Dinosaurs, baboons, and science journalists

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It is well known within organic chemistry circles that there is a very strong bias toward L rather than D homochirality in the structure of earth's organic compounds. A recent paper offered a speculation about a possible explanation of the bias:

If there was … right circularly polarized light with energy in the uv or higher irradiating the asteroid belt when the amino acids were present on a particle that later came to Earth, this could account for the small excesses of the L anantiomers seen in the &#x03B1-methyl amino acids.

And what did the PR/media machine do to make news out of this finding? The headlines ultimately mutated as far as this:

Claim: Advanced dinosaurs may rule other planets

The paper was entitled "Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth." It did not exactly make a claim that advanced dinosaurs may rule other planets. What it talked about was the possible existence of right circularly polarized light irradiating the asteroids before there was life on earth. (It is thought that the amino acids forming the basis for life on our planet could well have come from the asteroid belt via meteors, and their structure might be affected by light polarization. Some meteors found in Australia contain materials that have a bias in the direction that earth compounds favor.)

Robert McHenry provides an interesting and perceptive analysis of the way in which the science reporting got from possible light polarization biases to smart velociraptor civilizations on other planets. And as he notes, to be fair to the media we have to acknowledge that the absurd metamorphosis was considerably aided by an ill-considered (indeed, frankly silly) throwaway remark at the end of the serious organic chemistry paper by Ronald Breslow that is being reported on. Wrapping up his paper, Breslow said:

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L &#x03B1-methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth.

And then he overreached and added this:

Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.

McHenry wonders "what imp of the perverse induced him to add" those two extra sentences. Handing those sentences to the university PR men can only be compared to giving a bottle of Coke a good two-minute shake before handing it to a thirsty person.

This Discovery News analysis by Ian O'Neill re-examines the story, though in the process it makes things still worse with the headline "DO INTELLIGENT DINOSAURS REALLY RULE ALIEN WORLDS?", and a link to the idea of dinosaurs developing a space program, and an insanely inappropriate picture that clearly shows the silhouette of a large sauropodal herbivore, rather than the sort of smart predator that might have signed up for the dinosaurian space program had there been one. (Come on. An apatosaurus is not going to pass the physical.)

We're still a long way from sensible science reporting industry. Faced with a choice between trying to give an accurate sense of what has been done and writing a sexy piece with an utterly insane eye-catching header and lede, they'll take the sexy insane eye-catching line every time.

Language Log frequently deconstructs some of the nonsense that gets published about linguistics and cognitive science. For a typical example, take a look at Mark Liberman's analysis of results about baboons (Papio papio). What the research shows is that baboons may perhaps be able to become subconsciously aware of letter frequency in orthographic stimuli that they have been exposed to (stimuli of which they do not understand one single word, of course). Where the headlines went with it is well illustrated by this random example:

Reading time at the zoo: the baboons that excel at English.

You could hardly make this stuff up. Except that science reporters do, every single day.

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