So begins National Public Radio science journalist Richard Harris in his chapter, “Broken Culture," in his newly published book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions.
Darwin was driven by curiosity; he didn't start out with a “coherent hypothesis,” Harris says. Plus, Darwin "had no need to hustle for money,” and "he was in no hurry to publish his discoveries.”
Today the “high pressure of competition can tempt even the best scientists into dangerous territory,” Harris warns in his 278-page book.
You can hear what Harris says about sloppy science/faulty research when he travels from his home in Washington, D.C. to the University of California, Davis, campus to deliver a Storer Lecture.
Harris will speak on “Common Errors that Bedevil Biomedical Research and How to Fix Them,” from 4:10 to 5 p.m., on Wednesday, Oct. 25 in the UC Davis Student Community Center. The event is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow the lecture.
The lectureship, established in 1960, is funded through a gift from Professor Tracy I. Storer and Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer to bring eminent biologists to the UC Davis campus. Speakers have included Nobel laureates, members of the National Academy of Science and acclaimed authors in the life sciences and medicine.
“Richard Harris has written a very important and unsettling book based on his careful investigation of the biomedical research enterprise,” said Mark Winey, distinguished professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and dean of the College of Biological Sciences, UC Davis, who is hosting the journalist. “We can expect an intriguing and thought provoking lecture.”
In his book, Harris relates that American taxpayers spend $30 billion annually funding biomedical research. “We all rely on biomedical research for new treatments and cures,” Harris points out. “But this critical enterprise is not in the best of health itself. Most experimental treatments fail. One reason is that the underlying research does not hold up to scrutiny. Scientists find that far too often that they are unable to repeat experiments that other researchers have carried out.”
By some estimates, half of the results from these studies can't be replicated elsewhere—the science is simply wrong, Harris asserts.
The national award-winning science journalist, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, has covered science, medicine and the environment for NPR Radio since 1986. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz with a bachelor's degree in biology, he began his journalism career as a reporter for the Livermore (Calif.) Tri-Valley Herald. He later joined the San Francisco Examiner as a science writer. He is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and the Northern California Science Writers' Association.
We just finished reading Rigor Mortis today. It's not only an eye opener, but a call to action. It's as easy to read as a well-documented and detailed newspaper investigative piece, complete with patient and researcher interviews and anecdotes. It zeroes in on “the constant scramble for research dollars” and the fact that scientists' “promotions and tenure depend on their making splashy discoveries.” Sadly, it's often quantity over quality in the "publish-or-perish" world of academia.
Harris writes about egregious research, targeting cancer, heart disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, diabetes, and other diseases--diseases that can and do affect us all, either through taxpayer funding or personal/family/friend experiences.
Charles Darwin was in no hurry to publish his discoveries. Neither should today's researchers. We can and must do better.
(Editor's Note: The presentation will be recorded for later viewing. Joanna Chiu, associate professor and vice chair, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, is coordinating the Storer Lectureships in Life Sciences for the academic year. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
So here's this lady beetle patrolling a rosebud. It's early spring--April 15--in Vacaville, Calif.--and our little subject is looking for some tasty aphids. Or perhaps a mate.
Oh, a visitor is on my rosebud, heading right toward me. Identify yourself, please!
It's a wasp, a male parasitic wasp from the family Ichneumonidae (as identified by Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis).
The Ichneumon wasp is probably looking for a girlfriend. The lady beetle does not meet its expectations.
The wasp hurriedly flies off. Its mate, when it finds one, will lay her eggs in caterpillars, including such pests as armyworms, cabbage loopers, tomato fruitworm and tussock moths, much to the delight and appreciation of agriculturists. The eggs hatch into larvae, which develop inside the host, killing it. Adult wasps emerge and the cycle continues.
The wasp family is aptly named. "Ichneumon" comes from the Greek word meaning "tracker," a reference to its search for a host. Where's a caterpillar when you need one?
Charles Darwin seemed a bit troubled by this, describing these parasitic wasps as "feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars." The caterpillar shrivels up and dies.
