Bad Depictions of Science in the Media
We’ve been watching the reimagined Battlestar Galactica for the past few months. At the risk of geeking out, I was very upset by the season 2.5 episode “Epiphanies” . Not merely for the absurd plot twist, but for the bad example how to conduct research. I am distressed by the lack of scientific literacy in our society. I don’t blame TV shows, and I accept that science fiction takes liberties with principles and technology, but science basics should remain intact. Besides, this episode just bugged me. Spoilers ahead!
Colonial President Laura Roslin is dying of breast cancer. After the Cylons attacked and occupied the colony planets, she and 50,000 some-odd survivors are aboard a fleet of ships in space. Roslin is hours from death until scientist main character Gaius Baltar discovers..she can be cured with blood from the fetus of a human-Cylon hybrid! (Yes, there’s a pregnant Cylon gestating a half-human progeny on board…long story). Excerpt:
BALTAR: You see, I had another look at those samples, and I discovered something quite intriguing…If our blood looks like this for example and the Cylon blood looks like this (draws overlapping polygons) then it’s fair to assume that the Cylon human is carrying an amalgam.
ADAMA: Is this a theory or fact?
BALTAR: The Cylon’s fetus contains no antigens, it has no blood type. That’s what Dr. Cottle was talking about when he said it was damned odd. Except it’s not damned odd, it’s astonishing. Now, knowing as we do that the Cylons are built slightly better to endure than their human counterparts, I wondered, could the Cylon blood also be blessed, shall we say blessed, with a heightened resistance to disease?
So, I applied a sample of [the Cylon’s] fetal blood to some cancer cells I took from the President.
(shows an empty Petri dish)
ADAMA: What am I looking at?
BALTAR: Nothing. That’s the whole point. The cancer is gone and it was gone within a matter of hours.
I’m not going to discuss Cylon physiology or bad storytelling in this post. Instead, I’m going to focus on how Baltar presented his data.
What are the problems with this?
1. Baltar only ran one sample. One sample? Really? How does he know the cancer dying wasn’t a one time fluke? He should have replicated his findings as well. Perhaps there was something in the environment that killed the cancer cells.
2. Baltar didn’t run controls. What were the effects of the blood cells on normal human tissue? What would have happened if he left the cancer cells untreated? We don’t know! My PI always hounded us about including the appropriate controls in any experiment we did, even if that meant including ten additional experimental groups.
Baltar also didn’t study the effects in an animal model, but I’ll cut him some slack on that. Roslin was actively dying, and it’s highly unlikely someone in the fleet had mice available for experimentation. To his credit, he acknowledged that this was an untried cure which he characterized as “extremely dangerous”.
So why does this matter? It’s just a TV show, right? Whether as symptom or perpetuation, this is how the public understands how science is conducted and applies this same level of understanding to real life research.
Here’s one example: there was a conspiracy theory a few years back on the Internet about dichloracetate (DCA) has been proven to cure cancer, but the Pharma companies won’t pursue because DCA can’t be patented. There were studies indicating DCA is effective in vitro, but had not yet been tested in humans. The lack of understanding of how research works contributed to the spread of said conspiracy theory. The DCA conspiracy theory keeps popping up from time to time, even though there have been human clinical trials.
There are plenty of other examples. Quacks using patient testimonials to promote bogus therapies, Andrew Wakefield’s devoted following despite the inability of other researchers to replicate his findings (among other flaws)…the list goes on.
The key to improving scientific literacy is improved primary and secondary education. Classes that teach science as a process, not as collections of facts, explaining how we know about the natural world is essential, especially with information readily available to the public.