Posted by: Jamie | August 30, 2009

Nickeled and Dimed

In a burst of insomnia, I am Stumbling about the interwebs when I come across this piece:

Boy discovers microbe that eats plastic

PhDs have been searching for a solution to the plastic waste problem, and this 16 year old finds the answer.
Fri, Jun 12 2009 at 2:26 AM EST

It’s not your average science fair when the 16-year-old winner manages to solve a global waste crisis. But such was the case at last month’s May’sĀ Canadian Science Fair in Waterloo, Ontario, where Daniel Burd, a high school student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, presented his research on microorganisms that can rapidly biodegrade plastic.

[…]

Daniel had a thought it seems even the most esteemed PhDs hadn’t considered. Plastic, one of the most indestructible of manufactured materials, does in fact eventually decompose. It takes 1,000 years but decompose it does, which means there must be microorganisms out there to do the decomposing.

Could those microorganisms be bred to do the job faster?

The bold italics are mine. Please notice how this article is framed. “What use,” it seems to say, “are these vaunted ‘scientists’ we hear so much about, and give so much of our money to? Why have we got these scientists if 16 year olds are finding the answers we need?”

What it doesn’t say is, “Look at all the history and work and dedication by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of the world’s scientists that went into making that 16 year old’s brainstorm possible!”

“Plastic, one of the most indestructible of manufactured materials, does in fact eventually decompose. It takes 1,000 years but decompose it does, which means there must be microorganisms out there to do the decomposing.

Could those microorganisms be bred to do the job faster?”

The first paragraph coyly hides what amounts to the sum of human knowledge regarding decomposition. The entirety of that body of work, compressed to two sentences. Yet without those two sentences and all they represent, the third sentence – the question – could not exist.

Here we have a seemingly innocent article about a fantastic accomplishment by a young student. But it’s not so innocent. In wordings like this, found all-too-commonly throughout the world of journalism, we see how the credibility of science, scientists, and the scientific method are eroded in the public consciousness. We should recognize the moments of genius that allow us as a species to take giant strides forward. But we cannot fail to also recognize the mountains of hard work, tedious labor, and painstaking dedication that underlie those moments. The insidious venom of the “average Joe” framing eats away slowly at the foundations of our knowledge. If we as scientists fail to demand our worth, fail to claim the value of those nickels and dimes of lab work and testing and hypotheses, then we will continue to fade away, leaving the technological society we have built languishing in the rot and decay of its own ignorance. And a Ph.D. isn’t a Get Out of Apocalypse Free card.

“PhDs have been searching for a solution to the plastic waste problem, and this 16 year old finds the answer.”

Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants.

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