Hello NESCent, or a stranger in the house of science: Day 1

Durham, N.C. , March 22 – Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.
A motherless child whose father dropped him on his head when he was a baby.
That said, a good walk is a fine tonic for oppressive anxiety.
And so it was I found myself admiring the restored tobacco warehouses which stretch out along West Main Street and imbue Durham with a winsome charm.
Oh yeah, Durham’s a pretty little city.
Got pretty little ghosts dancing silent dances in its pretty brick warehouses.
Durham, aka Bull City, was built on a mountain of tobacco money. The august institution of higher learning which borders West Main was called Trinity College before 1924, when tobacco kingpin James Buchanan “Buck” Duke endowed the school with a lavish trust fund. The Dukes were cigarettes at the end of the 19th century. American Tobacco and Lucky Strike walked across the tobacco market like a colossus.
I noted the old Liggett & Myers factory at 701 W. Main. Finished in 1948, the seven-story building was “dedicated to the millions who smoke the cigarette that satisfies.”
Ah, Chesterfield. And where have you gone, Rod Serling? Are you out there somewhere, lost in the shadowy dimension that lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge?
Speaking of knowledge, I soon arrived the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, aka NESCent.
NESCent sits in a former cotton mill at 2024 W. Main, in the heart of old West Durham. We are gathered here, I think, to address the public’s flawed understanding of scientific principles, and, more specifically, to see what might be done to help scientists help journalists explain complex concepts to their readers.
Here at NESCent, I struggled to climb from the pit of my own fears. Scientists have done a lot of great things, but they haven’t invented a machine capable of measuring the terror which besieged me in the run-up to this conference.
What am I doing here? I am here largely (by “largely” I mean 100 percent) on the basis of my enduring friendship with co-organizer Lauri Lebo. I am not a scientist, nor a science journalist. Hell, I’m barely a journalist. But here I am.
After hearing opening remarks and receiving a genial welcome from the nice people at NESCent, resident gurus Norman Johnson and T. Ryan Gregory came at the assembled conference-goers with a little Evolution 101.
I guess my mind was wandering, because I soon looked up and found myself in deep water. The discussion had turned to tree thinking.
Tree thinking? Anatomy of phylogeny?
A good number of conference-goers were mad for Twitter. Brian Switek, a science writer with two books to his credit and a blogger at National Geographic, tweeted this: “Tree thinking is important for sci writers to understand, that must be translated to public. Don’t just plunk down a cladogram.”
I thought this: What’s a goddamn cladogram?
And this: Journalist down! Journalist down!
I was a little startled to behold the reservoir of my own ignorance, the shallowness of my understanding of science.
I have met the enemy, and he is me.
By the time we got to genetic mapping, I was Joe Frazier after the 14th round in Manila. Wobbly in my seat.
About this point, Karl Bates, Director of Research Communications at Duke, felt compelled to step in and suggest we had ventured “way out in the woods.”
Karl, my brother, I walked in the forest long ago and haven’t been heard from since. Journalist engages in tree thinking. Journalist falls out of tree.  Nasty concussion ensues.
A sharp retort flies across the room: “Tree thinking is not the antidote to linear thinking. It is an antidote to linear thinking.”
I thought we might witness scientist-on-scientist violence.
When Ryan confessed “a lot” of evolutionary biologists lack a firm grasp on tree thinking,” I felt better. This headline flashed through my mind:
“Fistfight breaks out among scientists, journalist knocked out”

******

We live in perilous times. I think that’s fair to say.
Ice caps melt. Oceans rise. Billionaires spend millions to dispute that ice caps melt and oceans rise. The rich get richer. Ice caps melt faster. Oceans rise higher. Repeat.
Stuck in the mire of my own thickheadedness, as scientific terminology flew above my head with increasing menace, I got to wondering about my new scientist friends. I wondered: What country do they live in? I want to know. I’d like to live there.
Seems like a beautiful world, unsullied by the pollution of human weakness and corruption. When things don’t add up, they don’t for all kinds of rational reasons.
Out here the real world, where we have trouble distinguishing cladogram from Instagram, irrationality reigns. Senselessness is the currency of the realm.
Now, I suppose I might’ve misread things. And let me apologize for painting with a brush the size of Alaska. I know scientists are fully aware that lots of people don’t believe in evolution and scoff at climate change.
But they don’t seem too worried about it.
Polls are misleading, they say. Data are susceptible to gross manipulation.
Perhaps scientists represent the last best hope of earth.
Maybe they’re just too nice. They don’t like to think of their fellow Americans as ignorant louts. On behalf the Ignorant Louts of America, I’m here to tell them not to worry.
Norman Johnson is one of those nice guys. He’s a soft-spoken evolutionary geneticist from UMass Amherst. Hard to imagine him in a fistfight. You can tell he’s a nice guy the way he displays extreme patience with half-wits like me.
“There is a large amount of the population that does not accept evolution,” Norman admitted. “There’s a large group that is persuadable. There’s a large group of the persuadables and people that accept evolution that don’t fully understand evolution.” Count me among those who don’t fully understand evolution. I understand it less today than I did yesterday. But, as I’ve said more than once (I fear I’m becoming one of those insufferable jackasses who fall in love with their own thoughts), I like to think of myself as a faith-based journalist.
I don’t know much about science, but I have faith in scientific evidence. If the preponderance of the evidence tells us evolution is the best explanation for our current predicament, I’m a believer.
When the weight of scientific evidence suggests an omnipotent deity went on a drunken spree that lasted nearly a week and decided to create a race of ungrateful bipeds in his image, I’ll believe that.
Back to tree thinking for a second. Phylogeny, I think, helps clear up the common misconception that evolution happens in a straight line. That human evolution is a progressive march forward. As far as evolution goes, there is no ladder to the stars.
In a bid to appear halfway intelligent, I nodded my head and offered an analogy to the Whig or liberal theory of history, which at its core assumes humanity is marching along a more or less progressive path to greater enlightenment and freedom.
Norman surprised me.
“I think it may actually be true for history,” he said. “I was reading Steven Pinker’s book (The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined). In it he makes the argument that over time violence has declined and we’re getting progressively more civilized. I was convinced.”
I was dazed.
Not long after that Norman says this: “People often conflate biological evolution with social Darwinism, and they’re not the same.”
My thoughts turned to Goebbels and Goering and that other fellow with the funny mustache and angry body language, and which made me dubious about the notion of mankind’s march to enlightenment.
And I came right back to my developing thesis. Scientists, when they range beyond the boundaries of scientific inquiry, become just as human as you and me. Sometimes more so. How else to explain that a brilliant cell biologist has trouble seeing through the fairly plain sophistry of an intellectual charlatan like David Brooks?
For the record, the gratuitous swipe at Mr. Brooks was not prompted by anything Norman said. He’s from New York. I’m sure he knows from David Brooks. He’s a cool guy. I took a liking to him.  He teaches at UMass-Amherst and contributes to biology textbooks.
He might be immeasurably smarter than you, but he never makes you feel that way.
Nonetheless, he is a scientist. I asked him about his background. He told me about his time at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he did “bench work on drosophila.”
This is how scientists speak. They do so with an utter lack of pretense. Comes natural, like the first breath of a newborn baby.
But …  bench work on drosophila? What the hell you talkin’ bout, Norman?
He explained, quite simply, that bench work = lab work, and drosophila is the a Latin name for the genus that includes fruit flies.
I appreciated the clarification.

