Why scientific April fools jokes don’t work

This is another archival repost of something originally written on the old blog in 2005.

There was a joke on the radio the other evening. The joke is that the scientist is obviously joking, but the gullible shepherd doesn’t realise that:

A scientist is talking to a shepherd: “Down at the lab we’ve created a variety of apples with little legs and feet that can walk. Unfortunately when these apples fall from the trees they have a habit of wandering off, and we need a reliable fellow to round them up each afternoon.”

To which the shepherd begins his reply: “Well.. ah.. I’m not so sure I agree with this research, it is kinda like playing God…”

We laugh at how silly the Shepherd is for believing such a tall tale.

Last week lots of highly intelligent people fell for jokes just like this, such as Nature‘s report on bacteria from space missions destroying the moon. To non-specialists, sometimes even other scientists from different fields, real science is as counter-intuitive and unbelievable as apples with legs and bacteria eating the moon. A few years ago Nature caught people out with the discovery of antarctic moles, small mammals which burrow through the ice by melting it with their hot noses, feeding on penguins which they trap by melting the ice beneath their feet. Interestingly, creationists have been known to quote this story as an example of an irreducibly complex system that can not have evolved.

Scientists often forget this. An example picked at random from the heap of recent discoveries. In biology the products of protein synthesis are transported around the cell in vesicles, tiny roughly spherical organelles formed by a single membrane which protects the vesicle contents from the rest of the cell. Vesicles are formed from pre-existing membrane bound sub-cellular structures, such as the Golgi body. Molecular biologists have found that a set of proteins, notably clathrin, form vesicles by attaching to the surface of the Golgi membrane. Clathrin molecules then stick to each other at a slight angle, pulling the membrane into the shape of the vesicle. To the molecular biologist this solution to the problem of vesicle formation is elegant and simple, and makes instant sense. But those non-biologists amongst you will notice that the very existence of cells, vesicles and the vesicle formation problem violates common sense.

When the media publishes (simplified) science the average non-scientist will think it wonderful and incredible. Having seen that much of science, however strange and unbelievable, is demonstrably true and capable of advancing medicine and technology, and lacking the specialist knowledge that takes years to gain, they will not treat material in the science pages with the same healthy skepticism given to the politics pages. To a non-scientist the existence of millions of species of beetle is an incredible fact that is hard to believe. So why should it be obvious that the antarctic moles story is a fake? The existence of bacteria runs contrary to common sense, but is demonstrably true and has greatly advanced medicine. To the non-biologist the existence of moon eating bacteria is no more incredible than disease causing bacteria.

Scientists don’t need April Fools jokes to laugh at gullible non-scientists who can’t be expected to get the joke. It happens all the time, when the media oversimplifies, over hypes or misreports a finding. It happens when dishonest people exploit people’s lack of scientific knowledge for financial or political gain.

Many readers of last week’s “Life” supplement in The Guardian will now be fearing a T. rex attack. The article, describing the discovery of soft tissue preserved within a casing of fossilised bone, ended up concluding Jurassic Park was imminent through a combination of hype on the part of the journalist, who boosts sales and therefore job prospects, and hype on the part of one of the researchers, who gets more exposure for the project which might be useful when it comes to the next funding application. Real life Jurassic Park stories are no doubt a perennial April fools joke, but one that science journalists can fall for even when it’s not April fools day.

Purveyors of alternative medicine (“alties”) have set up an elaborate system for exploiting the gullibility — or desperation — of the average person. Alties invent incomprehensible causes of medical conditions- — usually involving energy imbalance or molecular vibrations — and then invent simple “cures” for these bogus problems which quite often make some amount of sense in terms of the “causes” of the disease–acupuncture restores the energy balance by allow “bad energy” to disperse, etc. The explanation has just the right mixture of incomprehensibility and simplicity of solution to convince people that it’s true.

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