Funny business, that storytelling

©Warren Nunn

Scientific storytelling is sometimes so obvious that it could even be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t so serious.

An article <Shape shifters, The Economist, p. 70, 9 May 2015> which claimed the ancient ancestors of animal and plant cells had been identified near an underwater volcano called Loki’s Castle fell into that category on a number of levels.

Loki's Castle video capture. Image: Centre for Eobiology/University of Bergen/wikipedia
Loki’s Castle video capture. Image: Centre for Eobiology/University of Bergen/wikipedia

One Dr Ettema had been studying the life found near an underwater volcano called Loki’s Castle located between Norway and Greenland.

When he delved into the genetics of the area’s archaea (microbes which together make up a domain and kingdom of single-celled microorganisms) he said he got a surprise. Maps of genetic relatedness suggest the group to which these inhabitants belong, which he and his colleagues dub Lokiarchaeota, also embraces the eukaryotes. The “ancestral” eukaryote, without mitochondria, was, it seems, a Lokiarchaeote.

The report started with a statement about the historical importance of the understanding of the ‘evolution’ of the cell, followed by an obvious bit of storytelling:

Without this innovation, which happened about 2 billion years ago, life on Earth would consist only of bacteria and a group of similarly simple creatures called archaea.

None of these claims can be substantiated and are imagined events superimposed on to the study of current, living and fully functional entities. That is, the entities exist in the present; we can study how they “work” and make observations about that. We cannot, however, know everything about their past without making some assumptions which go beyond science and into speculation/philosophy.

Dr Ettema it seems has a good sense of humour though and drew a comparison from Norse mythology about the shape-shifting “abilities” of Loki and the microbes he was studying. The connection to Hollywood and the 1994 film The Mask is obvious.

We all wear masks, Wendy

For those unfamiliar with the movie’s storyline, the main character Stanley Ipkiss (played by Jim Carrey) is a bank clerk who is “transformed into a manic super-hero when he wears a mysterious mask”.  And we learn the ‘magic’ qualities of the mask come from Loki of Norse mythology.

Ben Stein as Dr Arthur Neuman in The Mask. Image: wikimedia.
Ben Stein as Dr Arthur Neuman in The Mask. Image: wikimedia.

One of the memorable lines in the film comes from the character Dr Arthur Neuman who says: “Yes Wendy, we all wear masks; metaphorically speaking.” Dr Neuman is played by Ben Stein who in 2008 made the documentary that exposed evolutionary intolerance, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

When storytelling becomes a bit lame

It’s interesting that scientists tap into popular culture in this way but it is total game-playing and storytelling. It could be seen to be an innocent way to get the layperson to imagine how the suggested abilities of the microbes could have ‘evolved’, but it’s more than that because the scientists know that the media won’t point out the obvious lameness of it all.

In the climate in which we live, science has failed properly to get right the balance between vital and needed research and the straitjacket of the dogma increasingly imposed on exploring and explaining everything around us.

Science we are told is self-correcting; in that only peer-reviewed research is approved and adds to the pool of knowledge. That is true to a certain extent but peer review is flawed because people are flawed.

Add to that the reality that evolutionary dogma rules science and the thinking of any dissenters are by default rejected, it’s not hard to see how science has become increasingly flawed and intolerant.