Bat Flash! Scientific Credibility Under Siege—Sound Data Versus Premature Speculation

By Merlin Tuttle
2/21/19

Just as we enter a period of exceptional need for reliable science to protect and restore a healthy planet, too many traditionally prestigious science journals and institutions are rewarding bad science. (1) (2) “Scientists are supposed to relentlessly probe the fabric of reality with the most rigorous and skeptical of methods.” (3) Yet traditionally credible journals like Nature and Science are increasingly publishing sensational speculation, particularly studies attempting to link bats to deadly diseases. (4)

Growing numbers are attempting to prove rather than test hypotheses, sometimes based on a sample of just one viral fragment from a single bat. (5) Kai Kupferschmidt’s article titled, “This bat species may be the source of the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa,” exemplifies the problem. It is based on a highly questionable sample from one bat, though it appeared in the online news site of the journal Science (January 24, 2019).

The common bent-winged bat lives in caves and cave-like locations from southern Europe to Japan and Southeast Asia to China, the Philippines and Solomon Islands, most of Africa and eastern Australia. It is insectivorous, often feeding on small beetles, and forms large colonies, some exceeding 100,000 individuals.

As is typical in such stories, it begins with a scary question that will grab readership and media attention. That Science title is followed by a emboldened quote stating that “This is an important new lead and it should be followed up extensively.”

Later quotes, less emphasized, admit that only a small viral fragment was found, and that it may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat. In other words, this bat may have simply eaten an Ebola-carrying insect, completely changing the bat’s role from implied source to controller. Perhaps if virologists weren’t so focused on proving that Ebola comes from bats, they might have found the true source by now.

A growing number of leading virologists are warning that virus hunting, promoted by such articles, is a costly waste. The unsupportable public health promises being made are likely to demean the credibility of science. (6) Scientists need incentives for finding the right answer rather than for simply getting published. (1)

Kupferschmidt’s article ends with a warning that bats shouldn’t be killed. However, as already documented, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear, especially bats. (7) (8)

The New York Times ran a similar account of the same story, authored by Denise Grady. It was titled “Deadly Ebola Virus Is Found in Liberian Bat, Researchers Say.” The author admits “It feels premature scientifically” but fails to admit that the small viral fragment may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat, making the bat a potential aid in limiting the spread of Ebola. They too, belatedly and ineffectively, admonish not to kill bats.

Sensational and premature reports like these are clearly irresponsible and risk great harm to both scientific credibility and the environment.

 

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to Science and The New York Times editors and authors to politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate exaggerated speculation that creates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!

 

 

 

Bibliography

  1. Gandevia, Simon. The Conversation. We need to talk about the bad science being funded. [Online] July 18, 2016. https://theconversation.com/we-need-to-talk-about-the-bad-science-being-funded-61916.
  2. Current Incentives for Scientists Lead to Underpowered Studies with Erroneous Conclusions. Higginson, Andrew D. and Munafò, Marcus R. November 10, 2016.
  3. Smaldino, Paul. Opinion: Why isn’t science better? Look at career incentives. The Conversation. [Online] September 20, 2016. https://theconversation.com/why-isnt-science-better-look-at-career-incentives-65619.
  4. Tuttle, Merlin D. Give Bats a Break. Issues in Science and Technology. Spring 2017, Vol. 33, 3, pp. 41-50.
  5. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Tuttle, Merlin D. 1, Austin : Journal of Bat Research & Conservation, 2017, Vol. 10.
  6. Tuttle, Merlin D. Opinion: Disease Prediction by Bat Virus Surveys Is a Waste. The Scientist. [Online] January 21, 2019. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/opinion–disease-prediction-by-bat-virus-surveys-is-a-waste-65348.
  7. Marburgvirus Resurgence in Kitaka Mine Bat Population after Extermination Attempts, Uganda. Amman, Brian R., et al. 10, October 2014, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 20, pp. 17611-1764.
  8. Investigating the zoonotic origin of the West African Ebola epidemic. Saéz, Almudena Marí, et al. 1, 2014, EMBO Molecular Medecine, Vol. 7.