I have to admit, I love the Sasquatch DNA story. Growing up in British Columbia, I have a soft spot for the creature – and having someone claim to sequence the DNA added a genetic interest.
Unfortunately, the sequencing results aren’t as clear cut as the authors claim. Last week, John Timmer wrote about some of the issues with the study and it reminded me of some of the fun things that happened when the study was first announced last February. It led to conversations about open access and bias or expectations in research.
British Columbians are used to hearing about Sasquatch – I grew up with him selling beer:
Yet most of the local media treated this story with some caution and many of my family and friends were also leery.
One great exchange was on my local teen-focused radio station where they talked about the results and the fact that you had to pay to read the research. Yes, the researchers started a new journal De Novo and the Sasquatch DNA paper is still the only thing published. Although they billed it as open access, there was a fee to read the paper. The radio host made the observation that it seems like they are trying to hide something if it isn’t freely available. The on-air conversation also suggested they might be trying to fund a new project.
This statement was echoed in conversations with some of my parents’ friends. If the authors were honest, they should let everyone see the data and make their own conclusions. It led to some great discussions on science access in general.
Bias and expectations
With the high school students, this is a great story to discuss how to interpret your techniques and results. The recent piece in Ars Technica details the points nicely so I won’t re-hash most of them here. But the one thing that stuck out to students is the idea that you follow great technique and have controls but there is still a chance to be ‘wrong’. It is important to place your research into the context of previous work. It is possible that your initial sample is incorrect or you favour some connections more than others. I don’t deny that the forensic work on the Sasquatch sample was done well – but what is the proof that it comes from a Sasquatch? Also, the conclusions are extraordinary and there are other more mundane explanations like contamination.
I like this story because it captures people’s imaginations but it leads to some great conversations about how science can and should work. Do you have any stories that help you talk about science with non-scientists?