Year in Review: 2015
This past year was seen by some as a turning point for self-driving cars. It was also the year that there was a crowdfunding campaign for an at-home CRISPR kit. But this year in science had its share of fraud, too, as well as high-profile instances of sexual harassment in the field.
A panel of science and technology journalists joins Ira to parse through the exciting, anxiety-provoking, and disappointing events of the last year. Ira and the panel also share their predictions for what big scientific breakthroughs could be coming in 2016. Designer fecal matter transplants, anyone?
Rachel Feltman is Science Editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.
Arielle Duhaime-Ross is science reporter for The Verge in New York, New York.
Will Oremus is a senior technology writer for Slate in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What a year 2015 has been for advances in science and technology. Some have built atop work of the past, and some have gone where no one has gone before. Take the proliferation of unicorns. Well, I’m going to explain unicorns later.
The development of gene-editing technology worthy of science fiction. The meteoric rise of a former planet whose very status has, not too long ago, been demoted in rank. And that’s just to name a few of the things that’s gone on in that 2015. So this hour, it’s our annual year-in-review show. And we will be parsing the biggest stories of 2015 with the anxiety and excitement they’ve provoked in us.
Plus, we’re going to gaze into that murky crystal ball, maybe go out on a limb a little bit, and make predictions for what wonders await us in 2016. One thing we won’t be doing is taking your calls this hour. But we’ve already heard from some of you on Twitter, and we encourage you to share your predictions for 2016, too. So let me move on with our year in review with our guests. Rachel Feltman runs and writes The Washington Post Speaking of Science blog and is based in New York. She’s no stranger to Science Friday. Good to have you back, Rachel.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Good to be here, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Also with us again is Arielle Duhaime-Ross She’s a science reporter at The Verge in New York.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: It’s good to see you again. Will Oremus is senior technology writer at Slate in New York. Welcome back to the program.
WILL OREMUS: Good to be here.
IRA FLATOW: But let me begin to you. Let’s start with the unicorns I talked about before. They’re not real unicorns like in mythology. What do we mean by that?
WILL OREMUS: A unicorn is a term that was popularized by the venture capitalist Aileen Lee in November, 2013. It refers to a private company, usually a tech startup, that is valued at more than $1 billion. It’s a new term because in the old days, in the first tech bubble– old days is probably a stretch– in the late 1990s tech bubble when companies started to get big, they would simply go public. Investors were so excited about tech that they rushed to get their money into whatever hot startup had a dotcom in its name.
And then when it all went bust, the investors were left holding the bag. Well, they learned their lesson to some extent. These days, tech companies are less likely to go public early in their growth phase. They’re more likely to seek private equity. And the private equity firms are confident that this is not a bubble, that there is really growth here again that can be sustained, unlike in the late 1990s.
So they’re the ones now pouring all this money in. When Aileen Lee coined the term in 2013, there were 39 unicorns in the United States that she was able to identify. She said that they usually popped up at a rate of about four per year. Well, there were 10 that year, there were about 25 the next year, there were 40 new ones this year. Now we’ve got 91 unicorns. Not so rare anymore. Maybe we just have to call them horses.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ll see about that tech bubble with all those unicorns. Arielle, Silicon Valley has also seen a host of health startups gain steam this year. What are some of the big stories out there, and how have they fared this year?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. Well, I think that for me, the big theme of this year in terms of health and tech companies has been the idea that maybe Silicon Valley’s idea of moving fast and breaking things doesn’t really work when we’re talking about people and their health, because you can break people. And I think that there have been a number of companies who have tried really hard to bring new technologies, or new techniques, or old techniques without necessarily validating them to the forefront. And they have had some repercussions for that.
One of the big companies that comes to mind is, of course, Theranos, the controversial blood-testing company. In October, The Wall Street Journal put out this, like, really blockbuster report that essentially questioned the accuracy of Theranos’ proprietary technology and questioned how often they were actually using it. And that’s kind of scary, given that if the reports are correct, it’s kind of scary given that this company has been operating in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and California since 2013. So those are the kinds of things that are scary.
Other stories– there’s a company now called Pathway Genomics that put out a cancer blood test. And they hadn’t done any of the kinds of studies that would show that the people who test positive for their test actually do end up developing cancer. And after we reported the story, they got a letter from the FDA that was very strong written and said, you may be putting people at risk. And so these are the kinds of things that I think we’re going to see– like, that we have seen very, very often this year, and we may see more.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of potentially scary things– Rachel, I don’t mean that you personally.
