Case in point was "The Science of Kissing" session in the morning. We'll do an article about this that gives the data a fair shake but I won't go into that here. Instead I can just tell you what really happened and then what someone who could not possibly have been there derived from a press release.
I won't talk about Helen Fisher's part of the session because Stephanie Pulford here interviewed her earlier but I will focus on the hormonal changes study by Wendy Hill, Carey Wilson and Evan Lebovitz. This is interesting stuff, of course, and even moreso because of Valentine's Day but the researchers did not play it up at all.
Basically they had a very small sample of heterosexual couples, all college students, all volunteers and put them in a fairly sterile room in the health center and monitored their cortisol and oxytocin via blood and saliva. Women had higher baseline levels of oxytocin than men and women on birth control (most of them) had higher levels again - and those levels dropped in women for both the control group, who just held hands and talked while listening to music, and the group who kissed.
There was basically no increase in pair bonding due to kissing, even though oxytocin increased in men. There was a cortisol/oxytocin correlation but the researchers said they had no reason why. They also did a second study and included female homosexual couples and a more romantic environment and measured alpha-amylase levels in saliva but there was no difference in the sympathetic nervous system.
The results were nothing beyond talking points to where one questioner in the back asked if there was anything meaningful at all that came out of it (not in a mean way, but you get the point) and the researchers conceded that using volunteer college students in a small sample couldn't really be extrapolated into much.
Yet look at this strange article by Randolph E. Schmid, AP Science Writer:
Just in time for Valentine's Day, a panel of scientists examined the mystery of what happens when hearts throb and lips lock. Kissing, it turns out, unleashes chemicals that ease stress hormones in both sexes and encourage bonding in men, though not so much in women.Sure enough, his article was dated Friday the 13th. Since I was sitting there Saturday morning of the 14th I looked through my program book, because some sessions occurred twice. Nope, this one was on Saturday so I wasn't listening to a different version in which the researchers claimed chemicals "ease stress hormones in both sexes", they instead said their results were so counter-intuitive they did a second study which was still inconclusive.
Chemicals in the saliva may be a way to assess a mate, Wendy Hill, dean of the faculty and a professor of neuroscience at Lafayette College, told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Friday.
So where was Schmid sitting? Not in that room. He was making up conclusions from a press release and maybe a news conference.
None of this is a knock on the researchers - they told us what they set out to accomplish, said it didn't accomplish that and that the small sample was likely the reason. But that doesn't make good headline fodder. And it's another example of why people in science have a vague distrust of mass media science journalism.
Next up of interest to me was a roundtable session on the AAAS Science and Religion Coalition, also called DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), with opinions offered by Gil Ommen, former AAAS President, Martin Blume, emeritus of AAAS and APS, and a professor from a local Lutheran college, Lea Schweitz. Obviously you may be asking what I was going to ask, and what other people did - because it is AAAS, should we be involved at all? Well, the stats say it makes sense. Their data showed that 40% of scientists believed in God in 1933 and the same percentage held it as so in 1998.
Evolution is obviously ground zero for the schism between religion and science and the desire to not match religious zealots with science ones, Richard Dawkins being the name invoked over and over - was strong.
As an aside, that's something that I noticed over and over, and it's something we tend to miss because we are an internet site and see other sites with clear ideological, cultural and political agendas - in every talk I saw, biology or not, there were objections to creationism (of course) but not the overt atheist intolerance we see on other sites. Science is out to explain the world in terms of natural laws - what people want to believe about who started the Big Bang or whatever, is up to personal belief - so take heart that on the internet the really loud, controversy-driven sites get the most attention, but in the real world we are a lot more mainstream.
The only person who objected to affiliates joining the group was Blume and his objection was because the funding source was the John Templeton Foundation and he said their interest in conservatism and religion would lead to string pulling. Blume is clearly an atheist and a Democrat, and that's fine, but I wonder if he would object to work done by scientists or groups that are funded by Union of Concerned Scientists? Or if he feels James Hansen's global warming results are invalid because he is funded by George Soros? It is fairly creepy to me when someone does that, though I know on other sites it's pretty common to discredit people based on funding.
That aside, and I couldn't stand up and say this during the meeting, but this is the problem with nebbish little bureaucracies. To me, the solution is simple - get multiple funding sources.
I will say it here publicly to anyone at AAAS who wants to listen; if I were in charge of this project, there is a 100% chance it would not run out of money, it would not get an agenda handed to it by any donor and there would always be a new donor to replace anyone who dropped out.
Funding has nothing to do with the economy. The economy is just an excuse people use. I will say it again; I could get 100% funding guaranteed. But because it is a nebbish little bureaucracy there is no chance anyone who can actually run it will ever be allowed to run it - they instead will want someone who already has a connection to a funding source and then the funding source will want a big name with a Nobel prize. Nothing ever happens that way because process is ahead of problem solving.
So I certainly will support this DoSER program but I don't think it will do very well. The people who are chosen to run these things are handed it by a corporation (AAAS) and not because they are people who can do it, especially from outside the bureaucracy - this is why BBC, Nature (and also now AAAS) can start blogging groups and have them unable to stand on their own, even with massive support from their mainstream publications. You can't mandate success in a Board meeting and have people excited about it on the ground.
The final part of (my) Day 2 worth talking about (Sorry, I only skimmed Become an AAAS Science&Technology Fellow and had to miss Mathematics of Origami) was called "Darwin Now?" sponsored by the British Council, who deserve whatever press they get out of being in my blog (and thanks for the Tree of Life poster) because it was a terrific panel, consisting of Jonathan Silvertown, John Dupre and Ted Porter.
The highpoints to me were seeing "New Scientist" get slammed yet again for their "Darwin Was Wrong" cover - well, of course he was wrong, he wasn't writing scripture and it would be a lot more suspicious if he got everything right 150 years ago - and a legitimate discussion of Lamarck.
I have often been baffled by attacks on Lamarck (like I am attacks on Darwin, though the source is different) because, let's face it, Darwin was Lamarckian (Pangenesis). I will incur the wrath of neo-Darwinians in biology, who are invariably anti-Lamarckian, but we need to be able to talk about and consider a number of possibilities because science is not dogma and we don't know everything in 2009. So I was happy to see that even though most of us didn't really agree with John Dupre's defense of Lamarck, Darwinian evolution by a Lamarckian mechanism can at least be considered on its merits.
That doesn't mean we'll be having a 200th anniversary of Lamarck this year or endorsing soft inheritance, but we can at least talk about it in good faith.
On to Day 3.