5 Big Science Stories That Were Total BS
A certain amount of media bias is inevitable, but some things are sacred. When it comes to news about science, for example, we expect journalists to urinate a bit less on our legs while they inform us about upcoming precipitation. Unfortunately, that is so rarely the case. Look at how ...
The 10,000-Hour Rule Was Debunked
In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the "10,000 rule" in his book Outliers: The Story Of Success. According to this idea, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, whether that's nuclear physics, cake decoration, or playing the clarinet with your ass. It's easy to see why people latched onto this; not only is it logically appealing, but it's just a nice idea. It's meritocratic. Hell, it's goddamn American. Sure, we're not Tom Brady, but with 10,000 hours of practice, we too could have a supermodel wife, six Super Bowl rings, and the male equivalent of Goop.
Unfortunately for us mortals, it doesn't seem to be true. The original idea behind the 10,000-hour rule, before Gladwell sprinkled his pop science pixie dust on it, came from a study of violinists in 1993. And if there's one group that truly represents the everyman, it's classical musicians. Even worse, the sample was a laughably small 30 students at the Music Academy of West Berlin. Ten were students fit to be international soloists (the jocks), ten were music teaching students (the dorks), and ten were middle-aged performers at the Berlin Symphony (goths, we guess).
An overly niche study isn't a big deal, but unfortunately for aspiring Bradys everywhere, the study's been cited countless times and inspired multiple bestselling books, and nobody's bothered to try to replicate it until recently. When they did, with larger sample sizes, they found that practice makes much less of a difference than previously believed, and that factors beyond the participants' control -- such as "genetic, personality, life history, etc." -- mattered more. The ugly truth is that for the vast majority of us, no amount of practice will leave us as skilled as Tom Brady. The good news is that that also means none of us have to be Tom Brady.
The Study That Found Religious People Are Less Generous Had A Fatal Typo
Theology's image has taken a bit of a hit lately, what with ... everything in the world being how it is. And religion's good reputation wasn't helped by a recent experiment designed to measure the generosity of religious vs. nonreligious people, which used that most reliable indicator of charity: children's reactions to stickers.
In the experiment, participants were taken aside and told that they could pick 10 stickers out of a collection that was presented to them. They were then told that there weren't enough to go around, but if they wanted to, they could put some of their stickers in an envelope to donate to the less fortunate. On average, the godless children chose to contribute 4.1 stickers to the cause, while their religious peers only gave a skimpy 3.3-ish. Sure, three-fourths of a sticker doesn't seem like a big difference, but as long as some huge and embarrassing error hadn't been made, news websites could confidently report that religious people were a bunch of hypocrites.
Unfortunately, the study caught the attention of other experts in the field. Upon further examination, they found that someone screwed up the data. A completely irrelevant variable -- the numerical code assigned to the participants' countries of origins -- had been mistakenly included in the calculations. When the figures were recalculated, they showed no meaningful difference between the groups. It turns out that all children are monsters, no matter how many hells you threaten them with.
The Media Reported That A GMO Mosquito Project Backfired (It Didn't)
Working in certain branches of science can be dangerous -- not just for you, but for the entire world. One little containment breach, and suddenly you're responsible for The Stand. That's what appeared to have happened when a British biotech company called Oxitec loosed 450,000 genetically altered mosquitoes into a Brazilian town. Here's the twist: They did it on purpose.
Was this an entire lab of James Bond villains? Nope! The goal was actually to reduce the local population via interbreeding that would result in sterile offspring. But early reports claimed that the introduction of GMO madness into the gene pool was actually creating a hardier species. This was it, the opening sequence of 15% of all SyFy original movies happening right before our eyes.
Except that's not what happened, evidenced by the fact that we haven't all been eaten by super-mosquitoes. All the headlines came from one study whose conclusions Oxitec called "false, misleading, and speculative," further pointing out that its claims weren't even supported by its own data. This would be easy to dismiss as an evil corporation's attempt to smear their detractors, except most of those detractors agreed with Oxitec.