But there was a story right at the end of the year of an at-home CRISPR kit. And CRISPR is a potentially scary technology, isn’t it?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, yes, it is. It’s exciting but potentially scary. CRISPR is sort of a cut-and-paste gene editing tool. And it’s incredible. You know, I write about how science doesn’t really work based on breakthroughs, but CRISPR was definitely an actual breakthrough. And with this technology, researchers are able to do this gene editing more quickly, more cheaply. And the truth is it’s not that easy. You’re probably not going to be able to do it in your garage even if someone gives you a kit that technically gives you all the tools.
But this year there were a lot of rumors that a Chinese team had edited human genomes for the first time, and those rumors turned out to be true. And their paper was published, and they didn’t do a particularly good job. Obviously, they didn’t try to gestate any of the embryos for obvious reasons. But their rate of success was pretty low.
So it was a pretty clear sign that we have a lot of work to do before we even want to attempt human genome editing for embryos that are going to be viable for living people. But it also showed that, obviously, the interest is there. And it could really be life-changing. It could eliminate a lot of diseases, but it’s also going to cause a lot of potential ethical quandaries.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You’d agree, Arielle?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah. I also thought that that was one of the big stories of this year. You know, it was kind of unexpected. As Rachel mentioned, there had been rumors about the Chinese study for a while. But I think people are surprised by how quickly things are moving. The research has been going on for about 10 years. But really being able to use CRISPR as this tool, you know, is a very recent thing.
And this year, there have been meetings of scientists, like one specific one recently, that are questioning how we should go forward with this technique. Should we be using it on human embryos? And should we be using it on human embryos that would eventually turn into a person, which, for now, the consensus seems to be no.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Will, just as this was a game-changing year for CRISPR, another technology was on everybody’s minds, it seems. And that is the self-driving car. It’s sort of been quiet now. What’s going on with that?
WILL OREMUS: Well, yeah, speaking of moving fast and breaking things, cars are really good at that. And especially cars with human drivers seem to be really good at that. Bad driving is one of the leading causes of death. And Silicon Valley thinks it can fix that by building cars that drive themselves. You know, when Google came out with this idea a few years ago, it was sort of pie in the sky.
2015, to me, was the year when even the mainstream automakers, you know, the Detroit automakers, the Japanese automakers, sat up, took notice, and said, you know what, this is going to happen, or at least we’re moving in that direction. And so you’ll see now even Toyota, and, Mercedes, Tesla are moving in the direction of self-driving cars. They’re doing it in an incremental way.
But Tesla made a lot of headlines this year with its autopilot mode. I had a chance to ride in a Tesla on autopilot. It was both really impressive and a little terrifying. It drove in tough traffic conditions on the West Side Highway in Manhattan, which it wasn’t really built to do. It navigated beautifully for the most part. But one time it changed lanes for me and then just sort of didn’t stop. It kept drifting toward the barrier.
IRA FLATOW: Your hands near the wheel.
WILL OREMUS: I finally jerked away the wheel. Yeah. Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
WILL OREMUS: So we haven’t perfected this technology yet. Maybe the system would have saved me, but we’re not there yet. But we are going to see the same type of technology that underpins Google’s self-driving car coming to production models that you’ll buy at the dealership.
IRA FLATOW: See, the cynic in me says the reason why Google wants to develop a self-driving cars is so you can Google all the time.
WILL OREMUS: Right.
IRA FLATOW: Right?
WILL OREMUS: Just put that on your browser.
IRA FLATOW: Why drive? Right. And I guess on the safety side, if people are going to be texting and getting into those accidents all the time, because, well, OK, then let’s make a car that’s going to be a little safer that way.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right, well, I think that one of the things that Google may want to do is do something, kind of an Uber type model. And Uber is already– I think they were talking to Tesla at some point?
WILL OREMUS: There have been a lot of rumors about Uber and Tesla. And in one other development this year that was kind of amazing, Uber basically poached Carnegie Mellon’s entire laboratory that was working on self-driving cars and moved them over to Uber’s laboratory in Pittsburgh.
IRA FLATOW: Weren’t the rumors that Apple poached someone else’s–
WILL OREMUS: There’s a lot of poaching going on.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: All the companies that are interested in self-driving cars have been poaching each other’s people throughout the year. And it’s been really, really interesting to see people moving around that way.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Well, for a few minutes before the break, Rachel, let’s move on to something that might not be on everybody’s mind but made great strides this year. And that was penis transplants.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, it was a really great year for penis transplants, actually. [LAUGHS]
IRA FLATOW: I think you’re the only one who said that all year.
RACHEL FELTMAN: [LAUGHS] So early in the year, a group of South African doctors announced that they had completed the first successful penis transplant. Until then, the only other transplant had been, I believe, in China a few years ago. And the patient actually asked for the organ to be removed a few days later. He couldn’t handle the psychological trauma, which is a big concern in addition to the surgery being grueling and the potential ickiness of it for the donor’s family. There are a lot of complications.
