Science Is to Journalism As a Fish Is to a Bicycle

At The Guardian site, Martin Robbins has nailed everything that's wrong with science news on "general interest" websites in this pitch-perfect parody. It gets at the heart of the uneasy marriage between science and newspaper journalism.

Mediocrity, timidity and stupidity are some of Robbins' targets, as they are for any satirist ("to pad out this section," runs his generic news article, "I will include a variety of inane facts about the subject of the research that I gathered by Googling the topic and reading the Wikipedia article that appeared as the first link"). More interestingly, though, much of the shabbiness he mocks would not be cured by harder, better work. This is because the industry's standards for "good journalism" aren't compatible with the standards of good science.

Newspaper journalism, and its Web descendant, presumes a simple epistemology: there are facts; the reporter finds those facts; the reporter presents them. The reader has no trouble understanding the report, because we all know the world in the same way, using the same methods.

Scientific research depends on a less naive view of reality: there are theories, according to which we know, with x degree of confidence, certain facts. A research paper may offer new facts; or increase our confidence that already-known facts really are facts; or overturn the framework of theory, in which case yesterday's facts become today's "myths they used to believe." For example, in the 1970s, the brontosaurus of my childhood became apatosaurus, and museums where its skeleton was on display replaced its skull with a different looking one. Ether, a substance that pervaded the universe in the 19th century is now no more. The miasma theory of disease, which drove cities to build sewers, collect garbage and clean their streets, gave way a century ago to the germ theory.

So the perfect newspaper story focusses on what we know. The perfect journal article focusses on how we know. The bulk of that article—methods used, what data they generated, how and why that data was interpreted to mean that some fact is to some extent likely to be true—is exactly what newspaper epistemology ignores. Because the unstated philosophy of newspaper reporting is that we all perceive the same facts, with the same method (eyes, ears, common sense). Undermining that assumption undermines the reader's reason to read the news, so a news story can't do it.

That's why the news is filled with a mix of ridiculous, pointless precision ("Lindsay Lohan was booked at 10:35 A.M.") and empty pronouncements that sound authoritative ("it remains uncertain whether the economy will experience slow growth or fall back into recession"). This twaddle reassures the reader that the world is comprehensible, that important facts are known, or will soon be known—because everything is knowable. In this world the greatest sin, the most unprofessional of acts, is to disturb this illusion of perfect understanding. You can't tell your audience that nobody knows what the hell will happen next in this economy, so you say, instead, that the economy's fate "remains uncertain." To any normal human you'll sound like a fatuous ass, but within the newsroom you'll be seen as a real pro.

Add to this the editors who care nothing about ideas (Robbins: "in this paragraph I will reference or quote some minor celebrity, historical figure, eccentric, or a group of sufferers; because my editors are ideologically committed to the idea that all news stories need a "human interest", and I'm not convinced that the scientists are interesting enough"). Also the conventions of our trade in 2010, which decree that all writing must be accompanied by bright and shiny objects ("At this point I will include a picture, because our search engine optimization experts have determined that humans are incapable of reading more than 400 words without one").

That mix gives you the hurried mediocrity that Robbins mocks, in which journalists , forced to pretend that they only report simple "facts," fall back on the "fact" that, as Robbins writes, "while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true." His lead paragraph captures the vacuity of all this: "In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of 'scare quotes' to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever."

Readers wouldn't put up with sports news that reported scores and quoted coaches without saying what the game was, or how it was played. Yet a lot of "general interest" science news is as Robbins describes it. That's not because reporters are dumb and unprofessional; it's because they're smart and quite professional.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.