The Second Draft of the History of Science

I’ve been hearing good things for a while now about Retro Report, a journalism project that produces 10-to-20-minute-long videos about what happened to big headline stories from decades ago. I’m now gobbling up my Monday morning watching their backlist. It’s excellent stuff, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I like it. I think it’s because the programs get beyond the simple “Where Are They Now?” format. The journalists who make the pieces really report the stories–they go back and find people who were in the midst of the news to interview them, and then they discover the surprising course of the story after it fell away from the world’s attention.

What really surprised me about Retro Report is that most of their categories are related in one way or another science. I write about new scientific research, and so my job requires me to keep my eyes locked on the future, trying to figure out what some discovery or invention will mean to generations to come. And the longer you spend in this job, the more you start asking yourself, “Hey, what happened to…?” In many cases, things quietly take an unexpected–but revealing–turn. Retro Report shows that going back to a story about science can reveal important lessons about what’s going on today, but ones you may not have predicted.

Here, for example, is a piece about a GMO tomato that turned up in supermarkets way back in 1994. People went hysterical over the Flavr Savr tomato, either as an evil plot or the salvation of our food supply. After the cameras were shut off and the reporters went away, the company that made the tomato struggled to make a business out of it and quietly sold their patent off to GMO giant Monsanto, which then quietly shut the project down–arguably because it was boldly labeled in stores as genetically modified. Since then, Monsanto has gone on to make big profits on GMO plants by making farmers their customers, not consumers.

Here’s another piece, called Crack Babies. In the 1980s, people got frantically worried that crack-addicted women would give birth to a generation of brain-damaged infants. The idea–based on some preliminary research–turned out to be wrong. Yet it became a wildly successful meme, perhaps because it involved a then-new drug and perhaps because crack addicts were mostly poor blacks. Retro Report rightly asks why we never talk about the threat of “Booze Babies,” when alcohol is more harmful during pregnancy than crack.

These videos remind us forcefully that the real meaning of stories about science takes time to unfold. That is very hard to remember, because there’s something intoxicating about a new science story. Suddenly some great truth about the world seems to be unveiled. That truth can be terrifying, or elating. I can’t count all the emails I’ve gotten when I’ve written a story about some very preliminary research on a disease, from people who suffer from the disease and want to know where they can go to get cured.

In reality, a lot of science-related conclusions fall apart or have to be revised in later years. Science itself is starting to grapple with its flaws, with papers like “Most Published Research Findings Are False.” On the other hand, some findings gain strength over the years, as more and more evidence supports them. But those studies pile up like sand grains, and so it’s easy for journalists to overlook them, even after they’ve grown into a mountain.

I hope Retro Report does more investigations into science. They’re wonderful history lessons, and they also help people think more realistically about today’s news.

Other science stories include:

Summer of Fire: How this year’s massive forest fires are part of a 25-year trend, due in part to human activity.

Biosphere 2, the sealed building that was supposed to become self-sufficient and instead went wrong in a fascinating way.

Y2K, the computer bug that terrified the world in 1999 with the prospect of computers shutting down on New Years Day.

Voyage of the Mobro 4000: an ill-fated voyage of a garbage barge that gave rise to the recycling movement.

(P.S.: Retro Report is a non-profit project. The New York Times, where I’m a columnist, distributes Retro Report, but I’ve not had any dealings with them aside from as a viewer.)

13 thoughts on “The Second Draft of the History of Science

  1. I’ve really been enjoying the retro reports too. I agree that looking back at things like Biosphere 2 and the hysteria over crack babies helps keep us humble about the state of scientific knowledge today! These reports are pretty addictive.

  2. So what role do you think journalists and science writers play in what stories get forgotten, or which ones are modified to be more powerful later? I’ve long thought it funny that science stories get “embargoed” as if they can get scooped, when of course the birds that were finding their way using some amazing mechanism, or the microbes that produces some incredible compound that makes them social, were doing it yesterday and will keep doing it tomorrow. Sometimes it seems as if the way science is reported feeds into this breathless idea of breaking developments, when that isn’t how one feels about it when doing it.

  3. “I can’t count all the emails I’ve gotten when I’ve written a story about some very preliminary research on a disease, from people who suffer from the disease and want to know where they can go to get cured.”

    It might just be your over-eager readership — but it’s probably also you and the researchers actively overselling the preliminary work.

    [CZ: Unlike you, I have great sympathy for people grappling with cancer, psychological disorders, and other medical problems. I entirely understand how easy it is for them to grab at any glimmer of hope. As for my own work, I make the preliminary nature of research as clear as possible within the space constraints I deal with. If you have a particular story of mine in mind, please discuss it. But if this is just speculation based on no article in particular, then please keep these empty insults to yourself.]

  4. From my studies of the history of science, I think the main problem is that “science” was expanded beyond the careful, limited, solid procedure described by Sir Francis Bacon. Indeed, science is often still described in similar terms, in which data gathering and inductive reasoning inspire imaginative deductive conclusions (I don’t know how people can say Bacon’s method was simply inductive logic) which are then tested by attempts at further repeatable observations, with controlled experiments if possible or necessary to distinguish between possibilities and clearly demonstrate what is actually happening in nature.
    About 200 years later, when “natural philosophers” started calling themselves “scientists,” they had already started accepting a different process, which started with induction and then by simple extrapolation extended the inductive conclusions into the past and to global and celestial scales, accepting the results as facts despite the obvious inability to repeatedly observe or experimentally reproduce such events. Flipping the normal practice of science on its head, the new conclusions were then used to interpret all new data, giving a false appearance of harmonious independent support that was actually the result of circular reasoning. This is most clearly seen in the extreme form of uniformitarian geology which eventually resisted and then was overthrown by the evidence for things such as plate tectonics and J. Harlan Bretz’ Missoula flood.
    Of course, modern pressures from academic reviews, funding sources, and even the temptation of fame through sensational news stories only exacerbate the problem of scientists stating things without proper caveats, and then having to retract them.
    Examples that come to mind include “Bathybius haeckeli”; Langley’s expensive, army-funded flying experiments ending in failure with help from negative press while a pair of brothers with a bicycle shop succeeded in building a man-carrying, controlled flying machine; Thalidomide causing terrible birth defects; and “Nutcracker Man.”

  5. RetroReports has become a ‘must-see’ for me. As a journalist my colleagues and I often bemoan the lack of perspective in today’s reportage. So much of it seems to revolve around celebrities, scandalous crimes, minor political tussles, or the constant hammering on one main topic at the exclusion of other important stories.
    RetroReports stands as a unique example to remind us where we’ve been (via big news events from the past) and with the luxury of time-passed what actually came out of those stories that so captivated us.
    There’s no other service like it out there today. Kudos!

  6. The problem occurs because you have Humanities-minded people being fascinated with the work of Science-minded people. I have two words for you: “Cold Fusion.” Remember that little media fiasco? It was but one example of how the Humanities-minded get all caught up in the hype but have no genuine understanding of the facts or, more specifically, have no ability to evaluate the details of scientific research. I suppose another good example is the eventual eruption of Yellowstone: geologists have a genuine understanding of the scale of time on which such events are likely to occur; meanwhile, all the media people hear are “It’s going to erupt BIG!”. The media-types latch on to whatever can grab a headline and thereby foster attention/ratings, because that’s what journalism/communications programs teach: “appeal to the masses, down to the lowest common denominator.” Is it any wonder why Discovery subsequently produces and promotes a show like “Megalodon”?

    [CZ: The announcement of cold fusion came from two physicists, not two English majors. It may feel nice to pretend that all the problems are off in someone else’s domain, but in this case–and in the focus on hot science news in general–there’s a whole system at work that includes not just journalists, but scientific journal editors, people who award grants, and scientists themselves.]

  7. Does anyone else find it incredibly unfortunate that the History of Science includes no attempt to prove the theory of mutation-driven evolution? Thus, we have had no scientific support for a theory widely touted as support for ‘natural selection.” Indeed, mutation-driven evolution was finally refuted only yesterday in a “Nature Communications” article titled: “An experimental test on the probability of extinction of new genetic variants.”

    Does anyone think that article will make a difference to evolutionary theorists, or can we all expect to continue see the propagation of ridiculous mutation-driven evolution in the absence of any scientific evidence for it? I hope Retro Report investigates the propagation of mutations theory in the absence of any scientific evidence for it whatsoever. That fact should be considered in the context of the History of Science, and the future of scientific pursuits.

  8. Really, James V. Kohl? I only have access to the abstract of that Nature article, and naturally that says that all is essentially well with the theory, as their study shows the extinction rates were “…as expected… as expected…” and “…confirms the key results from classical population genetics…” The only hint of surprise (let alone refutation) is that “… at intermediate frequencies, the fate of invaders might not result in their ultimate fixation or loss but on their maintenance” and they conclude that “…the nature of adaptation can be complex.” Something hiding in the main text that you would claim refutes the theory? Or are you just saying that the lack of total elimination of traits nerfs selection to the point where it wouldn’t produce significant change over time? but something must be eliminating traits, or do we carry the code for all of our ancestors in our DNA, or what?

