Shabby science reporting in the New York Times

January 10, 2021 • 11:00 am

I’ve noticed lately that the quality of science writing in newspapers has declined, even in The New York Times, which used to have some really good writing, especially by Carl Zimmer, who doesn’t seem to appear in its pages so often.


CORRECTION:  Zimmer is still writing prolifically in the NYT, but covering a beat—vaccination—that I’d missed, (mis)leading me to believe that he was engaged in activities other than writing for the NYT. He’s asked me to correct this in a comment below, so I’ll just add his comment here:

If you had bothered to look at my author page at the Times, you’d see that I have been busier than ever there as I help cover the science of the pandemic. Over the past 10 months, I’ve written 93 stories about Covid-19, which comes to about two articles a week. Please correct your post. You are misleading your readers about my work.

I guess he was peeved. The misstatement was my fault, of course, and I’ve fixed it, but I have to say that this is a rather splenetic reply from someone whose work I’ve always praised.


Rather, in place of long-form biology and physics, a variety of people now write for the Times‘s biological “Trilobite” column, and seem to take a more gee-whiz approach to science, producing short columns that are also short on information.

Part of the problem may be that many of these columns are written by freelancers who haven’t spent most of their writing career dealing with biology. My general impression is that the NYT is starting to reduce its coverage of science. That would be a damn shame since it was the only major paper to have a full science section (I don’t get the paper issues any longer, so I don’t know if they still have the Tuesday science section I’d read first).

The sloppy writing seems to be the case with this week’s column, a column reporting a new genome-sequencing study in Nature of monotremes: the platypus and the echidna (“spiny anteater”). I have only scanned the paper briefly, and will read it thoroughly, but on reading the NYT’s short summary I spotted two errors—not outright misstatements of fact, but statements that are incomplete descriptions of the truth, and where an extra word or two would have made the column not only more accurate, but more interesting.

Here’s the article (click on the screenshot):


Maybe I’m being petulant, but here are two quasi-misstatements in the piece. First, this one (emphases are mine):

When the British zoologist George Shaw first encountered a platypus specimen in 1799, he was so befuddled that he checked for stitches, thinking someone might be trying to trick him with a Frankencreature. It’s hard to blame him: What other animal has a rubbery bill, ankle spikes full of venom, luxurious fur that glows under black light and a tendency to lay eggs?

The facts: Only the males have ankle spurs, and of course only the males have venom. (This probably shows that the trait is used not for defense against predators, but for male-male competition during mating.) Females have no venom and have rudimentary spur nubs that drop off before maturing. Of course, females have the genes for producing ankle spurs and venom, as those genes don’t know which sex they’ll wind up in—just like human males have genes for vaginas and breasts and human females carry genes for penises. But the sex-development pathway prevents the expression of venom and spurs in females, just as it prevented me from developing a vagina.

The sex-limitation of the spurs isn’t mentioned in the Nature piece, but every biologist who knows their platypuses also knows that only the males have venom spurs. And, by the way, the echidna has some genes that used to produce venom, but they’re non-expressed “pseudogenes” that have become inactivated. That shows that the ancestral monotreme was almost certainly venomous (this isn’t mentioned in the NYT piece, either).

About those egg-yolk genes:

For instance, many birds and insects have multiple copies of a gene called vitellogenin, which is involved in the production of egg yolks.

Most mammals don’t have the vitellogenin gene, said Dr. Zhang. But the new genomes reveal that platypuses and echidnas have one copy of it, helping to explain their anomalous egg-laying — and suggesting that this gene (and perhaps the reproductive strategy itself) may have been something the rest of us lost, rather than an innovation of the monotremes. 

Well, yes, mammals do have the vitellogenin gene. In fact, our own species has three of them, but, as in other mammals they’re pseudogenes—genes that are there in the genome but are broken and not expressed. Humans and other placental mammals don’t require egg yolk because we’re nourished through the placenta, not yolks in shells. The platypus has two vitellogenin genes (described in the Nature paper as “genes”, so the statement that platypuses and echnidas have “one copy” is misleading)—they’re just not “functional” genes.