Ichneumonidae is a big, big family of feeders. The number of described species? More than 24,000 worldwide. However, "estimates of the total species range from 60,000 to over 100,000--more than any other family in the order Hymenoptera," according to Wikipedia. That's probably more than any other family in the insect world, or for any other family, for that matter.
Says BugGuide.net: "They vary greatly in size and color; many are uniformly colored, from yellowish to black and others are brightly patterned with black and brown or black and yellow; many have middle segments of antennae yellowish or whitish. The majority resemble slender wasps but differ from the stinging wasps (Scolioidea, Vespoidea and Sphecoidea) in having longer antennae with more segments (usually at least 16). Many have long ovipositors, often longer than the body."
"Ichneumonids are notoriously hard to identify: aside from the sheer number of species, there are numerous cases of distant relatives that appear almost identical," BugGuide points out. "Any identification based solely on comparing images should be treated as suspect unless an expert has said there are no lookalikes for the species or group in question."
Look closely at Charles Darwin's ceramic face.
You'll see selections from his secret notebooks and images of organisms that most influenced his scientific studies.
His beard is peppered with moths. You'll also find barnacles, iguanas, finches, orchids and other creatures on his face.
It is, says Diane Ullman, "a profound learning experience in and of itself."
The ceramic mosaic, appropriately titled "The Face of Darwin," will be among the art work displayed June 3-July 3 in the Buehler Alumni and Visitors' Center at UC Davis.
The background of "The Face": Ullman, an entomologist-artist, taught a freshman seminar with fellow artist Donna Billick to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday. Ullman and Billick co-founded the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion Program and serve as the co-directors. The seminar was part of the Art/Science Fusion Program.
The Buehler art exhibit features more than 50 student photographs from Terry Nathan's class, "Photography: Bridging Art and Science," also part of the Art/Science Fusion Program. The photographs, Nathan said, explore the conceptual connections between art and science and the role of art and science on the UC Davis campus.
A public reception takes place from 3 to 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 4.
"The Face of Darwin" is both hauntingly beautiful and a vividly detailed study of the science that engulfed the evolutionary biologist. The eyes plead his passion, begging for knowledge, understanding and realization.
It is, indeed, as Ullman said, "a profound learning experience in and of itself."
Kids love bugs.
And they love books on bugs.
One of the bug books we bought our son during his childhood was “Insect World: A Child’s First Library of Learning,” published by Time-Life Books.
It includes such chapters as:
Why Do Butterflies Love Flowers?
Why Are a Dragon Fly’s Eyes So Big?
Why Do Ladybugs Spit Yellow Liquid When They’re Caught?
Why Do Bees Sting?
How Do Grasshoppers Jump?
An illustration in the back of the book depicts insects doing the wrong things. Titled “What’s Going On?,” the drawing shows a butterfly eating an insect (Not! It drinks nectar); a praying mantis eating grass (Not! It eats other insects), a grasshopper drinking sap (Not! It does eat grass, though), a honey bee spinning a web (Not! But it does make a wax hive) and a cicada drinking nectar (Not! But it does drink sap).
The diversity of insects continues to amaze us--from the huge Madagascar hissing cockroach to the tiny walnut twig beetle. Check out the Bohart Museum of Entomology's seven million specimens on the UC Davis campus or take a look (below) of this partial collection of UC Davis evolutionary ecologist Andrew Forbes, a post-doctoral scholar in professor Jay Rosenheim's lab.
On Thursday, Feb. 12, the eyes of the world will be focused on biodiversity. That's the 200th anniversary of the birth of naturalist Charles Darwin. The New York Times just published an article on him, "Darwinism Must Die So Evolution May Live." The San Francisco Chronicle explored "Eric Simons: Frolicking in Darwin's Footsteps." The BBC says "Scotland 'Inspired' Darwin's Work."
And at the 2008 meeting of the Entomological Society of America, scientists devoted an entire seminar to Darwin's fascinating life and his contributions to science.
Fortunately, Darwin (1809-1882) neglected the medical studies his parents so desperately wanted him to pursue and instead explored his passion.