If I were a science journalist I’d follow Dr. George Church around like he was a prophet, too. Dr. Church is in the elite of the scientific community’s best and brightest and he does not disappoint. A visionary with an amazing record of solid accomplishment, when he talks, people listen. To his credit, Dr. Church is willing to speak to reporters and reveal what is going on within the mysterious realms of scientific research. From building synthetic genomes to resurrecting Neanderthals, he can spin guaranteed eyeball-riveting accounts of the amazing world to be.
A claim by Dr. Church that scientists would soon resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth was definitely attention grabbing (1). However, the story I cite was no clickbait and readers following the links discovered a detailed account of the claims of the eminent Dr. Church published in a reputable source. The reporting was first-hand with much of the story told in Dr. Church’s own words.
One scientist found the reporting on mammoth cloning dismaying and wrote an insightful critique of the efforts (2). I have not reviewed all the news accounts sparked by Dr. Church’s latest statements, but did read the Guardian article I cited above. True, that story features some issues exposed in the critique, but I am not willing to brand it as fake news. However, there is some room for improvement.
A more skeptical take should have sunk the idea we are on the verge of seeing mammophants – the hybrid genetic concoction of elephant and mammoth envisioned by Dr. Church. Additional questions could have exposed how far scientists have to go and the highly speculative nature of the current plans for getting there. Finally, more discussion of the rationale – why does anyone want to do this? – would have been illuminating. I suspect Dr. Church wants to create a mammophant because it is a cool scientific challenge. But could these beasts be enlisted in the quest of humankind to turn back the global climate change clock and safeguard the arctic tundra permafrost? How many of them stomping the snow would that take, how fast could they work and would there be any tundra left by the time you actually manufactured a large enough memory – or should that be a reminiscence – of artificial mammoths to do the job? Should cobbling together an artificial mammophant hybrid be viewed as securing a future for the endangered Asian elephant? A few pointed questions might have helped readers decide if this de-extinction effort is equivalent to resurrection and how well the rationales for doing it withstand examination. One journalistic work-around to deal with evaluating technical information is seeking opinions from other experts. Scientists can be a cantankerous bunch and the inclusion of alternative views about the technical prospects for mammophants might have produced some pretty interesting copy for writers.
Neither fish nor fowl, some, perhaps most, of the ‘gee-whiz’ accounts of a mythical mammoth tale were not fake news, but not completely factual either. I suggest the best defense for readers trying to keep informed on science will be to develop the habit of asking questions as you read. Some tips on identifying and compensating for less-than-perfect political reporting may be a useful guide to recognizing some similar, reappearing issues in science journalism (3).
(1) H. Devlin. 2017. Woolly Mammoth on Verge of Resurrection, Scientists Reveal. The Guardian, 16 February 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/16/woolly-mammoth-resurrection-scientists
(2) J. Hawks. How Mammoth Cloning Became Fake News. Medium, 19 February 2017. https://medium.com/@johnhawks/how-mammoth-cloning-became-fake-news-1e3a80e54d42#.3akhbh2yp
(3) S. Inskeep. 2016. A Finder’s Guide To Facts. NPR, 11 December 2016. https://n.pr/2hcAXKx
Update – February 22, 2017
Another take on mammoth resurrection ideas published by The Guardian
M. Carnall. 2017. Undoing Extinction – Let’s Talk About the Mammophant in the Room. The Guardian, 22 February 2017.