Now you may say this is quibbling, but it’s not. First of all, the statement that playtpuses have one copy of the egg yolk gene is wrong. They have two, but one doesn’t function. More important, the statement that there are nonfunctional yolk genes in all mammals says something powerful about evolution, something that I discuss in my book Why Evolution is True.  Those “vestigial” and nonfunctional genes are evolutionary remnants of our ancestors who did produce egg yolk. Why else would they be there in our genome, doing nothing? Chickens, who of course evolved from reptiles, as we did, have all three vitellogenin genes in working order.

Another error, then, is the statement “suggesting that this genes. . . may have been something the rest of us lost.” No, we didn’t lose it; it’s still there in our genomes. And there’s no “suggestion” about it: it’s sitting there in our DNA, has been sequenced, and has been shown to be nonfunctional. Finally, we KNOW that this gene is NOT an innovation of the monotremes, and have known that for a long time (e.g., see here). It was inherited from their reptilian ancestors.

This isn’t flat out erroneous science reporting, but it’s incomplete science reporting—the summary of a paper phoned in to the NYT. (I also find the Time’s summary curiously devoid of what’s really new in the paper; at least half of it reprises what we already knew.) More important, the reporter missed a good chance to give some powerful evidence for evolution, both in ourselves and in monotremes, whose genomes harbor some dead egg-yolk genes that are active in our avian and reptilian relatives. And yes, those echidnas have dead genes for venom.

h/t: Gregory

34 thoughts on “Shabby science reporting in the New York Times

  1. Yeah, this is light-weight writing. Simplistic. My first read of the first sample gave the impression that it was George Shaw in 1799 who was puzzled by their fur glowing under UV light. Of course he had no way to see that back then! Maybe that was not intended, but that is how it read to me.

  2. The “ankle spurs” of the male platypus arise from the calcaneum, or heel bone. Which means that they’re actually heel spurs. Which means that male platypuses could have avoided military service in Viet Nam.

  3. From t’internet:

    “Cara holds one degree in science writing from MIT, where she wrote a thesis on urban bats and salamanders, and one degree in English and biology from Amherst College, where she wrote a thesis about experimental nonfiction.”

    If you employ freelancers who can write there is no guarantee how well they will understand what they have read before writing.

  4. I think Carl Zimmer could write a phone book and make it interesting and still fully useful. I loved She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. I need to go back and reread his 2011 book A Planet of Viruses. I remember when I read it I thought – we are screwed. My suspicion is that Zimmer will soon have a book out about the development of the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine. He was doing a lot of in depth reporting right after the announcement that it was ready. The reporting was so in depth that I assume that he has been embedded with Pfizer and BionTech since they started working on the vaccine.

    While the NYT is not what it used to be or what it should be, it is still the best we have. The Chicago Tribune is on its death bed and waiting for Alden to put it out of its misery. The latest blow, Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic Blair Kamin took a buyout. I had already given up on the paper some time ago. It is a waste of newsprint now.

    1. Thanks, George, for alerting us to Kamin jumping ship. I’m a longtime subscriber to the Tribune. A few weeks ago, in an online discussion with some friends, I predicted that some of the Tribune’s columnists and reporters would retire and some, like Mary Schmich, Eric Zorn, and Rex Huppke, would move to Substack. Steve Chapman may go over to the Bulwark or another center-right organization. I think Clarence Page and John Kass will retire. (Be still my heart in contemplating Kass’s retirement!) Despite my waned respect for the Trib, I think I’ll stay subscribed to it to the bitter end.

        1. John Kass: A pedestrian writer who is a prime example of the Peter Principle. As I’m sure you know, the only reason he was given Royko’s space is that the Trib’s ultra-conservative ownership and editorial board wanted someone to be their water carrier. I’m sure Royko’s liberalism rubbed them the wrong way, but they tolerated it because he sold papers. Kass isn’t fit to lace Royko’s boots.

  5. The real whopper is that they think finding this gene in platypuses now is what “suggests” that egg-laying came before live birth!

    It seems that the Times piece strives to attribute a novelty to the article that it doesn’t possess.