******

Meet a scientist: Norman Johnson, 46, grew up in Queens. All four of his grandparents were New Yorkers.
I asked how he got into this line of work.
“I’ve always been interested in science and math,” he said. “My grandfather had a large interest in that and in history as well. My grandfather was an engineer for the New York City subway.”
His mom taught elementary school. Learning was in the bloodlines.
“I come from a long line of teachers,” he said. “My mother wanted me to be a doctor. A lot of mothers do.”
He’s accomplished. He’s the author of the popular book, Darwinian Detectives: Revealing the Natural History of Genes and Genomes.
From all accounts, it’s a good book. I’d like to read it some day. …
I also asked how he got hooked on evolution.
“I like that there was also explanation: that’s why things aren’t perfect,” he said. “A lot of things just made sense.”
Another reason I like Norman: He didn’t mind introducing me to a name like Theodosius Dobzhanksy, which for much of the 20th century belonged to a Russian-born evolutionary geneticist. You have to admit it’s a great name.
I can’t wait to say this to a stranger at a party:  “Well, you know what Dobzhansky says, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.'”

**********
Back to the meeting. Somewhere along the line, we beheld a misleading graphic about the evolution of the platypus. It came from a scientific source, perhaps the National Institutes of Health. I can’t recall.
Which made me think, if a scientist can screw up and mislead audiences, best of luck to the nonscience reporter laboring in the tall weeds at the Podunk Picayune-Star-Sentinel. And the consistently large portion of Americans who don’t believe in any evolution of any kind?
I couldn’t get them out of my mind. They should have a representative here.
And then we walked on to the Mitochondrial Eve, and then most recent common ancestor. The acronym MRCA sent my incorrigible mind reeling to MRSA, which of course is of no help whatsoever. And then we were on to GWAS, or genome wide association mapping. Which led, naturally, to a discussion of linking disequilibrium.
All of which made me think: I could use a dose of lithium.

*********

When Mssrs. Johnson and Gregory had concluded, Lou Dubose offered the journalists’ retort. Dubose, editor of The Washington Spectator, has no shortage of writerly bona fides. He has written six books, two of them with the late Molly Ivins.
Dubose shared a bit about his recent visit to the lunatic asylum that is the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). More than one panel member had to inquire what the hell CPAC is.
CPAC is ground zero for corporate-funded science denial, particularly in the realm of climate change. Again, the ugliness of the real world rears its monstrous head.
Then came Greg Bowers, journalism professor at the University of Missouri. Bowers deftly reached out and returned the conversation back to the general vicinity of terra firma.
“You guys have lost control of the narrative here,” Bowers said. “The methodology of responsible journalism is not unlike the scientific method.”
This is an excellent point, methinks. It is not essential that one possess the understanding of a scientist to write about science. You just have to report and write responsibly.
“(As a journalist) I have an obligation to talk to people who disagree,” Bowers said. “I also have an obligation to say who’s telling the truth and bring that to readers.”
That said, we were free to rejoin our regularly scheduled mission to mystify the process of communication and address each other with bewildered gazes.
When we had adjourned for the day, I had a chance to sit and chat with Norman. I asked him if he was surprised  the opening primer had engendered so much confusion.
He said had an inkling there might be a problem or two.
“My initial concern was, is this too easy?” he said. “I was a little bit surprised with just how complicated it became.”
And that, more than anything, sums up Day 1 with the scientists in Durham.

 
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2 Responses to Hello NESCent, or a stranger in the house of science: Day 1

  1. Arnold Lytle says:

    I’m still reading, Wally. I wanted you and Lori to know. I’m also still enjoying your dispatches from around the country. I tried to post some pithy comments the other day, but my #@%* computer ate them. Maybe I’ll come up with some more sometime.

    • rubewaddell says:

      Arn,
      Hope you know how much I appreciate your continued support. And I always love your comments. Hope you’re hanging in there amid the rolling tide of absurdity on Company Street. And thanks again.

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