In South Africa, the reason that they’re pushing so hard to perfect this surgery is that there’s a particular tribe where ritual circumcision is very common and injuries from it are very common. So there is this fairly sizable population of young, otherwise healthy men who have severe genital trauma and who are interested in this surgery. And actually, that surgery resulted in a healthy pregnancy. So very successful.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah, very shortly– a couple months later.
IRA FLATOW: Is there one place in the country that’s trying to specialize in it?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, in our country?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, in the US.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. So actually, Johns Hopkins is just a few months away from attempting the first US surgery. In the US, the population that is in need of this are wounded veterans. They see more and more traumatic genital injuries in men because of, you know, explosives, homemade explosives especially.
So Johns Hopkins has been working for years to pass all of the internal review boards, get everything ethically hammered out. They’ve been practicing this surgery on cadavers. And now they have a patient. And they actually have many patients interested. And they’re gearing up to actually do the first transplant.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. And I think Johns Hopkins is going to be paying for the first one.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. In fact, I think they intend to pay for them until it’s considered non-experimental.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we’ll be following that. Let me remind everybody that we’re talking with our team for 2015, soon to be 2016. Rachel Feltman writes for The Washington Post Speaking of Science blog. Arielle Duhaime-Ross is a science reporter at The Verge in New York. And Will Oremus is a senior technology writer at Slate also here in New York.
We’re going to be taking a break. And after we come back, we’re going to be talking about one of the biggest stories of 2015– Pluto. I’m going to be talking with Alan Stern after this break. Stay with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Leave it to a petite planet to steal the show in 2015. It could be argued that the biggest thing in space is formally the smallest planet in our solar system– Pluto. I’m here with Rachel Feltman. She runs and writes The Washington Post Speaking of Science blog. Arielle Duhaime-Ross, she’s a science reporter at The Verge. Will Oremus is senior technology writer at Slate here in New York.
And now I want to bring on someone who’s been leading the Plutonian charge this year, Alan Stern. He is a principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome back to Science Friday.
ALAN STERN: Thank you, Ira. Hi, everyone.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Hi.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Hi, Alan.
IRA FLATOW: What a big year for Pluto. How would you sum it up, the year and Pluto this year, Alan?
ALAN STERN: Huh! I think NASA’s New Horizons mission and Pluto, the planet, both hit the ball out of the park, and really engaged the public, and taught us in the scientific community a lot about small planets and how much we had wrong and how much we have to learn about them.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. You’ve previously compared Pluto and its moons to presents under the Christmas tree. That seems particularly appropriate today. Well, what’s the most exciting thing? And I hate asking this question, but people always say, what is the most exciting New Horizons thing found on Pluto?
ALAN STERN: I’m going to actually tell you two things.
IRA FLATOW: OK.
ALAN STERN: The greatest scientific surprise is really the just astounding level of complexity in the history of Pluto that we can read on its surface and in its atmosphere. It really rivals Mars and Earth and has almost no peer elsewhere in the solar system. This was completely unexpected.
But also unexpected was the viral response in the public– from the web to print media to television to social media in how people just really grooved on seeing first-time exploration like this, and how it just rocketed into people’s consciousness on every continent of the Earth.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think that it might have even edged out the excitement about Mars this year?
ALAN STERN: Well, I know that Science magazine ran a People’s Choice poll for biggest breakthrough of the year. And Pluto was the far-away winner.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think we have to redefine what a planet is and get Pluto back in there, seeing, I mean, as you say, the diversity of Earth-like stuff that we’ve seen on it?
ALAN STERN: Ira, I think you’re on to it. You know, planetary scientists never voted to remove Pluto and the small planets from the category of planethood. And now having seen one up close, I and my colleagues, we just don’t know what else to call it but a planet.
IRA FLATOW: I do. Let me ask my panel here. You want to weigh in on this?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, I love Pluto, and I can absolutely understand why Alan and other planetary scientists really want to call it a planet. And I do, too. I mean, I kind of refer to it as a dwarf planet, which is a subtype of planet we know even less about than other planets. And I think it’s definitely a valid debate, but I think what’s more exciting is that we’re learning how many smaller bodies in the galaxy and even in our own solar system are so much more exciting than we ever thought.
You know, the dwarf planet Ceres has way more going on than I think anyone would have expected from a body of that size a few decades ago. So I think while it’s a totally valid debate and I’m not sure which side I would be on if I had to pick, I think there’s kind of a larger message that maybe planethood is really loosely defined because of how little we know. And what’s exciting is how little we know.
IRA FLATOW: Alan, what’s next? Are you going to see Pluto staying in the headlines next year?