    The article should have said something like, “As has long been known, mammals which give birth to living young evolved from egg-laying ancestors. The presence of the active genes in monotremes and only inactive forms in other mammals is a genomic confirmation of an inference that was first made in the late 19th century based on skeletal characteristics.”

    I still read the Times, but I can no longer defend it.


  6. Monotremes, apparently, have only a ‘tendency’ to lay eggs. At other times they produce wtf, I guess.

    It must be due to the ‘luxurious’ fur that they have.

  7. In the supporting information the authors of the paper write that the defensin (venom) genes of echidnas are pseudogenes or can’t even be found in the echidna genome (compared to three defensin genes in platypus). The authors conclude that those venom genes became nonfunctional as echidnas evolved from aquatic ancestors (like platypus) into terrestrial insectivores.

    Do others know: were the ancestral monotremes all aquatic? Did echidnas really become terrestrial secondarily?

    Hoping that Christine Janis might drop by here 🙂

  8. Well, I have almost always found that when newspapers or popular science writers write about something that I actually know a bit about (chemical physics), it (almost always) contains factual errors and over-simplifications. Maybe things are getting worse, as you say, but it is not really a new phenomenon. However, it is good that you pointed this out.

    1. Well, I have almost always found that when newspapers report about an event I have witnessed the report often contains factual errors and omissions of what would be significant information. It’s not just science reporting, although this is one of the worst areas.

      Nowadays reports of events are squeezed into a pre-existing box of opinion. Some facts spill over the sides and are lost, and what isn’t lost is mangled to fit into the shape of the box.

  9. From time to time I still read science articles in the Times, especially those written by Zimmer. And even in his columns I find a dilution of rigor….best way I can put it.

    I don’t thinks it’s Zimmer’s fault though……

    We are already in a world that reflects a diminution of intellectual complexity and distinction and rigor. A relentless leveling-down.

  10. If you had bothered to look at my author page at the Times, you’d see that I have been busier than ever there as I help cover the science of the pandemic. Over the past 10 months, I’ve written 93 stories about Covid-19, which comes to about two articles a week. Please correct your post. You are misleading your readers about my work.

    1. Yes, Carl, I know; I’ve seen some of these article and should have mentioned that you’re on a different beat. I just wish I’d see more evolution article by you.

      At any rate, I’ll correct it, of course. I haven’t been reading the vaccination articles, so it’s my bad. And I should have looked at the author page.

      But I have to say that your comment here is rather curt, even rude, especially given that I’ve promoted and praised your work for years, even in this very post.

      I didn’t mean to mislead anybody. But I didn’t think you were the kind of person who would come over here in a huff and rebuke me. You could also have personally emailed me and asked me to correct the piece.

  11. I guess he [Carl Zimmer] was peeved.

    Didn’t you also brag on him for being a top-flight journalist?

    Reckon The Zim must be a the-beaker-is-half-empty kinda science writer. 🙂

      1. Yes, they are; I know it for sure (and I’m one of the victims). I was talking with an old friend last night who said she has become that way. She is an expert in trauma psychology, and says that this is very understandable. I think Carl is hoist with the very subject he’s studying–the pandemic.

        As far as emails I get and comments on this website, it’s clear that people have gotten more peevish. I wrote a post a while back about how I was getting that way too. We have to fight it.

        1. Fighting to be less peevish is laudable, but with the current pandemic and political situations (esp. here in the UK when we have a pathologically indecisive PM), everybody seems to be increasingly brittle. Like Dr. Banner, we seem to be permanently angry. I know I am.

          Re the main topic, this seems to have been sloppily reported everywhere; e.g., in Science Alert there’s:

          The genes of both are relatively primitive and unchanged, revealing a bizarre blend of several vertebrate animal classes, including birds, reptiles, and mammals.


  12. Article headlines like “Are We the Weird Ones?” wear me out. To what mindset is such a locution appealing? The less one gets out in the world beyond the horizon to encounter and experience new people, places and things, the more some given phenomenon seems ‘weird.” (Or “odd,” or “bizarre” for that matter.)

    1. On the Internet, you need to hook people in to get clicks and ad impressions, so the headline – which is what they see in their “feed” – needs to be somewhat sensational.

