Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Who’s Afraid? Evolutionary Science and the Media

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences uncovered some interesting information on the Galapágos’ black salt marsh mosquito. The study found that the mosquito (Aedes taeniorhynchus) was not a recent arrival, as previously believed, but in fact, had migrated to the island chain over 200,000 years ago. Notably, A. taeniohynchus had evolved to feed on the blood of lizards, tortoises, and other reptiles rather than mammals, as is the case with the species on the mainland. What struck me about the discovery was not just that it involved an application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in an location in which he famously studied, but how the media reacted to what seemed to be its rather mundane conclusions.

Tracking the article as it spread across the major outlets, I found that news of this discovery touched off a wave of hysteria in the newspapers as columnists proclaimed that the reptile-eating mosquitoes (see, the Guardian's "Galapagos Giant Tortoises Face Mosquito Threat" or Science Daily's "Mosquito Evolution Spells Trouble for Galapagos Wildlife") would threaten all sorts of ecologically-sensitive wildlife, including the Galapágos’ famous giant tortoises. In fairness, these fears were generated by the prospect of mosquito-borne diseases – although the actual risk of animal-borne diseases could also be debated – brought to the islands by the Galapágos’ surging tourist industry. However, whatever the rationale, the reaction demonstrates interesting aspects of the media’s relationship with the sciences and evolutionary science in particular. Reactionary fearmongering doesn’t seem to be the most prudent response. The threat isn’t particularly immediate. Whether or not the study had been conducted, the environmental risk would be the same, as it had been in some form for thousands of years. (Of course, it may decrease now, given that preservationists are aware of the threat posed by the mosquitoes.) Also interesting is how the newspapers chose to sell the story in human terms – several of the articles mentioned malaria, a human disease – after the recent scares involving zoonotic diseases, most recently swine flu. A curious decision given that the mosquitoes are newsworthy for their preference for reptiles.

Fortunately, the situation is not urgent, but it does demonstrate that there are significant problems with the manner in which evolutionary science is handled by the media, namely, its fixation on danger at the expense of the “scientific” aspects of the story. (The actual discovery itself is lost in the jumble of quotations.) This may be an unavoidable result of the divergence in interests – the media to its shareholders, science to whatever lofty or unlofty goals – but one can hope.

Ben Picozzi

No comments: