science PR

Not a Stenographer to Power: Luke Timmerman and the New 'Timmerman Report'

Just less than a year ago, the national biotech editor at Xconomy, Luke Timmerman, left his post. Yeah, he just left it. Gone was the regular Monday column that helped us all absorb the newest trends in biotech. Gone were the lists of companies to watch out for that made sense even if we weren't up to date on Luke's sports analogies. One day the columns were here, then they were gone. Luke said he was busy with a biography of Lee Hood, the guy who brought us automated DNA sequencing. But we all knew Luke just wanted to go climb more mountains.

This week Luke jumped back into the game with the new Timmerman Report, his own venture. Today he tells us what he’s up to with the new life science media site and why he just couldn’t resist the biotech beat.

Working in a dramatically changing media landscape, Luke favors "old school journalism". Using the tried and true subscription model, he says the new platform offers him ultimate editorial independence.

“If somebody doesn’t like what I write, I just lose a $99 subscription. There’s really not much more to consider than that," he says. "This is a journalist owned and journalist run company, and I’m going to run it according to my own editorial sensibilities."

We wish Luke much success and look forward to having his independent voice back on the biotech beat.

A Dangerous Book? Science Historian Nathaniel Comfort Discusses “A Troublesome Inheritance”


Comfort, Nathaniel, PhD, Author, Professor, History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Johns Hopkins University

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Listen (4:20) Debate about race and genetics is really about social justice

Listen (2:32) The radical middle

Listen (4:45) How to define race when genetic variation is continuum

Listen (6:03) As a society are we trusting science more as the ultimate source of knowledge?

Listen (6:04) Does Wade's book help free scientists and clinicians?

Listen (2:04) On blogging

Is race biological, or is it a cultural construct?

This question lies at the heart of a debate sparked by this year’s publication of “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.” Writing that race is biological, former New York Times science journalist, Nicholas Wade, ignited a furor in the life science community, with many scientists denouncing the book and the misrepresentation of their research. Science writer, David Dobbs, called it a “dangerous book.”

Joining us today to work through some of the tough questions in this debate is Nathaniel Comfort, a science historian at Johns Hopkins University. Comfort describes his position in the debate as the “radical middle”, accepting some of Wade’s arguments but insisting that science is always in a context, that it’s always political.

“The debate over race and genetics is really about social justice,” Comfort says in today’s show.

Comfort argues that Wade is not honest about the book’s agenda and uses science as a proxy argument for his own preconceptions. Comfort warns that genetic explanations, such as the one Wade makes for race, usually tend to reinforce the status quo.

So what about using race as phenotype for treating various diseases? For example, some racial groups are more likely to get certain diseases than other groups. Working at a major medical research facility, Comfort has the opportunity to talk to clinicians on a regular basis about whether, in today’s world of personalized medicine, race is still relevant as a phenotypic marker.

For more, visit Comfort’s blog on the topic.

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Noam Chomsky on Language and the Study of Biology


Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics, MIT

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Listen (6:34) Reductionism? Not so fast

Listen (3:10) How does a scientist come up with better questions?

Listen (2:54) Do we need new metaphors in biology?

Listen (5:29) Are data scientists getting enough basic science?

Listen (5:13) Does science have a PR problem?

Listen (2:07) How does a culture go about solving ethical issues?

Our guest today is the intellectual giant, Noam Chomsky. He is widely known as the "father of linguistics," and joins us for our Philosophy of Science series.

If linguistics is the scientific study of language, the purpose of today's interview is to talk about the language of scientific study.

We begin with the question of reductionism and whether the study of biology is being limited by a method of inquiry developed with physics and chemistry. (See earlier interview with John Dupre.) Chomsky urges caution.

"If you look at the history of the hard sciences, it has not been consistently reductionist by any means," he says.

Using examples from the history of chemistry, Chomsky points out that though there were attempts to use principles of physics to study chemistry, it often didn't pan out. By the time you get to the twentieth century, there was a real break between chemistry and physics. With the work of Linus Pauling came about the unification of physics and chemistry. But "this is not reductionism," he insists. Chomsky says it may turn out the same for biology. That biology must be studied in its own way "with an eye to unification" and this unification may or may not be reductionist.

What about our overly gene-centric notion of biology which is now being replaced by systems biology?

"What should be done in science is to pursue all directions and see which ones work out," he suggests.

Chomsky is surrounded at MIT with data scientists. Does he think that "code writers" who are increasingly taking over biology with their ability to mine huge data sets are trained enough in basic biology?

An outspoken activist, Chomsky doesn't shy away from a discussion of the politics of science. Is science suffering from a PR problem in the US? And if so, what can be done about it?

We conclude with a discussion of the murky area of bioethics in which Chomsky says "there are no algorithms to tell you how to proceed."

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