Thursday, May 26, 2011

Science bad!

OK, it's not fair to say Fox hates all science. Science is good when it's proving Genesis is true or making ray guns for army men.* Stories from Japan about robot sex or asynchronous cybersnogging are always in season. But that other stuff -- that theory-driven, peer-reviewed, null-hypothesis, communist-type science they do at universities -- is just not going to end well for anybody. So let's see how Fox handles a report from Sen. Tom "A Practicing Physician" Coburn that rips the lid off taxpayer-funded scams like the one shown above.

Well, sorta:

Scientific studies conducted in the public interest appear to have veered off course, according to a new report that documents government-sponsored research gems such as having shrimp walk on tiny treadmills to measure the impact of sickness on crustaceans.

While the exercises may be adorable to watch, Sen. Tom Coburn says he's not so sure it advances the cause of science.

Got an idea what's coming next?

The Oklahoma Republican issued a new report Thursday that concludes the National Science Foundation has misspent $3 billion on "waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement." It offers a list of research projects that could have been left as questions for the universe.

Among them, $2 million to analyze 38 million photos on Flickr and cross-reference them against the site's social networking service. Turns out, researchers concluded, that friends generally post photos on the Internet depicting the same place at the same time.

Let's stop the tape for a moment to discuss the fungibility of "millions" and "billions." The inside hed says "billions in waste on Science Foundation studies," but the story itself puts the billions down to "waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement." If that sounds like a significant** difference, it should. Similarly, the "millions of your tax dollars" in the frontpage hed -- needless to say, the shrimp is the top story at this writing -- conflates a decade's worth of grants to one center with a single grant of about $560,000. And the bit about exercising shrimp is ... well, why don't we start with the abstract?

Low oxygen (hypoxia) is a fact of life for organisms living in coastal waters. Human influences of coastal development and pollution can further exacerbate hypoxia. ... The current studies test the idea that, even in coastal waters where levels of dissolved oxygen are high, the act of launching an immune defense against bacteria interferes with the ability of shrimp and crabs to engage in normal activities of swimming or feeding and that this effect will be exacerbated by environmental stress, such as hypoxia. ... Measurements will be made on animals that are resting, exercised or exposed to hypoxia. It is expected that these studies will show that, at least among crustaceans, the immune response itself may make it more difficult for an organism to respond to hypoxic environments or to engage in significant physical activity.

This is not "exercise" in the Jazzercise sense, then. It's a manipulation that happens in the course of looking at the impact of development and other human activities on a food source that's particularly important to the region where the grant landed. (Hint: Why do you suppose the sponsor is called "College of Charleston"?)  But do you get the idea Sen. Coburn's report might have (ahem) other fish to fry?

The value of these finding*** can be debated by scientists and taxpayers, but with millions of views there is no question the videos of the shrimp on a treadmill have become an Internet sensation (video available here:

What’s next? “We plan on building one for lobster,” lead investigator Lou Burnett exclaimed.**** “We have one for blue crabs.”

Actually, no. "Internet sensation" isn't a measure of validity or reliability. Taxpayers are in a really poor position to debate the value of anything here, because they haven't been given any plausible information. They've been lied to. And the real fault is Coburn's. Apparently there's nothing in the "practicing physician" ethics code that bars you from making stuff up about other people's science.

For a news story, this one's pretty free with opinions like "questionable science," and from a practical perspective, Fox might want to be a little more careful about proclaiming things "illicit" (that's a good way to get sued when the activity in question --sex, for example -- is actually legal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia). Fox did bake the numbers a bit, but it's really drawing on the source material itself for inspiration there. And it even called the NSF for comment. If credulity toward official sources (with "Dr." in front of their names, no less) is a sin, quite a few news outfits are going to have issues at the Pearly Gates.

Fox gains other benefits by putting a big old GUBMINT WASTE story at the top of the front page, though, as these reader comments suggest:

The Obumbler administration wastes money like a drunken oil sheik gone wild in Vegas. Worst one term president ever.

Hey look the shrimp have a better slimmer azzzz then the first lady .... get her one of those treadmills.

Exercising shrimp will not save kids from cancer.  It's just more needless spending by an out of control government

Welcome to Obama, Pelosi and Reids new America! Liberals must be so proud their strategy of breaking the back of America is working so well.

Wouldn't it just spoil everything to tell the marks that the start date of the $560,000 study was in August 2007? Or that the original report of the shrimp treadmill is from October 2006?

Lesson for editors: This is a bogus story. You may safely ignore it. When angry readers call to ask why you're suppressing the truth about Obama, remind them that Sen. Coburn is a lying sleazebag, then ask them why they hate free enterprise and shrimp-n-grits. 

* Byline look familiar? That's the reporter who was scouring the Intertubes this winter for a source to help him say Al Gore is bad.
p < .001
*** Typo in the original report, but it's not nearly as funny as the reference to "dick shrimp" instead of "sick shrimp." There's more to proofreading than running spellcheck, you guys
**** It's "said" in the 2008 story Coburn's report cites. Never miss a chance to throw an elbow.

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Anonymous raYb said...

Whatever else it does, it at least diverts attention from Sen. Coburn's role in bargaining the price of silence in the Ensign report.

11:41 PM, May 27, 2011  

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