SCIENCE: UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Triumph of form over content

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The Independent Culture
THE MONTH of May seems this year to be characterised with a spate of potential wonder drugs and breakthroughs. From breathless claims linking dietary factors to Alzheimer's disease, through a potential new strategy for starving cancers, to a near miraculous treatment for impotency, the papers have been bombarding their readers with instant science. Don't get me wrong. The more the public are informed about the latest developments the better. Moreover, the more column inches editors allow for "education" on what genes are, what cloning really means, how drugs really work, and so on, the better the public will be informed. No, my worry is that it is not just our taste in politicians that depends increasingly on the sound-bite, but that in science reportage too, we might be witnessing the triumph of form over content.

The trouble is that it is in our natures to warm to the idea that drugs wear white hats pitched in molecular combat against chemical villains in the War Against Disease: how easily the dichotomous metaphor of battle- lines comes to our lips, along with that well worn phrase, the magic bullet. We secretly, or not so secretly, want to believe in an unambiguous world where roles are as clearly defined as in a comic strip, and about as sophisticated. In reality however, many drugs and many naturally occurring body chemicals have different facets and ambiguous roles.

The instinct to believe in an almost fairytale solution coincides nicely with the agenda of the media to give consumers what they relish: stories. Scientific breakthroughs make potentially excellent copy. I'm all for promoting science, but stories of scientific advances are problematic: usually the key players are frustratingly complex, and the narrative is usually on a very different time scale from usual news fodder.

Time scales? Well, a news story can often be boiled down to some one-off - a murder, say, an accident, or an earthquake. Science, on the other hand, moves in a totally different, seemingly mysterious way. Someone will make a gentle suggestion in a specialist, peer-reviewed journal: frequently it will be a tentative conclusion thrown up from some seemingly banal and precedented series of experiments, where something unusual was observed, as it were, on the side. This speculation will then lead to a new hypothesis that itself will inspire experiments designed to refute it. Gradually, through the sedate and desiccated pages of the learned journals, so the new finding will, in staccato steps backwards and forwards, be corroborated or shot down.

Such science stories typically unfold at a glacial pace, where it is hard to put your finger on the precise moment where the "breakthrough" occurred. If the media could give their listeners, viewers and readers a flavour of the sheer slog of scientific method along with some insights into the complexity of the problems, then would science be portrayed as boring? Hardly - it is after all surely better to be equipped with an ability for appreciation of the great advance when it does come along than to be fobbed off with the science equivalent of an unremitting smile.