"Paris Nicole Smith" Trumps Climate in the News



As we argue in the Nisbet & Mooney Framing Science thesis, one reason that traditional science communication efforts fail to reach the wider American public is that the media tend to feed on the soft news preferences of the mass audience, making it very easy for citizens who lack a strong interest in public affairs or science coverage to completely avoid such content and instead pay only close attention to infotainment sagas.

As a result, climate change, despite receiving record amounts of media attention historically, still routinely fails to crack the top 10 news stories, as tracked by the Pew News Index. Last week is a great example. As Bush and G8 leaders negotiated possible directions forward on climate policy, the issue failed to crack the top 5 news agenda stories. Instead, the news was dominated by the juggernaut narratives of Iraq, the 2008 Horse Race, immigration, and the jail house drama of Paris Hilton.


Indeed, coverage of Paris Hilton pales in comparison to the mounds of media attention heaped on the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Here's what Pew concluded in analyzing coverage trends during the first quarter of 2007:

For four straight weeks--from February 4 through March 2--it was a top-10 news story. It also re-surfaced as a top-10 story in the week of March 25, when the autopsy report concluded that she had died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. By the end of three months, Smith's death--and the many related issues--rated as the eighth-biggest news story of the year so far. It filled 2% of the overall newshole, finishing just ahead of the newly elected Democratic majorities in Congress and just behind the Valerie Plame case that led to the conviction of the Vice President's top aide, Scooter Libby.


In comparison, according to Pew, global warming made up 1% of the total newshole. All other environmental issues combined made up less.

The biggest culprit in running with the sensationalism narrative is not surprisingly cable television news, especially Fox News where Anna Nicole Smith accounted for 10% of its news time during the first quarter of the year, the second biggest story at the network.

With coverage reaching into 30% of the newshole during the height of the saga, the Smith story was the third biggest on cable for the entire first quarter of the year. It filled 7% of the newshole, finishing behind only the Iraq policy debate and the presidential race. On daytime cable, with its greater focus on live coverage and breaking events, it proved to be the biggest story (11%). There were also differences by cable channel. For the quarter, it was the Fox News Channel that devoted the most time to the subject. The Smith saga accounted for 10% of the network's overall coverage, narrowly finishing as the second biggest story behind the Iraq policy debate (also at 10%). Smith was the fifth-place story at both CNN and MSNBC, where it accounted for 4% and 6% of the coverage respectively. The only other platform in which Smith's death ranked in the top 5 stories was network morning television, where it was the fifth biggest story overall at 4%. It was the third biggest story (6%) on CBS's "Early Show," the fifth biggest topic (4%) on NBC's "Today" and the seventh biggest subject (3%) on ABC's "Good Morning America."

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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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.
Surprising Science
  • 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. 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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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