ALAN STERN: Yeah, Ira, I think that’s the case. We’ve only got about a quarter of all the data from the flyby back to Earth so far. And the other 3/4 of it will come down all the way across 2016, and that’ll produce not just new imagery but new spectroscopy, new atmospheric data sets, other kinds of data. And all of those will produce discoveries. And we’re really looking forward to that on the science team.
IRA FLATOW: And New Horizons has still got part of its mission left, right?
ALAN STERN: Absolutely right. In fact, we’re just writing a proposal to NASA to fly to another flyby of a much smaller body which we would encounter about three years from now on January 1, 2019. This is something that the National Academy of Sciences directed this mission to do. And we’ve already fired the engine, so we’re going that direction now. Hopefully NASA will approve the funding to make that real, because I think it’ll be very, very exciting. And I know scientifically, it’ll be very, very rich.
IRA FLATOW: So you fired the engines heading in that direction. And then hope you get the OK later?
ALAN STERN: Well, that’s right. We had to fire the engines back in October and November to target, because waiting another year until we get through the proposal and proposal review process would have made it impossible to go there. The fuel expense would have gone up dramatically and we wouldn’t have had enough fuel on board. So we had to go ahead and target.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Are these planets or– we’ll call Pluto a planet for today– are they worthy enough now that you’ve taken pictures of them to send probes, like we do to Mars? Why not send one to Pluto and explore this? It looks like there’s a lot to explore there.
ALAN STERN: Well, I take your point. And there’s a lot of discussion now in the planetary science community about going back to Pluto with a more in-depth mission, perhaps an orbiter or a lander. There’s also discussion of sending flyby reconnaissance missions like New Horizons to some of the other small planets in the Kuiper belt. We already know, by looking at Pluto and its big moon, Charon, how different they are.
And we have, with the Voyager probe years ago, seen a former Kuiper belt planet called Triton that happened to get stuck in orbit around Neptune. And so we’ve seen three of these. And they’re all very different. And the general conclusion is that we would learn a lot from sampling some of the diversity of that third class of planet.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: How difficult would it be to land on Pluto given all those icy mountains that we’ve heard about this year?
ALAN STERN: Well, that’s an awfully good question, and that’s why a lot of people think an orbiter is the right next step to scout out landing spots, for example. And others think that a very good place to land would be on the simpler and what looks like firmer surface of Pluto’s moon, Charon. And once you land there, you could observe Pluto every single day from that great perch on Charon’s surface.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: That’s a pretty nice view.
ALAN STERN: You got it.
IRA FLATOW: So you’re looking on with great anticipation to 2016 then? More great stuff is going to be happening, Alan.
ALAN STERN: That’s right. We’re looking forward to the new data that’s going to be raining down as presents, as you say, from the sky every week and every month, to opening those presents, and to making the discoveries that come with them. And then hopefully we’ll get approved for that extended mission, and we’ll begin the planning of that flyby late next year.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, sounds great. And thanks, Alan, for taking time to be with us today.
ALAN STERN: Thanks. I appreciate it.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Have a happy holiday.
ALAN STERN: Same to you.
IRA FLATOW: Alan Stern is principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. We’re talking about, well, 2015 with Will Oremus, Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Rachel Feltman. What do you think? Is there still a good reason to be excited about Pluto?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I mean, like he said, we’ve learned so far is only a small fraction of what we are going to learn. And I think that Pluto has definitely captured people’s imaginations.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: And people are really excited about space. So yeah, I think that there’s a lot to be excited about.
IRA FLATOW: I think it is the surprise story this year, right? Who would have guessed that you’d see this stuff on there?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, yeah. And you know, it really was the year of Pluto. It was right at the beginning of 2015 that we started getting our first images from New Horizons, you know, when the images started getting better than the ones we have from the Hubble. So it was early 2015 when we started seeing Pluto, every time we saw it, more clearly than we’d ever seen it before.
And actually, just a couple weeks ago– a few days ago, actually– the New Horizons team started releasing the first of the highest resolved images from the flyby. So now at the end of 2015 we are seeing the best images of Pluto we’ll see probably for a very long time. And it feels very fitting to me that the year is wrapping up with that part of it that the public got so hooked on.
Obviously, the New Horizons team has about another year of data downlinking to do. So they have plenty of more science to do based on the flyby. But I think it really captured the public’s interest for the whole year. And for a space story to do that that didn’t involve a crewed mission is really incredible.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah, I mean, you know, the previous year, I think we had that comet landing that captured a lot of people’s imaginations. Like Rachel said, this was the whole year, and it was a sustained attention on Pluto. And I think that’s pretty amazing.
IRA FLATOW: I know. If any of the national news magazines paid much attention to science, it could have been the cover of Time magazine, I think–
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: It should have been.
IRA FLATOW: –this year.
