By Merlin Tuttle
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).
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)
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. (more…)