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.

 

 

 

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A Big Step for Bats

Merlin Tuttle
1/22/19

Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article [by Merlin Tuttle] was originally submitted as an email to the editor. On January 13, I explained the harm done by biased portrayal of bats. The editor promptly requested permission to publish my communication as an op-ed. We encourage our members to share it broadly. Nothing can threaten bats more than the fear and intolerance created by misleading disease stories.

Rousette fruit bats are essential pollinators and seed dispersers. They form colonies of many thousands in caves and abandoned mines where they are extremely vulnerable to extermination. Tens of thousands were killed at a single site in Uganda by humans overreacting to fear of Marburg virus.

Speculation linking bats to scary diseases has become lucrative, both in generating research grants and media readership. As historically documented, it can have devastating impact in fostering intolerance and even massive bat eradication. It also threatens the credibility of scientists and publishers and diverts critical public health funding from far higher priorities.

Many authors and publishers of such counterproductive speculation are well intended, just misinformed. If kindly approached with sound documentation of the harm being done, they are appreciative and can be extremely helpful as we have repeatedly demonstrated.

 

 

 

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Response to Inappropriate Coverage of Bats and Ebola in Smithsonian Publication

Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?”
Merlin Tuttle
5/9/17

 

Lorraine Boissoneault’s story, Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?, is clearly well intended. However, when it comes to fruit bats and Ebola it is based on outdated speculation that threatens serious harm to a group of mammals that is already in alarming decline. For a summary of current knowledge of bats versus Ebola and other rare, but so-called emerging diseases, and their speculated association with bats, I refer you to my article in the current edition of Issues in Science and Technology, titled “Give Bats a Break.”

Diseases that are millions of years old, but that are just now being discovered due to their rarity, are being referred to as “emerging” as an apparent public relations ploy to make them sound more dangerous. And speculating associations with bats makes them even more scary, since many people already fear bats. This has proven unprecedentedly effective in gaining hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support so-called virus hunters, who must continue speculating about potentially dire threats from bat diseases to keep their grants flowing.

Bats historically have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans, first in caves and thatched huts, then in log cabins.

Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) beginning their evening departure from a city park in Ivory Coast, Africa. Cities often provide the only homes safe from commercial hunters who sell them for people to eat. Despite such large numbers having lived in close association with humans throughout recorded history, they have not caused disease outbreaks. Their remarkable safety record casts grave doubt on recent speculation of their being dangerous carriers of disease.

(more…)

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BAT FLASH! Sensational NPR Story Threatens Bats

Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
2/14/17

 

Unfortunately, the normally objective and reliable NPR, in its broadcast interview titled, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, has joined in spreading irresponsibly sensational fear of bats. The interview with a “virus hunter” is set in a Bornean rainforest. In the preamble, the announcer notes that, “It’s where deadly viruses hide out, waiting their chance to leap into a person and then spread around the world.”

 

At a time when bats and rainforests are both in alarming decline, and in desperate need of protection, the program goes on to portray them in the scariest of terms. The reporter notes that rainforests “have lots of crazy animals” that “have lots of crazy viruses” and explains that what the virus hunter “really wants is to catch a bat.”

When the first bat is caught it is described as cute, but the reporter quickly points out that, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, that was called SARS, and they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause the next big one, Nipah.” This is unproven speculation reported as fact. But it gets even worse.

(more…)

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UPDATE!  Ebola virus researchers considering alternative reservoir hypotheses, bats unlikely

Hundeds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.
Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.

Following years of headline speculation reporting bats to be the reservoir for Ebola, a review of current knowledge points elsewhere. This often fatal disease is caused by the Ebolavirus genus, which includes five species (Sudan, Zaire, Bundibugyo, Tai Forest and Reston virus). The geographical distribution of these species along separate river basins is inconsistent with a highly mobile source, such as bats, that easily cross basin borders. (more…)

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