RACHEL FELTMAN: That’s true.
IRA FLATOW: –as the story of the year, you know? The person, so to speak, of the year. Let’s move on because there’s a lot of other stuff to talk about. Will, this was a big year for artificial intelligence, right, and could have been one of the more anxiety-provoking years. Let’s talk about a breakthrough in Google’s Deep Dream. Tell us about that.
WILL OREMUS: Yeah. So we’ve had, for a long time, the idea that someday artificial intelligence could get so good that it would outsmart us, the humans, and the robots would win, and we would all be enslaved, or whatever. I think people haven’t taken that seriously for a long time. Now they’re starting to again.
You get people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking out there saying that we really should fear AI, that this is an existential threat to humanity if it keeps going on the exponential trajectory that we’re seeing today. Now, if you talk to researchers in the field of artificial intelligence, or machine learning, which is a branch of it, they say, oh, no, we’re really far away. Of course, they would say that, right?
IRA FLATOW: (LAUGHING) Right.
WILL OREMUS: But in fact, we are really far away. You know, if you look at some of the AI products that are out there today, in terms of practical consumer products, you’re talking about things like Siri and Cortana that can answer your questions if they understand them right and, you know, if they’re able to get the right data at their fingertips at the moment, at their virtual fingertips. But they’re still pretty bad, really. I mean, they’re not going to be enslaving the human race any time soon.
What Google did this year is it came out with a really fascinating demonstration of one aspect of artificial intelligence that’s been really elusive, which is this idea of creativity. Can machines be creative? It came out with something called Deep Dream wherein you give it a photo, and it will look for patterns between this photo and other images it has studied in the past. And it’ll spit out some surrealist image that’s kind of like a Salvador Dali version of the photo you gave it. And so people will look at this, and oh, my gosh, you know, computers are getting creative. It’s like this algorithm is dreaming.
Well, it’s a demonstration. You know, it masks a lot of the hard work that would really have to go into a more general intelligence when you do something that has such a specific application like this. My colleague at Slate, David Auerbach, wrote a good piece for Slate about how what it’s really doing is just recognizing patterns and then applying those in sort of a rote and formulaic way if you really use it enough. Then again, maybe humans are doing the same thing, just on a really much more complex level.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International talking about the big stories of 2015, artificial intelligence. It’s a perennial issue. We keep hearing more people, big, big names, as you say, voicing worries about the singularity, that artificial intelligent robots might take over. But another issue that just doesn’t seem to be going away is sexism and sexual harassment in science. Arielle, talk a little bit about what happened this year.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I’d say there were three very large stories this year. The first one, I’d say, would have to do with there was an advice columnist in a magazine, Science, who suggested to a woman writing in that she should just put up with her advisor looking down her shirt. You know, Science apologized and removed the piece from their website.
But you know, it’s an illustration of the attitudes that have been going on for a number of years. And I think what changed this year is that these kinds of stories really came to the forefront and got a lot of attention. People spoke up, which can be very, very difficult to do. And then the media responded, and the public responded. And some things changed.
For instance, when Tim Hunt in June– Nobel Prize laureate Tim Hunt in June said that the trouble with girls is that you fall in love with them, and then he also suggested that when you criticize them, they cry during a conference in South Korea.
It was reported and there was an immediate public reaction. There was an outcry. There were also people who got upset at the outcry– a number of people, I think, that Rachel has been dealing with online, because she wrote a lot about this. But there definitely seems to be an awareness that this is an issue now and a willingness to really address these issues.
That said, there was also a story of Marcy, the astronomer from UC-Berkeley, I believe, who was accused of sexual harassment. And in October, BuzzFeed came out with this crazy report about it. And it’s kind of scary how long it took the university to address these issues. These incidents happened between 2001, I think, and 2010.
And it also happened previously at a previous university of his, another university that he was working at. So I think that it really is these instances are not changing. They’re still happening. They will keep happening. But what is changing is that people and the media is finally starting to wake up to this. And the public is, too.
IRA FLATOW: Taking it more seriously.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Much more seriously.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Rachel, you agree?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Because these things are terrible.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think that this was really a year that we started having more of a conversation about this, which is so important. And you know, there’s always backlash. I think there are people who suggest that these are witch hunts against these men, or that we’re just a bunch of reactionary feminists, or that it’s harmful to the cause of good science to call out scientists on bad behavior.
But you know, science is a field full of humans, and many of those humans are young women who just want to do their jobs. So I think there’s kind of this new gang of science writers who think of these as valid stories to report. This is news when some–
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Talking about scientific culture is just as important as talking about the science itself.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. And sexism in science is a huge issue that a lot of people don’t really want to have to confront. But I think this year, we made a lot of really good progress.
