, I think something like this would quantify what science is subjectively about these days: figuring out which papers have the most respect by the most-respected researchers.

    And, no: I’m not at all personally qualified to implement anything like this. I’m just hoping somebody who is qualified takes notice and runs with it.



    1. Are you familiar with the “meow-meow beans” episode of Community? That’s what your ranking system reminded me of.

      1. I must admit, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what you’re referring to, though I’d guess it’s some sort of TV show.

        Still, if the idea is already out there, even if only in popular entertainment, maybe it’ll take hold….


    2. Philip Kitcher (a philosopher) has been working on some of these matters for a while. Unfortunately, the sociologists and such are so pomo infested that they don’t seem for the most part to be interested. I also did meet a “politologist of science” at McGill through Bunge, years ago, who was studying what political institutions seem to produce good science and was interested in the rise of contemporary China in that respect. So there is some work, but …

  13. Jerry Coyne: “Now there is adaptive epigenetic change, but such modifications are themselves is coded by the DNA: bits of DNA tell other bits to become modified in an adaptive way.”

    No one is arguing that the source of the initial modification isn’t genetic. Of course it is! But that’s not what’s interesting.

    What’s interesting when talking about epigenetics is the rate of change in gene expression under epigenetic control. As long as the environment-which effects the epimutation rate–remains stable in that regard then we predict epigenetic signatures (e.g., DNA methylation) will be heritable.

  14. The big purveyor of epigenetics, Deepak Chopra, is back to promoting his version on LinkedIn (seems he has decided LI is a good source of cash or customers.) Post can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/kryd6jcost , if you can stomach the baffle gab.

    His latest approach is to tout that heart attacks or cancer are the result of “the innate intelligence of a heart cell or cancer cell that has gone awry.” He is still presenting that meditation reaches “all the way down to our genes.”

    As the post was just recently posted, it will be interesting to see the comments that result.

  15. Hi Jerry,
    Thanks for an interesting post and a great blog!

    Just wanted to point out that it’s a bit misleading nowadays to call MS a fatal disease. Progressive, yes (although even there things have improved much over the decades), but fatal, not really.

    For example, the national MS society says:
    “Is MS fatal?
    No, MS is not a fatal disease, except in rare cases. People who live with MS can be expected to have a normal or near-normal life expectancy”


    1. I was just going to comment too to add that MS is not fatal, except for rare cases. It still gets tossed around in the media that it is though, which while not as bad as hyping supposed “cures” or interesting new research that MAY be promising (but most often, isn’t), it’s still not accurate.

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