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26 February, 2010

Survival of All the News that Fits

It's a cold, snowy day. Relax, if you can, and make yourself a mug of cocoa. Why don't we sit here by the fire, and I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, on February 25th, a group of researchers published an article about reproduction in fruit flies. There is a Twitter account ostensibly maintained by a professor, one Pieter Schultz, who's set up the feed to broadcast just about any post imaginable that's related to nonmonogamy. Yesterday, he posted a link to this article about the study. According to the review here, if each female fruit fly mates with only a single male fruit fly, a population can go extinct thanks to a gene that creates all-female broods. Eventually, there aren't enough males to sustain the population. (The original article, at Current Biology, explains that the SR, for "sex ratio", gene on the X chromosome causes the destruction of all Y-carrying sperm, reducing male fly's total sperm count and resulting in a brood of female offspring, all of whom carry the SR gene.) In populations where the flies are allowed the mate normally, many females are inseminated by multiple males. If both SR and normal males mate with a single female, the normal males are likely to fertilize more of the female's eggs simply because the flies without the SR gene produce more sperm overall.

You can't show that on TV.

Great! It sounds like a finding fruit fly researchers will love. If one tracks down the original article, one will also learn that the researchers were motivated by the question of female promiscuity in general. In many species, there's a high cost to polyandry (mating with multiple males), yet females still exhibit the behavior; odds are, there's some adaptive benefit that's directed the species to evolve that behavior. That same Twitter account linked to another article in which one of the researchers is quoted as saying, "We were surprised by how quickly – within nine generations – a population could die out as a result of females only mating with one partner. Polyandry is such a widespread phenomenon in nature but it remains something of an enigma for scientists. This study is the first to suggest that it could actually save a population from extinction." Ok! So now we have serious, hard evidence about why polyandry exists in fruit flies, with consistent evidence from the genome through to behavior. If you're a scientist, then (if you aren't already looking for ways to critique the methodology or theory) you're probably thinking, "This is great! I bet lots of people will be writing about this." And you'd sort of be right.

Wait, did I say "tell you a story"? I meant "subject you to a bitter tirade."

Those of you who clicked through to that second article may have noticed the ambiguous title: "Does promiscuity prevent extinction?" In fruit flies, the answer is apparently a solid, "Yes indeedy." But that title didn't mention fruit flies. I imagine you can see where this is going.

All day, the articles trickled down through Shultz's Twitter feed. Some of the early ones maintained that article's original content, but others casually twisted the language, generalized to laughable degrees, and more or less completely diluted the original findings ... until, just 24 hours after the article's publication, we have today's contender for "Facepalm of the Year Award": "Promiscuous Girls Can Save The Human Race"!

But nothing can save the Times Of India.

Nice work, Times Of India. Although I might agree with their conclusion, I admit that their logic is less than sound, especially given than most human women don't mate with multiple men on the same day (who has time for that?) and neither do they have a massive brood of eggs, all simultaneously viable, some percentage of which can be fertilized by each of the men involved. ...Unless I've just been mistaken about some basic information I took for granted in elementary school, that is, in which case I know a sex ed instructor who's about to get some angry fan mail. As things stand, though, I'm pretty sure the TOI has overgeneralized. To say that promiscuous human women saving our species from extinction is "the conclusion" of the UK study is an insult to journalism.

If you'll allow me a generalization of my own, I think you might find this one more useful: don't believe what you read in the press unless you have reason to trust the media outlet in question. Even science journals sometimes print mistakes (don't forget, if the discipline sets its p values to .05, then at least 5% of the articles out there should be dead wrong), and when the popular press articles are written by journalists who don't have serious training in biology, neuroscience, or whatever discipline is getting picked on today, the possibility for error is unbounded. The errors usually come in the form of overgeneralizations, as when someone decided that what's true for flies must also be true for humans. Then there are the blurry figures, like the contention that "Sex Chemistry 'Lasts Two Years'", a figure contradicted within the article itself. And, as Ben Goldacre is happy to point out over at the Guardian, sometimes journalists get so caught up in making a story out of the subject that they lose the important details; sometimes, as journalists misunderstand the subject themselves, their reporting degenerates into arguments from authority. Then, worst of all, reporters get a story honest-to-god wrong ... perhaps because they wrote the story they wanted to find and know that most of their audience won't have the knowledge and the journal subscriptions to contradict them. (Did I just accidentally make an argument for free, open science? Oops – I do want a paycheck at the end of the day, although I might rather have neighbors who can count to ten.)

My final point isn't just to whine and whinge about kids these days and their rock'n'roll journalism. I like Hunter Thompson as much as the next guy, I just wouldn't let him into my lab. The real point is just to stay educated, especially when the subject is something controversial ... and when one is writing about nonmonogamy, everything is controversial. When I make an argument about how jealousy works, I always hit the books because not only is "jealousy" a terribly ill-defined term but it's also under research right now; it's an open question, and the publication of new articles continues to change the "best guess" about how it works. I'll always remember something my dad told me when I was knee-high to an AT-AT. A scientific claim is just our best guess, today. Some guesses are damn good and haven't changed in a while (see: heliocentrism, evolution, Thorndike's law of effect), but that doesn't change the principle.

What I'm saying is, if you spot an article with the word "science" anywhere in it, don't rely on the reporter to get the story straight. Before you mention it to a friend, track down the original article. If you don't have access to the journal's website, maybe you have a friend on a college campus who can get it for you. I know time is precious, though, so just keep in mind the difference between evidence and proof, the realities of the way that scientists use statistics to decide not whether something is true but whether it's likely, and – most of all – the fact that people are stupid.

Yes. That's the Aesop. Everyone is stupid. So sue me, I'm in kind of a realistic mood today. I think it's possible, though, to learn to live with our own foolishness in such a way that one grows less stupid over time, rather than more. I wish us all the best of luck in this endeavor.

EDIT: Carnal Nation followed up with a terribly embarrassing version of this phenomenon, but the author actually retracted it at my request. Redemption! Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the news hit the actual poly community and someone got it facepalmingly wrong.

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