IRA FLATOW: Well, one last point before we go to the break. Do you think that it is just symptomatic in science, as it is in other places? I mean, lawyers, doctors, whatever. Just receiving more attention now.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. Well, you know, I don’t think that, necessarily, male scientists are more sexist than men in other fields. And obviously, many male scientists are great supporters of women. But you know, science is a male-dominated field and also a field where there’s a lot of internalized sense that it should be male-dominated. So I think it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that there probably is more sexual harassment than in other fields, because there’s this very deeply ingrained cultural disrespect of women in science.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. And we’re going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about the year in science. Also, we’re going to talk about– I’m going to have my panelists make predictions for 2016 about what might be the big science stories for 2016. We’ll go out on a limb. We’ll make believe we’re political reporters.
[INAUDIBLE]. We’re talking with Rachel Feltman, Arielle Duhaime-Ross, and Will Oremus. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about the year in science, 2015. And we’ll get into some predictions about what we might expect in 2016 with my guests, Rachel Feltman, who runs and writes The Washington Post Speaking of Science blog; Arielle Duhaime-Ross, science reporter at The Verge in New York. Will Oreums is senior technology writer at Slate in New York. And if you want to see our favorites of the past year, our staff picks of the past year, you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com/2015.
Panel, before we go ahead and talk about 2016, let’s also talk about a big issue that was big in 2015. And that was scientific fraud. You know? Arielle?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Uh, yeah. There were a couple big stories in terms of scientific fraud. The first one, I’d say, in February, there was a report in JAMA Internal Medicine that suggested that the FDA has been finding cases of scientific fraud in clinical trials and has not then been reporting those to the public.
And then these studies end up getting published anyways. So for instance, this report found that of 57 clinical trials that resulted in 78 publications, only 3 mentioned misconduct that was uncovered by the FDA. And these are cases that are worrisome, because then these clinical trials obviously end up impacting human health.
Then the biggest one from this year, I’d say, was Michael LaCour, who was a student. And he published a story that was widely reported about gay canvassers being able to change the opinion of people who are perhaps more conservative, regarding, you know, sway voters regarding gay marriage. And that study was widely reported. And then it turns out that some of the data was– that there was a lot of misconduct.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we reported on that story, too. We thought it was an incredible story.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right.
IRA FLATOW: It was hard to believe, and it is hard to believe, it turns out.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. And then some statisticians looked into it, and they found that a lot of the details about the survey that was conducted was incorrect and the data was falsified. So those are the kinds of stories that have an impact on how the public views science as a whole.
I think that’s one thing that’s kind of important to point out here is that if you hear this story is widely reported, and a couple weeks later, people have to either recant or they don’t, and you hear about it elsewhere, and you realize that the study is still up, and it’s still out there, and people are still reading it, then they still think it’s true. Those are the kinds of things that can be worrisome to the public. And it’s really, really unfortunate.
IRA FLATOW: Rachel?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, yeah, one thing that’s kind of adjacent to that is that science has become so quickly self-correcting. You can say, oh, it’s a shame that this false information can be spread on the internet so quickly and that it’s so hard to reel it back in.
But on the other hand, the correction gets out really quickly. We see this year there were tons of so-called publication rings being busted, where people who just make up peer reviewers to get their studies published without actually going through real peer review, they keep getting busted. I don’t think it’s because there are more of them. I think it’s like when teachers first started learning how to check for plagiarism using the internet. You know, it’s just that now this kind of misconduct won’t go unnoticed anymore.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. It means that things are actually working.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. And also, there was a study a couple weeks ago about tardigrade DNA that was, like, really fantastic. It was about how much foreign DNA tardigrades– water bears, which are these really incredible, invincible, little creatures– get from other organisms. And it was fantastic, but people wanted to believe it, because tardigrades are really weird.
And when it turned out that another group disagreed with the findings, a lot of people kind of reacted to it as if the study had been falsified. But it hadn’t. These were two research groups disagreeing with each other, which is the way science is supposed to work. It just all happened online, which gave a lot of members of the public the impression that one group had done something bad and the other one was correcting them. So I think it’s really important that the public come to understand the difference between fraud and science working the way it’s supposed to, which often involves different labs coming to different conclusions.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. And I think that one of the important things to remember is that scientific consensus is not based on a single report. It is based on multiple reports that find either the same findings or similar findings that are moving in one direction. And what’s important to remember is that at the very beginnings of something that has just been figured out, a new study that’s put out, and we find something new, that’s when scientists get to work. That’s when they all try to work together to find out, is this correct, can we replicate this, is it reproducible? And that just means that when you hear about these things not being reproducible, that’s just science working.
IRA FLATOW: Will, anything you want to add?
