Pitting science against media

Laysan albatross pair

Photo by Dick Daniels from Wikimedia Commons.

Odds are that the Laysan albatrosses in the photo above are a male and his female mate, but it’s worth checking their sex chromosomes to be sure. The reason? In this long-lived species, most of the adults are females, and two females often pair up to raise chicks (fertilized by other males of course). In some populations, up to a third of the nesting couples are female-female pairs1.

They’re not alone – plenty of other organisms engage in same-sex courtship, copulation and even long-term pairing. And it’s often for a good reason. Take the deep sea squid Octopoteuthis deletron. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium recently took to the deep in submarines to study their sex lives. They observed sperm packets attached to the bodies of both male and female squid, suggesting that males inseminate every other squid they can, “indiscriminately and swiftly” – a good strategy in a dark habitat where it may be hard to tell who you’re looking at2.

The media response was predictable, calling the squid bisexual, sex-starved, same-sex swingers. Promiscuous? Maybe. Indiscriminate? Yes. But pervy? I’m not so sure.

It’s an issue that Andrew Barron and Mark Brown commented on recently in the journal Nature3. Sensationalized coverage of research, especially when it makes great leaps to compare animal behaviour to human sex, can do real damage – to science and to society as well, by dredging up tired stereotypes about sex.

That was Barron and Brown’s main point, and I certainly agree. But their article got me far more worked up than the sex-starved squid.

The solution to bad media coverage, Barron and Brown say, is that researchers should be a lot more careful when they talk to reporters. No speculations. No loose-lipped comparisons to other species. And “No comment” if reporters dare to ask. Barron and Brown say that scientists have the power to shape the media coverage of their research, and with that power comes responsibility. They used Lindsay Young, one of the albatross researchers, as an example of what a good scientist should do3:

Young was regularly quoted as saying “Lesbian is a human term. The study is about albatross. The study is not about humans”. When asked what her study said about human behaviour, Young’s only quoted reply has been “I don’t answer that question”

Here’s where I completely disagree. Outright denial of the issue is not a useful way to deal with inaccurate media coverage – especially since the audience will always be aware of the human-animal comparison, regardless of the quality of the writing along the dry-to-debauched continuum.

Censorship won’t work, since those comparisons will always be made in someone’s mind (and increasingly, online), regardless of what you say to reporters. I would go further to say that Young’s stance actually hurts her cause. Saying “I don’t answer that question” makes the reader wonder, “Why not?! Surely there must be something interesting there that she doesn’t want us to know…”

It’s part of a researcher’s job to explain the implications of her work – and if people are going to wonder about the human connection, but there aren’t any implications there, she should explain why.

I have other quibbles: Barron and Brown cite studies where researchers hormonally manipulated Caenorhabditis elegans nematode worms and found that they had altered sexual preferences. They go on to describe media coverage problematically claiming that the worms’ “sexual orientation” had been changed. Some terms, like gay and straight, should definitely be limited to humans, but it’s entirely reasonable to apply “sexual orientation” to animals. It may be the best way to describe a consistent pattern of mate preference behaviour.

In their conclusion, Barron and Brown offer this: “Ultimately, any one study can tell us about the sexual behaviour of only the species under investigation.”3 That’s just not how science works. If it were true that we could never infer beyond the results at hand, biologists should just quit now. The field will never get off the groundnot with 9 million species on this planet.

Others have pointed out that by describing the true diversity of animal sex lives, we can help destroy the idea that human sexual minority groups are strange or unnatural4.

I’d have to agree. Pitting scientists against the media is no way to solve prejudice.

Further Reading

1. Young et al. 2008. Biology Letters 4: 323-325.

2. Hoving et al. 2012. Biology Letters 8: 287-290.

3. Barron and Brown. 2012. Nature 488: 151-152.

4. Hooper. 2012. Nature 489: 203.