Something I’ve written about before but continues to surprise me when I encounter it, is that despite all the fancy software, listings of all the laborious statistical models, double blind tests and holy of all holies the untouchable power of peer review that is part and parcel of contemporary life sciences research you can still find, with relative ease, entrenched great chain of being philosophy that for me, completely torpedoes and sinks some of the merit of the research in question.
I’m not saying we can ever unhook ourselves from the delusion that we’re special wee beings amongst the rest of organismal life because we’ve got a chin, invented jazz, pot noodles and various other debatable accolades that propel us to the top of some pyramid or front of some queue but I do wish it wasn’t quite so explicit in the structure of degree courses, the language we use to talk about evolution, the way we frame interest in science stories and of course how we frame our relationship with the rest of the organismal life.
Read on, dear reader for the paradoxical platypus, concerned scientists who are earthworms and other lies we tell ourselves at night.
A new story doing the rounds earlier this week reported on a ‘foolhardy’ dolphin that suffocated whilst trying to eat a giant octopus. You can read the story here at New Scientist. The story is based on a short note paper published in Marine Mammal Science and its one of those nice little papers that describes a rare behaviour to add to the anecdotal record of behaviour between cetaceans and cephalopods. The Marine Mammal Science paper goes into grim detail about how an octopuses arms and suckers can remain active up to an hour after the ‘head has died’ and in this instance the suckers were still firmly to the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin’s larynx, oesophagus and tongue during the autopsy. The story was circulated fairly widely in the ‘science tabloid’ outlets and news websites however all is not as it seems.
Headline from the New Scientist reporting
Many stories lead with the headline about a giant octopus and some sort of judgement of the dolphin involved- greedy, foolhardy- but the reporting of this story is a nice example of when engineering a clickable headline and story is actually a bit misleading. At its worst we called say this was fake news. But this is exactly the kind of example I like to use when teaching students about the difficulties of striving for readability and accuracy as well as the wonderful complication of language especially when it comes to science. So when is a giant octopus not a giant octopus? Read on to find out. Continue reading