Thursday, July 17, 2008

You're the thirteenth one who's been here

How does a science story get to be a science story in the silly season? Well, imagine that a reporter is drivin' down a lonely road on a dark and stormy night.* A forlorn story appears by the side of the road. Reporter stops, story gets in the back, and in a shaky tone ...

Some things just seem to recur without any coaching from outside. The animal dialect story is one of them, as our friends outside the profession are fond of noting. This incarnation is a bit different, mostly because of the near-total disconnect between (or among) the hed, the story, and the "study" that seems to have given rise to it.

The hed, by definition, is supposed to be the essence of what's new: it tells you what happened since our last visit (quake kills thousands, Dewey defeats Truman, Sox crush Yankees) that makes today different from yesterday. So this should be a story about a study that demonstrates regional accents among birds -- implying that such a discovery is (a) new and (b) the point of the study.

To its credit, the story doesn't say that. The study, it says, "also helps scientists understand how birds can have dialects -- something that has been noted for years." Which it has, suggesting that the N&O copydesk is running about a quart and a half low these days (hence the hed), but also suggesting some of the ways in which science news isn't about "news."

As soon as Illinois-born neurobiologist Richard Mooney opens his mouth, Triangle residents know he's not from around here.

Uh, yeah. I know a few "Triangle residents" who are "from around here" in the made-good-decisions-in-late-18th-century sense, but I have a feeling that's not what the writer has in mind. It does, though, suggest something important about science writing: It needs to remind us that scientists are Real People.

But humans aren't the only creatures whose regional drawls and twangs give them away. (Sorry, but whenever I hear "drawls and twangs," I reach for my Uzi sort of assume that the writer isn't "from around here" either.) The same thing goes for the songbirds Mooney studies in his Duke University laboratory.

Is that what the study's about? Well...

It turns out that these dialects stem from the way that baby birds learn to sing -- a process that is much like the way human babies learn to talk.

...These brain mechanisms include a phenomenon known as mirror neurons, which Mooney and his team documented in birds for the first time. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that fires either because the animal is performing a certain action, or because it is seeing another animal perform that same action.

Aha! That appears to represent some really cool stuff Mooney et al. have published this year -- songbirds seem to have mirror neurons. Which is pretty cosmic if that's the sport you keep up with, and not if not. Hence, to be science journalism, it has to be tricked out with some things that make it less scary and more accessible.

It might seem odd to refer to behavioral variation in bird populations as cultural differences, but one could argue that the songbirds are much better at preserving their cultural roots than humans are.

"Unfortunately because of TV and radio, there has been a real homogenization of regional dialects," Mooney said.

While we're on the subject, this is another of those enduring issues** about the popular portrayal of "science": The science reporter is a specialist in the newsroom but a generalist in "science." Mooney's a neurobiologist, and he sounds like a smart and innovative one. In the field of dialect variation, he's kind of at odds with people like Walt Wolfram, who contend that dialect diversity is growing despite the evil machinations of broadcasting. A PhD in one domain might well be -- and often is -- just another amateur in others.

Out of all that, somehow, we manage to have a story that's tangentially related to some recent work a Local Subject has been doing, with a badly bollixed hed and a mug of a swamp sparrow, and it still makes the metro front of a major regional daily. How? Well, the reporter saw this lonely story hitchhiking on the road, but when they got to the house, the story was ... gone! And then a nice lady came out of the house and (wiping away tears) said that thirteen years ago today, in a wreck just up the road ...

* Yes, you may apply for a G-droppin' license for your HEADSUP-L visits. As part of the test, you'll have to be able (blindfolded) to tell Eddie Adcock from Don Reno with at least 80% accuracy. Just sayin'.
** Meaning I don't recall the citations offhand but am fairly sure which box they're in in the basement.



Blogger Andy Bechtel said...

Ah, but it leads to the inevitable "day after story" editorial cartoon:

11:43 AM, July 18, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

It's totally cool that birds have mirror neurons. And I only read the story so I could see how old the study was and sneer. Sigh.

6:06 PM, July 18, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Have they _really_ told Powell to stick to local issues for cartoons and nothing else? That'd be a sign of the apocalypse for sure.

10:05 PM, July 19, 2008  

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