2.20.2007

Evolution (shhhh! that's durrrty)

"Evolution" has become a dirty word in many places in America: Kansas (tho we had some good news there last week) and Ohio public school science classrooms, the White House, Fox News studios, my grandparents' Thanksgiving table...and that's all quite disheartening. But at least, I thought, evolution can plead sanctuary in the domain of real science--on college campuses, talks at scientific conferences, and papers published in scientific journals.

Now, apparently, even this latter asylum is under seige. According to a report released last week in PLoS Biology, when medical journals publish studies about things like antibiotic resistance, they avoid using the "E-word." Instead, antimicrobial resistance is (euphemistically, I suppose) said to “emerge,” “arise,” or “spread” rather than “evolve.”

The authors of the PLoS report searched scientific journals published since 2000 for any papers that discussed antibiotic resistance. They then compared 15 randomly chosen articles from evolutionary journals (such as Evolution, Genetics, and Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B) with 15 randomly chosen articles from medical journals (such as The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy).

The results, in their words:
The results of our survey showed a huge disparity in word use between the evolutionary biology and biomedical research literature In research reports in journals with primarily evolutionary or genetic content, the word “evolution” was used 65.8% of the time to describe evolutionary processes (range 10%–94%, mode 50%–60%, from a total of 632 phrases referring to evolution). However, in research reports in the biomedical literature, the word “evolution” was used only 2.7% of the time (range 0%–75%, mode 0%–10%, from a total of 292 phrases referring to evolution), a highly significant difference (chi-square, p <0.001).

What does it matter, you ask, what terms the scientists use, as long as they understand the process? To find out, the authors did yet another literature search with the E-word--this time in the popular press. They searched for articles about antibiotic resistance in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, and the BBC. Then they checked to see if a correlation existed between the number of times the word “evolution” was used in a popular article and the number of times it was used in the original scientific paper that the news report was based upon. And guess what? There was a HIGH correlation (graph at left). As the authors put it:
This clearly shows that the public is more likely to be exposed to the idea of evolution and its real-world consequences if the word “evolution” is also being used in the technical literature.

So bottom line, the E-word is likely to get even dirtier if scientists (or doctors, anyway) skirt around its meaning even within a scientific article. Here's a scarier question: Why does the disparity exist between biology and medical journals? Are doctors actually less likely to "believe" in evolution?! Yikes.

32 comments:

Ed Darrell said...

Of course, it also means that when doctors say they don't "believe" in evolution, they may simply mean they don't understand their own jargon.

But they use evolution all the time.

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