The trouble with science journalism
The trouble with science journalism is that for various reasons—including, but not restricted to laziness—it tends to uncritically accept the claims made in a paper. A case in point was an article that I picked up on recently because it's about work in my field, and I remembered the research in question from a conference last year.
The work in question is a pretty cool project at Cornell. Now as a piece of swarm robotics work this stuff is pretty much cutting edge - they've managed to get simple individual units to perform an organised group behaviour with very limited processing capability on each unit, and only local control. I have as yet to see what's so exciting about the state of the art in swarm robotics, but this work is state of the art.
As I (and I suspect most people) understand it self replication means what the vast majority of biological organisms do: re-organising the materials in their environment to creat copies of themselves. In a sense, the Cornell modular robots are doing this, but the catch is in what materials they take from the environment. The environment in which this robot exists is pre-seeded with fully functioning robot modules, whereas clearly a baby is not assembled from pre-made parts. This system is equivalent to if humans wandered round in a world full of working limbs and torsos and heads, and we simply picked the right set of parts from the environment and assembled them to make a child.
This is not a damning criticism of the work itself—although I do believe they are overselling their work by playing semantic games—because in their Nature paper (free to download and only a page long, so read it yourself) they make a subtle argument about a continuum of self-replication, on which this work represents a point close to the simplest extreme. In their terms it is at least arguable that these robots are self-replicating. However, I do think it's getting reported in a highly misleading way, from the Nature paper being title
Self-reproducing machines, through the New Scientist article describing these machines as
self-cloning, and the Beeb parroting that
[t]he experiment shows reproduction is not unique to biology. There is a pretty huge gap between what the experiment really involved and what these reports make it sound like it does.
I don't intend this as a tirade against either the Cornell group (who have put what I think is a better characterisation of their work online in a FAQ) or science journalists. Unfortunately scientists do have to hype their work in the never-ending competition for funding, and non-specialist publications have no choice but to get stories written by people who are not experts in that particular field. I think that to a small extent this does represent a failure of the peer-review process, in that the reviewers of that Nature paper should have insisted that the article's title and subheader be changed to something less dramatic, but again this is relatively small issue considering that the article's content is good. My main point is that we as scientists have to present the counter-point when we do see this kind of misrepresentation happening in a field we really know about, and as lay readers we have to take everything outside our area of expertise with a large grain of salt. It's not even safe to assume that peer-reviewed articles are free of errors and over-grandiose claims, let alone articles in the daily papers.
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Tracked: August 22, 2006 04:52 AM