  9. David, thanks for asking, but the article is OPEN ACCESS at

    What I’m saying is without their obfuscation: ” Our study confirms the key results from classical population genetics …” As I recall, it was studies on peppered moths and industrial melanism that led, in part, to the classical misrepresentation of predator selection as the mutation-driven force in mutation-driven evolution.

    This article addresses the problem with fixation, which can be placed into the context of nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution sans mutations theory, since Darwin’s ‘conditions of life’ are nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled. So is the physiology of reproduction in species from microbes to man, and reproduction occurs via conserved molecular mechanisms that I have detailed with across-species examples in my model.

    If fixation had ever been linked to mutations, but not to nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled reproduction, the authors might have been able to continue to tout theory. Instead, they refuted mutation-driven evolution but say “…our results show that further empirical work and more theoretical models are required to accurately predict the fate of that allele over long time spans.” They indicate they are simply waiting to begin touting another theoretical model.

    Why do we need more theoretical models to predict the fate of any allele over long time spans? It is perfectly clear that epigenetic effects of the sensory environment arrive via olfactory/pheromonal input and control the nutrient-dependent physiology of reproduction, which controls the fate of alleles across the evolutionary continuum?

    What we need is to simply acknowledge the biological facts. The authors of this article do that, but only in passing. They say: “Our study confirms… and highlights [the fact] that the nature of adaptation can be complex.” That complexity is obviously found in the systems biology of epigenetically effected alternative splicings and fixation of alleles, which is nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled, which I began modeling in the early 1990’s.

    Perhaps I should not have assumed that most people would know that new alleles are nutrient-dependent. That assumption led me to think it didn’t need to be proved, and that most people would accept the fact that fixation was pheromone-controlled, not mutation-driven and mutation-controlled. I was wrong to expect others would accept the facts instead of continuing to accept the theory of mutation-driven evolution.

  10. Re: “Most published research findings are false.” Most scientists are aware of this possibility and take it into account. If a finding is important, it is redone before building on it. The problem is ideology. William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Peter Guthrie Tate were happy to use the prestige of physics to claim the sun and earth were 20 million years old. They continued to make this claim all their lives. Huxley and Haeckel, in Bathybius, thought they found the transition between inorganic and organic, and Henry F. Osborn believed he had found the remains of a fossil man in Nebraska. They were important claims, and they were wrong and excepting Kelvin’s, who had a choir, were quickly corrected.

    1. Well, the ideal is to only build on things that have been definitely established, say by repeated observations with sufficient documentation by various researchers, preferably by experiments that control conditions and rule out other possibilities. In practice it doesn’t always work out that way. Also Jonny O pointed out, what gets reported to the public may be something quite different. Sadly, textbooks also have been shown to be highly fallible, and often unavoidably out of date. They included Haeckel’s, um, fudged drawings of embryos for decades.
      I believe the *known* physics at the time of Kelvin’s death still favored the Earth and Sun being far less than a billion years old. Has there been a way to determine exactly how much radioactive material there is in the Earth and how much it would affect its heating, or is it assumed or estimated? Likewise, I have not heard of any way that evolution, by any means, could cross the transition between the chaos or stasis of the inanimate to the controlled, organized dynamic complexity (CODC) of living things (i.e. “chemical evolution”), nor, for that matter to produce all the entirely new systems exhibiting CODC of all living things, over any amount of time. It’s simply the result of philosophical necessity, given that explaining the origin and history of life is granted the mantle of “science” and science is defined as “providing natural explanations for everything.”

  11. Thanks W. Benson. I get that a lot. People think that no evidence and a report indicating none will ever be found to scientifically support mutation-driven evolution should not quickly be accepted. Instead, they prefer to stick with mutation-driven evolution, when adaptive evolution is clearly nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled in species from microbes to man because there are examples of cause and effect in species from microbes to man. Do you think we should wait another 86 years for the next refutation of mutations theory?

  12. “Signaling Crosstalk: Integrating Nutrient Availability and Sex” is an excellent representation of how nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution occurs via conserved molecular mechanisms found at the origin of sexual reproduction in yeast. I mention this for those who are afraid to comment on the fact that mutation-driven evolution has been tossed to the ground and kicked aside by biologist bullies who are presenting facts. If you have evidence that can be used to stop the bullying, please use it.;6/291/pe28

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