      In fact, headlines are subject to a kind of evolution. Publishers often do a thing called A/B testing which means they have two alternative headlines and which one people see is selected at random. They then measure the number of click throughs that occur with each variant and the one with the most clicks wins and is used going forward.

      Ars Technica is a site that is completely open about this. I once saw a comment on an article there that complained that the headline was totally misleading about the story. The reply was “it got the best response in the A/B testing which is why we are using it”. They were tricking people into reading a story in which they had no interest and were completely unapologetic about it.

  13. Jerry alerted me to this discussion!

    It’s a bit difficult to know for sure whether the common ancestor of modern monotremes was aquatic. The idea is that platpuses are aquatic, and if echindas are derived from them relatively recently (although this new paper pushes the likely divergence time back to 55 Ma —- previously estimated at 19-48 Ma, see Phillips et al PNAS 2009), then the platypus lifestyle must be the primary one.

    The main driver for this line of thought is the Paleocene (i.e. prior to the split) taxon Monotrematum (rather bizarrely known from South America), which is known from a few teeth and some femur fragments. This is often cited as being ‘just like a modern monotreme’ (which of course lack teeth as adults), but does this mean that it was aquatic? There’s no evidence that it was. Platypuses and echindas share the rather weird ‘reptilian’ limb stance (which is actually a derived feature in comparison with early stem mammals), which has often been considered to represent some sort of swimming adaptation, but it’s not what’s seen in aquatic therians, so who knows. I think the jury is still out on this one, despite ‘echindas being secondarily terrestrial’ now having passed into common parlance.

    Meanwhile, platypuses are not alone in having fluorescent fur — this has now also been observed in many marsupials. Maybe it’s a more general mammalian feature than we thought.

  14. I have only scanned the paper briefly, and will read it thoroughly,

    I have scanned it too and it is really intriguing. “We provide evidence that the monotreme sex chromosome complex originated from an ancestral chromosome ring configuration.”

    I don’t know if it helps, but the University of Vienna lumped 3 papers together [and they serve Pekin duck!] in .

    Three studies uncovered the unusual sex chromosomes of platypus, emu and Pekin duck. Platypus have five pairs of sex chromosomes forming an unusual chain shape, while the sex chromosomes of emu and duck are not as different between sexes as those of human.

    Journal References:

    1. Yang Zhou, Linda Shearwin-Whyatt, Jing Li, Zhenzhen Song, Takashi Hayakawa, David Stevens, Jane C. Fenelon, Emma Peel, Yuanyuan Cheng, Filip Pajpach, Natasha Bradley, Hikoyu Suzuki, Masato Nikaido, Joana Damas, Tasman Daish, Tahlia Perry, Zexian Zhu, Yuncong Geng, Arang Rhie, Ying Sims, Jonathan Wood, Bettina Haase, Jacquelyn Mountcastle, Olivier Fedrigo, Qiye Li, Huanming Yang, Jian Wang, Stephen D. Johnston, Adam M. Phillippy, Kerstin Howe, Erich D. Jarvis, Oliver A. Ryder, Henrik Kaessmann, Peter Donnelly, Jonas Korlach, Harris A. Lewin, Jennifer Graves, Katherine Belov, Marilyn B. Renfree, Frank Grutzner, Qi Zhou, Guojie Zhang. Platypus and echidna genomes reveal mammalian biology and evolution. Nature, 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-03039-0
    2. Jing Liu, Zongji Wang, Jing Li, Luohao Xu, Jiaqi Liu, Shaohong Feng, Chunxue Guo, Shengchan Chen, Zhanjun Ren, Jinpeng Rao, Kai Wei, Yuezhou Chen, Erich Jarvis, Guojie Zhang, Qi Zhou. A new emu genome illuminates the evolution of genome configuration and nuclear architecture of avian chromosomes. Genome Research, 2021; gr.271569.120 DOI: 10.1101/gr.271569.120
    3. Li, J., Zhang J., Liu, J. et al. A new duck genome reveals conserved and convergently evolved chromosome architectures of birds and mammals. GigaScience, 2021 DOI: 10.1093/gigascience/giaa142

    Hope it satisfy your taste – there will be no bill.

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