Since you are reading this, you probably have some interest in knowing more about how science works. Perhaps you have been intrigued by news reports about science but dissatisfied with their superficiality. You may be a young person wondering about a possible career in science. You may even be a practicing scientist curious about how I will present a topic that is already quite familiar to you.

I hope to stimulate a diverse group of readers, but my main goal is to tell some stories about science that are richer in detail than most science report s in the popular press. Thus I am writing for people who may have great interest in science but little or no technical training and who get most of their information about science from the news media. If you are a beginning biology student, I hope this book whets your appetite for more detailed study of the principles that underlie these stories. If you are a teacher, I hope you find some examples that help you engage your st udents in thinking more deeply about science. If you are doing research in one of the areas I discuss, you will undoubtedly think of important details I should have included or different points I should have emphasized, but I hope you conclude that my translation of your story for a nontechnical reader is accurate and fair. Why am I writing a book primarily for readers who learn about science from reading or listening to the news, while also hoping that those who use textbooks, reference materials, or in-depth research will find valuable ideas in these pages?

Science stories are regular features of the daily news, although usually not as prominent as stories about war and peace, pol itics, economics, and especially sports and entertainment. In its coverage of science, my local newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, is probably fairly typical of newspapers in all but the largest cities in the United States. I haphazardly selected 13 issues, published between 2 August and 2 September 2002 to examine its coverage of science.1 After excluding stories that simply reported new cases of West Nile virus, a series of stories about a cancer cluster in a small town near Reno, and the weekly health section, I found 15 science stories, for an average of about one per day. Most of these stories were about human health and nutrition, with headlines such as "Study: Gingko Fails to Give Your Memory a Boost," "New Research Suggests Less Genetic Risk for Breast Cancer," "Experts: Cloned Animals Might Be Safe to Eat," and "Putting Caffeine on Skin Lowers Risk of Cancer in Lab Mice." Others were about geology ("Earth Getting Fatter around the Equator"), global climate change ("Severe Weather Not New, Will Happen Again, Scientists Say"), and evolution ("Researchers: Chimps May Have Survived AIDS Epidemic"). The stories ranged in length from about 100 to 900 words.

Most of these articles were based on newly published papers in scientific journals that caught the attention of science journalists or were promoted by the researchers or their institutions because they were thought to be of some general interest. Another major source of science stories in the popular press is reports released by government agencies or commissions, as in the report about cloned animals being safe to eat. Such stories typically describe some new discover y ("Putting Caffeine on Sk in Lowers Risk of Cancer in Lab Mice") or a study that overturns prevailing wisdom ("New Research Suggests Less Genetic Risk for Breast Cancer"). The fundamental problem with almost all of these stories is that they emphasize the conclusions of researchers but give scant attention to the methods used to reach these conclusions. There may be a brief explanation of a key piece of evidence but rarely any discussion of the assumptions made in interpreting this evidence (Rensberger 2000). The reason for this weakness is simply lack of space or time to develop the details of the stories. Science often gets only cursory attention in the media because it competes for attention with many other topics.

There are several unfort unate consequences of the approach to science often taken in the news media. First, it reinforces the belief that science is a unique activity and scientists are fundamentally different from the rest of humanity. This belief can be called the cult of the expert. It is rooted in the assumption that a great deal of technical training is necessary to become a scientist, and therefore scient ists are the only ones who can truly understand what other scientists do. Based on the cult of the expert, the role of the news media is to transmit pronouncements of scientists to the general public. Neither reporters nor consumers of news are responsible for evaluat ing these pronouncements. Instead, when different scient ists make contrasting pronouncements, the issue is which scientist has the strongest credent ials, and therefore should be considered most credible, or which scientist is the maverick challenging an orthodox view, and therefore should be favored because of his or her status as an underdog.

