On Scaffolds and Sweet Potatoes

All in all, scaffolds show how extremely flexible the development of behaviour can be, whether this behaviour is that of an animal, the layout and functioning of a cell or the collection of behaviours and thoughts known as culture. It is possible that only through the interaction between these different fields and the associated scientific areas that study them that we might one day answer one of the main questions: what are we and how do we function? From a scientific point of view this provides us with various interesting challenges. What, however, does it offer anyone without a need for scientific answers or a scientific background? Well, first of all should the realization that things are more complex than expected serve as a warning that some articles in newspapers or on television should be handled with care. These days, a lot of articles are published not only in scientific journals, but when the coverage is good enough they might even end up in newspapers. Journalists are people though and people make mistakes. Newspaper articles sometimes offer a picture that the scientist did not originally intend. So be sceptical. When a newspaper article claims that a gene was discovered that promotes thrill seeking, then please do not think that that means that if you have that gene, you are bound to be a thrill seeker. If nature and nurture go hand in hand and can influence each others respective area, then genes are rarely the sole determinant of behaviour. In the case of this article, which was actually printed in a newspaper, this is especially true: the scientists themselves stated that the influence of this gene, with all other factors held constant, was 4%. In other words: when background, education, other possible genes that affect any other thrill seeking related trait and all those other things were held constant, then the gene was for 4% responsible for thrill seeking. It does not take a statistician to understand that effect is actually pretty minimal. Strangely enough, some people feared that insurance companies would cancel people’s policies if they happened to have that gene!

My message is therefore to think for yourself. Many features on the news where scientific results are presented, are often inaccurate and suggest things that the scientist never even intended. Such things unfortunately lead to miscommunication between the scientists and the public, even though science is first of all meant to aid the public and to answer the public’s questions! It is certain that these questions will be answered, however it is the duty of science to make sure that by then, the public will also be able to understand that same answer.

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