Six of the study's eight authors filed for retraction once they noticed that the published paper bore as much resemblance to their work as the World War Z movie did to the book. What happened here? Did some agent of chaos with an anti-GMO agenda decide that the best way to sow discord was to hack into some British scientific journal whose name you wouldn't recognize? Whatever the case, we can all agree that it's some type of movie, dammit.
We Have No Idea What Happened To The CRISPR Babies Because The Scientist Is A Grifter
With the relatively recent development of CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing tool, the only thing stopping us from going full Gattaca are some party-pooping scientists urging "caution" and "further testing" before they can "just hand out Jude Law features willy-nilly." Well, all except one guy. Late last year, Dr. He Jiankui shocked the world by claiming that he had edited the genes of two twins to turn the babies into disease-proof, hyper-intelligent superhumans. A flurry of headlines ensued, but there was one catch: The word "claimed" turned out to be doing a lot of heavy lifting.
It seems the good (read: wildly irresponsible) doctor never actually submitted his work to a professional journal for peer review, nor did he work with any collaborators. He simply presented his experiment at a genetic research conference with barely any information, so none of his work has been independently verified. He was too busy orchestrating a secret PR campaign to worry about such minor details. Even if he did manage to mess with these kids' DNA, it's way more likely that he simply mutated it instead of editing it. But "Grifter Might Have Accidentally Created Common Mutants" isn't nearly as snazzy of a headline as "Incoming: Genetic Utopia/Apocalypse, Depending On Your Perspective."
Even The Guy Who Came Up With The Number Doesn't Think Climate Change Will Kill Us In 12 Years
Hey, did you hear that climate change is going to doom the world in 12 years? You better have. We have a timeline for the apocalypse, and it is a short one:
That last headline refers to a quote that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez later said was "dry humor" -- as in, she was exaggerating about it being literally the end of the world. But she was serious about the 12-year deadline, which is now often used in discussions about the urgent need for action on the issue. But what if we told you that in 12 years, actually ... nothing will happen? Well, plenty of things will happen, but plenty of things will also happen before and after that.
Here's where the number came from: The Paris Agreement loosely pledged to keep a global temperature rise under 2 degrees. It also had a vague stretch goal of keeping the rise under 1.5 degrees, which would presumably be 0.5 degrees better than 2. A couple years later, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out a report to evaluate that stretch goal. The report said we'll hit 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052, or in 12-34 years. So right from the start, "12 years" wasn't exactly a deadline. At that point, the report says, we'll see sea level rise and floods and famines. Much like at 2 degrees, but less so. While that last conclusion might sound stupidly obvious, the exact sizes of those predicted consequences are important to the nations deciding how to respond. But the media and politicians skipped over those annoying details. They just saw the list of disasters and panicked -- which, to be fair, is probably a conditioned response at this point.
In reality, there's no apocalyptic significance to the 1.5-degree figure. Just ask Oxford's Myles Allen, the lead scientist behind the report. He says we may have hit the 1.25-degree mark already, so another 0.25 degrees won't feel very different to us at all. It'll be catastrophic, sure, but pretty much in the way climate change is catastrophic right now, rather than some future end-of-days scenario. People will definitely still be around in 2030, and will almost definitely be around when we hit 1.5 degrees. And then a bunch of them will note the distinct lack of an apocalypse, laugh at the alarmism they heard back in 2019, and conclude that climate change isn't a big deal after all while hundreds of millions suffer. It'll be swell.
E. Reid Ross has a book called BIZARRE WORLD that's on store shelves as we speak, or you could just order it now from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and leave a scathing/glowing review. Steven Assarian is a librarian with a short story collection called A Punk Rock Future available here. Michael Battaglino is a contributor to Cracked.com. Be sure to check out some of his other work if you enjoyed this article. Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.
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