WILL OREMUS: Yeah. I mean, I think the media bears some responsibility here, too, because we are so quick. When a study comes out, the media often treat it as though something has been proven, as though it’s definitive, as though, you know, coffee does cause cancer. And then another study comes out the next year– coffee doesn’t cause cancer.
And in truth, as Arielle said, I mean, you have to take every study that comes out as sort of like a data point. I mean, it’s a big data point made up of other smaller data points. But it has to be a data point in how you evaluate the overall picture. You can’t look at a given study and treat that as the truth.
I also agree that social media has both fueled the spread of misinformation, making it spread much more quickly across the internet, and made it easier to debunk misinformation. One thing that I thought was funny was there have been a few examples where social media has spread clear cases of problems in the peer review process. There was one I wrote about last year where someone had published a paper in a journal. It was a fish paper. And in the journal– it had been peer reviewed– the paper said, “cite crappy Gabor paper here.”
You know, none of the peer reviewers had got that, apparently. Just because something is peer reviewed does not mean it is the truth.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to, in the short period of time we have, to predictions for 2016. Go out on a limb here and unscientific predictions. Let me move around the table. Arielle, have you got a prediction of some scientific something that’s going to happen in ’16?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah. I think that what is likely to happen is that the Republican candidate for the next election will probably be anti-science. I think that’s a likely thing to happen.
WILL OREMUS: Is that out on a limb?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I mean–
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. I mean, what are our pro-science Republican candidate options?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So some of them do not completely deny human-induced climate change, but all of them do not want to regulate the field. But Carson, Trump, Cruz, Rubio, you know, the people who are at the forefront, all deny that humans have any action in this.
IRA FLATOW: Let me add a little of my own prediction to that thing.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Sure.
IRA FLATOW: And that is for the first time in a presidential debate, when we have the two candidates, someone will ask a question about science. I mean, if you look back, you know, there’s been an organization called Science Debate that’s been trying to get all these questions. And you know, I think, for the first time, they may actually get a question, whether it’s about climate change or something related to science in there.
WILL OREMUS: Well, in the Obama/Romney election, there was a question actually about climate change. I think moderator Candy Crowley said, I’m going to ask a question for all you climate change people out there. But the funny thing is both candidates took it and ran in the other direction. They were fighting over who was Mr. Oil, Mr. Gas, and Mr. Coal. If I could jump on to this prediction, I would say you would not see that reaction in this election. I think it has become much more unpopular to back fossil fuels than it was even four years ago.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International talking about 2016 predictions. All right. Will, what else would you predict besides something political?
WILL OREMUS: All right. So this is something technological. And I want to warn your viewers not to ever take my–
IRA FLATOW: Our listeners.
WILL OREMUS: Thank you. Warn your listeners not to take my advice on anything financial. This is not a stock tip.
IRA FLATOW: You are not a certified financial planner.
WILL OREMUS: That said, Apple is the most valuable company in the world by market capitalization. If you look at it right, you could say that it’s the most valuable company in the history of the world by some metrics. It has had this incredible string of products that were not only hits in the marketplace, but just became these iconic cultural touchstones and defined entire new categories, which Apple was then able to dominate at enormous profit margins. That may be changing.
The last few products we’ve seen Apple come out with, they went with the larger iPhone. That was not new. They were following Samsung in that, you know, Samsung, and HTC, and others had pioneered the larger phones. Now they’ve seen Microsoft’s success with a larger tablet that has a keyboard and a stylus, and is aimed more at business customers.
Now they’ve come out with the iPad Pro. So now they’re following Microsoft in that respect. I think we’re unlikely to see next year the same kind of success from the Apple Watch that we saw from the iPad and the iPhone when they first came out. And I think some of the shine of Apple may start to dull a little bit.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think that that has to do with the death of Steve Jobs? You know?
WILL OREMUS: You know, I’m always wary of that sort of great man explanation of where a company was going. Who’s to say what would have happened to Apple were Jobs still alive? I do think there is a difference when you’re a company that has a product person at the top like Microsoft under Bill Gates or Apple under Steve Jobs, and then you go to being a company with a business person at the top like Steve Ballmer or like Tim Cook. They just take a different approach. They’re looking for market opportunities rather than thinking, what can we create that will be amazing?
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. I think a perfect example of that is the recent battery case that they just put out for the iPhone– not the Plus, just the smaller version. You know, it’s an ugly battery case. And there are some questionable design choices there. And that’s just one among a string of questionable design choices that they’ve made this year.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll see what’s behind the curtain. Apple is always ready for some sort of surprise, whether a car or something else. Something is always behind that curtain. And maybe you’re right. We’ll see. Maybe the mojo is off at Apple. Rachel, have you got a prediction?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. My big prediction is that in the way 2015 was a great year for penis transplants, 2016 is going to be a great year for poop transplants. I’m 100% serious, as usual, as I always am about poop.