The cult of the expert has a second negative consequence: news about science can be confusing when successive stories about a topic report different conclusions. For example, a headline one month might say "Red Wine Protects the Heart," while several months later we might read "New Evidence Shows Red Wine Bad for Health." These stories are probably reporting different types of studies of different groups of people done by different researchers. Which conclusion should we believe? The most recent, simply because new research always trumps older research? The study done by a member of the National Academy of Sciences because of the reputation of that senior scientist? On a more practical level, should we drink more red wine or less?

A third unfortunate consequence of science reporting is that readers miss the fun and excitement that were part of the discover y process when stories focus on the end result s. To be sure, there are many popular book s about science and some in-depth stories in magazines and newspapers that emphasize the quest for a solut ion to a problem, but most standard news stories are too short to say much about the scientific process. If they mention the excitement of discovery, it's usually in the context of an interview with one of the investigators rather than an explanat ion of the process of gathering and evaluat ing evidence. This may enable readers to appreciate the joy of discovery, but it doesn't encourage them to become act ively engaged.

Finally, typical news stories about science don't prepare readers to think more deeply about scient ific issues. These stories provide lots of informat ion but little educat ion, although they could prov ide both if they focused more on the scientific process leading to new results. By taking some of the mystery out of science, this would benefit not only individuals who read the news regularly but also society in general. For example, it might promote more rational discussion of social and political decisions that relate to science.

One of my primary motivations for writ ing this book is to present a more accurate image of science than you would get if you relied exclusively on the news media to keep up with scient ific progress. In particular, I will use several contemporary stories in biology and medicine to try to deflate the cult of the expert by describing some of the nitty-gritty details of the thought processes and research methods used by the key players. Modern science is undoubtedly complex, but I believe that many aspects of this complexity are accessible without extensive technical training. Only you can judge whether this belief is justified.

News about science is often confusing because different k inds of evidence point in different directions. It's not yet clear, for example, whether the net effects of a daily glass of red wine are beneficial or detrimental. But this uncertainty is an inherent result of the fact that scient ific k nowledge grows by fits and starts in unpredictable direct ions, more like a rambling house with rooms added as the need arises than like an edifice whose final form can be visualized by the original architect. The essence of science is not some nuggets of information about the nat ural world but rather an ongoing process for gradually learning how the world works, with occasional breakthroughs in the form of major discoveries. At any given time, the understanding of a phenomenon is likely to be incomplete, with conflict ing explanat ions and ev i-

dence. Scientists have learned to tolerate such uncertainty and even relish the challenges it offers. Nonscientists will have a better appreciation of the strengths and limitations of science if they can adopt similar attitudes about unresolved scientific issues. The most serious challenge for both scientists and nonscientists is how to make practical decisions in light of ambiguous scientific evidence. This challenge applies to both personal choices about health and nutrition and choices society must make about environmental regulations and other publ ic policies. I will argue that ignoring the scientific uncertainties is not an effective strategy for making these kinds of decisions.

Perhaps my most important goal is simply to show you the pleasure that can be had from thinking rigorously and critically about how scientists try to solve problems. I've selected some stories that I think will capture your attention because they are about fascinating natural phenomena, such as dwindling populations of frogs or the prodigious memory abilities of food-storing birds, or about issues that may be of intense personal interest, such as the causes of cancer. But my underlying goal is to draw you into each story because of the topic itself and then have you discover that the real excitement is in the various approaches of researchers in answering key questions. I hope to show you "why science should warm our hearts," in the words of the philosopher Colin Tudge (2002).

I've scolded the news media for giv ing an incomplete and inaccurate picture of science. However, I see this book as a supplement to daily news about science, not an alternative. Many science journalists do an excellent job, especially when they have an opport unity to write longer stories about topics that they have investigated in depth. Even the brief reports of scientific progress that are staples of the daily news are an important source of information for general readers. But one goal of this book is to help you read future stories about science in the popular press with more understanding and insight. Even if the author of a story doesn't tell you much about the assumptions of a study or the methods used to test an idea or hypothesis, you may be able to make some educated guesses about these things and interpret the story with an appropriate mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism.

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