Sunday, November 25, 2007

THE SMARTEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD: And the journalists who fellate them

"We're off to see the wizard!"

There are only two types of stories on synethic biology in the mainstream press: Rewritten press releases distributed by newspapers, made only for the purpose of polishing a synthetic biologist while proclaiming how world-changing his research effort/company will be; and stories explaining how synthetic biologists will revitalize the world, but bad synbiologists will be making diseases, bioterrors and bio-errors, killing millions.

"Want to create a pathogen?" writes one knob in the second category for Reason On-Line.

"Just download its gene sequence information from the Internet and place an order with a gene sequencing company. The genes arrive in the mail a couple of days later. Mix it in your basement lab and then release on an unprotected public. Is this nightmarish vision of mail-order bioterrorism really possible?"

Another example of this type was recently proffered by the Los Angeles Times. This was the other flavor of standard piece, one in which the journalist fellates the synthetic biologist of choice, Craig Venter.

"We're trying to design cells that produce unique renewable fuels," it goes.

"We have one of those in extensive testing now that could be one of the first green jet fuels. Hopefully there'll be hundreds of these. With this breadth of biology, we have the capability of probably making any chemical out there. It's not hard even to imagine gasoline or octane that we put into our tanks. Bacteria can make that."

A common aspect of these stories is that the world is always transformed. Synthetic biologists have the answer for everything. In a country where empty-headed bragging is conditioned into everyone from birth, they actually almost stand above the madding crowd, regularly crowing to stenographer journalist/groupies how everything will be conquered. Global warming, cancer, the affordable housing shortage, all swept away by scientists who can manufacture life like putting together a simple transistor radio on a breadboard.

The more one reads the proclamations from synthetic biologists, the more one finds they have much in common with the claims delivered by civilian egotists at the Pentagon who went on about a revolution in military affairs before Iraq went bad.

Biology, in fact all science, is to be given new starch. And anything fantastic that can be imagined will happen. The obstinacy of nature, results dictated from Murphy's Law in which experiments simply do not work - or actually do work, but just in ways that are no more or less productive than previously - is not in this story.

DD performs a rant on the cant and how deadeningly repetitive is the delivery of brags here at el Reg.

One can't really underestimate how yawningly stupid mainstream reporting has been on synthetic biology.

In a country where the average person doesn't really give a hoot about science and mathematics, reporters are -- when interested in the subject -- even worse than the average citizen.

If you asked a stranger in the street, right after he'd paid $3.50 for a gallon of regular gas in Pasadena, what he thought of the "fact" that bacteria and plants producing petrol and jet fuel were just around the corner, he or she would likely roll their eyes.

Fuel crisis solved! Green jet fuel from bacteria!

Yet, here is this absolute rubbish in Karen Kaplan's piece at the LA Times, an article that is the equivalent in tone to what used to run in Tiger Beat magazine about members of The Monkees back in the Sixties.

"We're trying to design cells that produce unique renewable fuels. We have one of those in extensive testing now that could be one of the first green jet fuels."

The Craig Venter dictation lesson to the admirer at the Times is actually worse. DD linked to the piece's second page on-line, so you didn't see this one from the first page on Craig Venter finding alien life.

Venter's so great, he'll not only cure global warming, the fuel crisis and global disease -- but he'll also discover alien life in moon rocks, something which has so not obviously occurred to any other scientists since they were brought back. [That's sarcasm.]

Here's the reporter's question to The Great Craig, on discovering life.

Karen Kaplan (LA Times): "What if you find something that will freak people out?"

Let's repeat, with what the Times would have really liked to say.

"Oh Great Craig, what if you find something that will freak people out?"

The Great Craig, responding to us simpletons who detest progress: "Who could not like the idea of life in space?"

"[Craig Venter] thinks genome design will make it possible to create green jet fuel, gasoline -- just about any chemical. It's either that or go back to cave dwelling," drools the Times in the interview's subhed.

Craig will save us from the caves! The drought will eventually become less severe in California because of Craig's green jet fuels! There'll be rain in Georgia! Oh my God! Craig for President!

In truth, Kaplan's and the Times' idiotic slobber job over Venter (or any synthetic biologist) is commonplace. Editors just go nuts for nonsensical titillation.


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