[EN] What irks me about popular science

Posted on March 4, 2012
Filed Under English

I know, I should be grateful that there are a number of great and communicative scientists who are willing to invest time in bringing their research and theoretical insight to a wider audience. I do believe though that they sometimes resort to rhetorical tricks to help that understanding. The one that annoys me the most is the humanization (or the suggested anthropomorphism) of evolutionary processes.

I was watching the BBC series “How to grow a planet“,  presented by geologist Dr. Iain Stewart, and the first episode was about “Life From Light“, or basically: how plant life came into being and started dominating the planet. So far so good, interesting enough despite the popularized approach.

But then it happened: the emergence (and immense growth, in number and in height) of the dinosaurs threatened plant life: they were hungry beasts, and daily diets of a metric tonne weren’t that uncommon. So what happened, according to Dr. Stewart? Yes: the plant kingdom “defended itself” by becoming toxic, by growing spikes and thorns, or by shooting up to 300 feet in height.

So not a word about “easy vegetation” (from the point of view of serving as food) being wiped out by hungry hippos (sorry ..) and “difficult vegetation” surviving or even taking the place of the former competitor for light and nutrition .. no: the “plant kingdom” was said to be “reacting to” changes in their habitat and “defending itself” against attackers. They’re scheming, sentient beings now, actively playing the chess board of nature, borrowing tricks (quod non, of course) from chameleons and armadillos?

I know, it’s popular science. I know, it helps in getting the general message across, and it will likely increase the interest in science, which we should all applaud and commend.

It still irks me.

It irks me that evolution is portrayed as anything other than a series of random mutations, the most (unintentionally) “beneficial” of which are (unintentionally) conducive to a species surviving under their particular contemporaneous circumstances.

Should I get out more?


One Response to “[EN] What irks me about popular science”

  1. Pieter van Hecke

    The World is my country, science my religion!

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