Saturday, October 22, 2022

How mosquitoes smell story shows the need for context in science journalism

The numerous stories this week about how some people are mosquito magnets highlight some things that are right with science and science journalism, but some weakness as well.

Let's start with this, which is a release from Rockefeller University. It's dated 10/22, though I'm not sure why since the study ( was published in July, unless the site is one of those that perniciously shows you the current date whenever you open it, a very bad practice.

The good in it and some of the stories that were generated from it: It illustrates the iterative nature of science, in this case how a researcher, Leslie Vosshall, who has been key to development of one theory (of how mosquitoes "smell" human odors) is not afraid, with new research to say, hey, maybe that's not right.

The not so good: The release, unfortunately, (and as a result, some of the stories) just uses a throw-away graf to mention the post doc researcher, Meg Younger, who was central to the discovery of how mosquitoes smell. (And, as is often the way of the world in science, she is also listed last on the paper, though a note says she and eight other authors contributed equally.)

To NPR's credit (in August), it zeroed in on that researcher and the importance of her work (

I don't remember hearing so much about that first paper, which appears to be foundational and provides important context to this week's stories A search limited from 8/1 to 8/30 shows mostly non-trad or very specialized sites on the first SERP, with only NPR and The Atlantic representing mainstream media.

(Search on "mosquitoes smell," open ended with no quote marks.)

Contrast that with this week and another paper in the same journal ( from the same lab that is attracting a lot of media attention. AP, the Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, the NY Post, CBS, and Euronews have all turned up at the top of the SERP depending on when I've searched and what search engine.

Granted, the current paper is a lot sexier and more focused on the finding that a particular chemical emitted by humans sends mosquitoes a signal the buffet is open. Even given the science speak, the title of the most recent paper, "Differential mosquito attraction to humans is associated with skin-derived carboxylic acid levels," is more approachable than that of the first paper, "Non canonical odor coding in the mosquito."

But if you read the current crop of stories, you might come away with the sense that if we can just get rid of that chemical (you can't; it's vital to your health) or mask it or somehow modify mosquito genetics, we can solve this.

Problem is, in the current crop of stories you will be hard-pressed to find any sense of iteration, that the July paper laid a critical groundwork and introduces some complications. (That paper, if you read it or the NPR story, basically says the old model scientists had that there is one neuron for every type of smell doesn't work with mosquitoes whose neurons apparently are Swiss Army knives when it comes to picking up smells. Thus, they can adapt.)

The only glancing reference to this at the bottom of the AP story (on which many others were based or just simply relayed) is this:

"The study proved this point: Researchers also did the experiment with mosquitoes whose genes were edited to damage their sense of smell. The bugs still flocked to the same mosquito magnets.

'Mosquitoes are resilient,' Vosshall said. 'They have many backup plans to be able to find us and bite us.'" (Vosshall is the lab head.)

The problem: Even with this buried at the bottom, the lack of more complete iterative context (which should be summarized somewhere higher up even if expanded on here) may leave people thinking solutions are easier than they are.

This provides a good illustration because many of the other variables are controlled for. Both papers were in the same journal, they both come from the same lab, and they both cover aspects of the same topic.

So it would have been nice, I think, to acknowledge the earlier work and Younger's importance to it and put in a graf or two saying how the latest paper advances, expands, modifies, etc , that earlier work, or provide clearer context as to why that earlier work complicates things going forward.

Such things can easily become insipid boilerplate, but if done well can help provide reinforcement that science is iterative, not a wowser "new" all the time.

So it's good to keep in mind when seeing MSM science coverage that with their tendency to be like moths to a flame -- timing, one outlet that everyone follows deciding to pick it up, a better PR effort, etc. -- what seems "new" might not be quite so much when put in context.

Part of this comes from my thesis that some of our covid issues, political and social aside, come from failing to provide that context of what's come before. I think a fair chunk of the public has come to see science as a one-and-done thing (for lack of a better term). That leads to the unrealistic expectation, in covid for instance, of quick answers and miracle cures, and when they aren't forthcoming because things tend not to be absolutes but statistical improvements (i.e., the vaccines don't prevent covid, they increase your chances of not getting it, and if you do, of surviving or avoiding long-term effects), the false impression leaves a big opening for the charlatans.

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