What Drives Drosophila to Drink, and Science Editors to Report on It
Don't miss our friend James Barham's enjoyably acidic reflections on science "news" reporting, in the context of that article in Science that was making the rounds last week about how male fruit flies will consume alcohol in the wake of sexual frustration, as if to drown their sorrows.
Barham takes apart a cutesy-poo New York Times report on the subject:
Like most articles reporting on the latest scientific findings that are alleged to throw light on human nature, this one is written in that irritating combination of sophomoric facetiousness and pious credulity that is unique to science journalism.Barham observes, "Clearly, the culture wars are lurking in the background, here." The equation of people with animals is the whole point. It's the major premise of the syllogism that proves, as Jerry Coyne puts it, "Why Evolution Is True."
The stupid jokiness is not just the sugar that makes the bitter pill of science go down more smoothly -- it's the whole story. Without the anthropomorphic projection, there is no story. Certainly, no story worthy of the front page.
The real story -- what makes a bunch of boring experiments front-page news -- is clearly the tiresome insinuation that human beings are "just like" fruit flies.
Remember that the article is entitled "Learning from the Spurned and Tipsy Fruit Fly." The key word here is "learning." What is it, exactly, that the experiments are supposed to teach us?
Well, it's interesting in a way that Drosophila like alcohol, though the fact that animals in general are susceptible to alcohol and can become intoxicated, just like humans, has been known for a very long time. It's mentioned by ancient writers.
Nowadays, you may view drunken monkeys, elephants, and other animals staggering about on YouTube to your heart's content, if that's your idea of yucks. So, it's not exactly front-page news.
What does all this imply?