So basically, fecal matter transplants in the past couple of years have become more and more of a thing. There are companies now that exist to collect donors. The donor screening process is harder than getting into MIT. And it’s only currently proven to treat one particular illness which is caused by an infection in the gut that cause really horrible gastrointestinal symptoms. It can be really debilitating and even fatal.
So we know that fecal matter transplants, which you can now take in a very benign pill, work for this horrible, debilitating disease. So there are companies that market it for that. But you know, everyone is really excited about the gut microbiome right now. And I think this year we are going to see some companies marketing fecal matter transplants for other purposes. You know, I mean, we’re going to see them for weight loss.
We’re going to see them as mood boosters, because I think the microbiome is kind of becoming the new holistic medicine. People feel very zen about their bacterial colony. You know, it’s this really nice idea of this whole community of living organisms that you can cultivate and that helps you get through your life. But also, there’s science to it, because it’s the microbiome. So I think we’re going to see a lot of weird, holistic, science-y medicine that probably the FDA will have to smack down real hard.
IRA FLATOW: But we might also see some really legitimate, good research–
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: –about the microbiome.
RACHEL FELTMAN: And lots of people are working on really cool research about the microbiome, including about fecal matter transplants. It’s possible someone will do some work to really find a treatment for obesity using FMT. But I also think that companies are going to try to market it long before that connection is actually a solid one.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. Like, those studies, that FDA clearance has yet to happen. And I’m sure that a lot of companies are going to take advantage of this very, very interesting tool, so to speak.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So yeah.
IRA FLATOW: No, I’m looking to– we love to talk about the microbiome on this program. And not only about the microbiome in our bodies and humans, but there’s also a huge microbiome in the soil. And I think soil science is going to be– and what goes on in the soil about how to plant seeds. We did a story on the common method of tilling the soil wrecks the microbiome of the soil.
If you want to plant seeds, just do it the old-fashioned way. You stick a seed in the ground and you won’t upset the microbiome that’s in there. So I think there’s a lot of stuff left in microbiomes we haven’t even thought about exist in places, stuff like that.
Let me give you a few of the tweets for predictions that some of our listeners tweeted in. OllyCassidy predicts the rise of bitcoin and block chain-related applications. I don’t even know what a block chain is. Plus, Li-Fi. Together, they’ll evolve the internet of things and autonomous vehicles. Will, you weigh in on that at all? Stay away from that.
WILL OREMUS: Yeah, I mean–
IRA FLATOW: But we’ve been talking about the internet of things for years now, and we’re seeing more and more technology in that.
WILL OREMUS: Yeah. I think the internet of things is– it’s a term that has gained a lot of momentum, probably more momentum than the actual–
IRA FLATOW: Thing.
WILL OREMUS: –reality behind it. Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Is there a thing there?
WILL OREMUS: Yeah. I was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, and there were just rows and rows of products that claim to be part of the internet of things. We’re talking like smart toothbrushes, smart toasters. None of them are actually smart. They’re just things that you can control remotely or control via the internet. It’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds.
IRA FLATOW: One thing we haven’t touched upon at all and in the last few minutes we have left is physics. Some of the breakthroughs that we might see– maybe the Large Hadron Collider will find some dark energy– I mean, dark matter. They’re not going to find dark energy there, I don’t think. But they keep talking about maybe there will be a discovery of dark matter there.
One of the fascinating things I like to follow is entanglement, spooky action at a distance. Maybe we’ll find more about whether– the spookiest thing, you know, that there is in physics is how things can be infinitely far apart, entangled. They could be on one side of the universe, on the other side, and react simultaneously. And they keep doing more and more experiments moving these particles apart and seeing that it actually does work.
So particle physics. Maybe we’ll have a new particle that come out some place. It’s all in the future, where, as some famous person used to say, it’s the place we’ll all be spending the rest of our lives.
I want to thank my guests who’ve been with us today. Rachel Feltman runs and writes for The Washington Post Speaking of Science blog. Arielle Duhaime-Ross is a science reporter at The Verge in New York. Will Oremus is senior technology writer at Slate here in New York. And as I say, if you want to see the Science Friday staff picks, you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com/2015.
Charles Bergquist is our director. Our senior producer is Chris Intagliata. Alexa Lim is our associate producer. Our SciArts producer is Annie Minoff. Luke Groskin is our video producer. Our production assistant is Becky Fogel. Rich Kim is our technical director. Sarah Fishman is our engineer at the controls here at the studios of our production partners, the City University of New York.
And if you’d like to write us, please send your letters to Science Friday, 19 West 44th Street, Room 412, New York, New York, 10036. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a great holiday season. A happy new year to everyone. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.