Science brawls, explained by a scientist

Here's what scientists are feuding about online this week

Dan Samorodnitsky


The internet is a vast web of smaller ecosystems, where controversies and arguments can feel all-encompassing from within and confusing from an outsider's point of view. That includes the world of scientists, who share an argot and a fundamental training that can set their debates apart even as they are uniquely positioned to affect the broader world. Enter Massive. As an accessible science publication by active STEM researchers, we figured, who better to bring the controversies to you?

Here's the first of an occasional series explaining the fascinating topics that scientists are debating, inscrutably, in the public sphere.

Should scientists see a journalist's work before publication?

Who has a more ramrod ethical backbone: a scientist or a journalist? Science and science journalism Twitter were roiled this week when speech and language researcher Kyle Jasmin posed a question: should a journalist show text and quotes from an article to a scientist they interview for a story?

A lot of scientists – myself included, depending on how you read that question – said yes. If what we're talking about is a journalist making sure quotes and scientific terms are accurate, I'm all for it (and, in past instances of media exposure, that's what ended up happening). In my experience, scientists often feel like media coverage of science can be hysterical, overly sensationalized, or not precise enough in a "well that's not technically completely true" way. 

Those are natural feelings, and wanting to make sure you and your work are accurately represented isn't unreasonable.

But a lot of other people interpreted the question as, "should journalists give scientists their text before publication?" Some scientists actually do want that, which met with uniform resistance from every journalist on Twitter (pretty much every journalist on the planet). To journalists, sources shouldn't be privy to copy as a matter of journalistic independence. Some scientists really, really want to achieve precision (to the detriment, some might say, of accuracy and accessibility). 

This is a bit of a very old push-and-pull between scientists and journalists, where the former seem willing to sacrifice accessibility in the name of precision (even though scientific literature is often imprecise on top of being impossible to read), and the latter is willing to be less granular in order to maximize readability.

Biohacker CEO drops his pants on stage

Biohacking, is kind of a combination of citizen science – a very good idea where non-professional scientists collaborate in collecting data with professionals – and a DIY, garage workbench ethos. The latter isn't in and of itself a bad idea, but most famous proponents of biohacking are mostly showmen at best and selling snake oil at worst.

This week a biohacker named Aaron Traywick injected himself with an experimental herpes vaccine in front of an audience attending a biohacking conference in Austin, TX. Traywick is the CEO of Ascendance Biomedical, a biotech startup that offers a streamlined solution to healthcare, judging from their Facebook description, by working outside the FDA-approval pipeline, which to many biohackers (and to some scientists) is too slow and overly regulative.

The idea is that he injected himself with the genome of a damaged herpes virus, with the hope that some cells will take up that genome, and those cells will produce damaged viruses, which will invoke an immune response without actively harming him. That's like eating a fistful of grapes and hoping it'll turn into wine later. (There are no human vaccines that work like this, though several veterinary ones do.)

What that has to do with streamlining medical care or breaking the system is unclear to me. There are plenty of herpes vaccines in development right now, and the kind that Traywick made everyone watch him self-inject isn't a special one (and since it's a live, weakened virus, like the oral polio vaccine, there are real concerns with safety).

Even for a community that has more showmanship than data, this seems to be too much. Buzzfeed has some nice quotes from a variety of people condemning what Traynor did. The FDA has noted multiple times that selling these types of DIY treatments is illegal. Even Josiah Zayner, one of the more visible biohackers, said that Traynor's self-medication lacked scientific merit. (Zayner, last October, injected himself with DNA that he said would make his muscles bigger.)

Ascendance is a fun new type of biotech company. They use blockchains! But more than their efforts at breaking the vaccine-creation pipeline, their website hints at a few of their other ideas, which you can vote on to encourage them in pursuing.

Some of them seem like weird things to self-inject yourself over. Do you smell bad? Ascendance says they can fix that with DNA. They also have ideas for solving solved problems (like a Zika vaccine, which already exists). 

But if you're really adventurous, consider DNA that will make you more sexually desirable by making you smell like fruit. Which one? Bananas? Apples? Oranges? What is the most erotic fruit? Ascendance doesn't say.

Any questions?

Ask Dan Samorodnitsky