Slate’s Daniel Engber on science reporting.

Falling Out of Love With the Octopus, and Why Science Needs Criticism

Falling Out of Love With the Octopus, and Why Science Needs Criticism

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March 7 2018 1:03 PM

Falling Out of Love With the Octopus, and Why Science Needs Criticism

Slate’s Daniel Engber on animal favoritism, the replication crisis, and the problems with communicating science.

Octopus arm.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

If you’ve ever watched Blue Planet or any sort of nature documentary featuring animals, you’ve likely witnessed some amazing footage of the octopus. These short clips of octopuses opening jars or escaping from cages make for exciting and mesmerizing viral videos, and it’s natural for us bipeds to be so fascinated by what appears to be such an intelligent, agile, and mischievous creature.

But Slate columnist Daniel Engber—a self-professed former octopus obsessive—decided he wanted to consider more about why humans seem to love this animal so much, and if maybe we were being misled the entire time. He wrote about his conclusions in his cover story, “The Octopus Is Not a Crafty, Soulful Genius. It’s Dinner.”

In this S+ Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks to Engber about the octopus article and other science topics he’s covered, including the replication crisis in science and why he thinks science should be critiqued more often.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Your big cover story from last week was headlined “Against the Octopus.” For those who haven’t read it, and without spoiling it too much, can you briefly describe your argument, and how you came to it? I sort of remember there was a [Slate] Slack discussion about it, but I’m sure you’ve been thinking about this for a while.

Daniel Engber: I have, yeah. The Slack discussion was just what inspired me to go ahead and write the piece. I would say a year or two ago—usually a freelance writer wouldn’t reveal his pitches, but I’m going to give you the entirety of my pitch email to my editor Josh Levin. I just wrote, “The octopus: I’m sick of their shit,” and then he was intrigued by that, and then I said, “But I think it’d have to be a cover story.” It was one of those things where I didn’t actually think I would end up getting the green light to write however many thousand words on this topic, but I did.

So why “Against the Octopus”? Why are you over their shit?

So I should say—and this is in the piece as well—I used to be really into the octopus. I don’t want to get so much into dietary restrictions, because that conversation, which we may talk about in a bit, came to dominate reactions to the piece.

But I used to work in research labs, and after that experience of doing animal research, I sort of changed my eating habits. I stopped eating mammals, for one thing, and then I added other animals that I thought were like particularly cool and, I don’t know what the word is, like worthy of my respect or something. So for a long time, I was like a no-mammal-plus-octopus-eterian.

I had worked on studying motor control, and I was in a neuroscience lab, and I was fascinated by how the octopus—among its many things about it that I thought were amazing—the fact that it can control these eight wiggly, superflexible arms, and its arms are sticky, and it doesn’t get tangled. It doesn’t get stuck in knots. I knew how hard it is for a human to control two boring arms, so [I was] super into it.

Then, all this octopus-related media kind of reproduced and spread, and I think with the rise of social media, the octopus emerged as a very well-adapted organism for YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, just because there’s so many little videos. Knowledge of the octopus is very anecdote-based, so a lot of people have heard that an octopus can unscrew the lid of a jar, or that it can squeeze through a tiny hole, and there are little clips everywhere.

So that’s fine, but I began to wonder if my own fascination with the octopus was based on just those little clips and that kind of little nature-show snippets or if it really reflected the truth about the octopus, what’s known. That’s what the piece is about: The more I looked into it, the more I found myself kind of disappointed by the reality of the octopus. And then there was kind of a rebound effect where the more I was disappointed, the more I looked and saw all this cult of the octopus around me, and then the more I thought, “This has got to stop.”

Did you get any reactions from the cult of the octopus, then?

Yeah, well, like I mentioned, I think the fiercest reaction was from vegetarians and vegans. I don’t think that this stuff about whether to eat octopus was not my main focus—I’ve written about those issues before, I’ve written about animal welfare and animal rights before. Those are interesting topics, but here I was more interested in just the question of how when we say an animal is cool, or interesting, or when we use phrases like, “Oh, I love the octopus.” It’s sort of weird to say, “I love this species,” or genus, or whatever.

But at the same time, it’s sort of natural. You know there are cat people, and dog people. My brother collects cow-related memorabilia, so I guess he loves cows. That’s sort of the overarching theme that I’m curious about: Why do we love one animal over another? What does it mean to love one animal over another, and what if that love is not really based in the facts? If we say we love an animal for this reason and that reason, and those reasons don’t really hold up, where does that leave us?

So that was the thing that was sort of interesting to me. The piece kind of, in the editing process, got an excellent headline put on it, but that headline was something like, “The Octopus Is Not a Soulful Genius of the Ocean. It’s Dinner.” [Ed. note: The headline on the homepage read: “The Octopus Is Not a Crafty, Soulful Genius. It’s Dinner.”] I mentioned something about my own history of eating octopus and not eating octopus in the piece, and so a lot of people, I think, who came to the story were just thinking about that I was trying to focus on this question of whether people should eat animals. As I’ve said, I do eat fish and birds, but I’m not dogmatic about that, and I think I could see becoming a vegan at some point. That’s just sort of like a different thing. I’m sort of curious about the aesthetics of animals.

You also recently wrote about the controversy surrounding Brian Wansink, a Cornell marketing professor who, as BuzzFeed reported, was hacking scientific data to kind of help make studies go viral. So what’s happening there? What was going on?

Well, I can even connect this up to the octopus thing, if you don’t mind. Brian Wansink, he’s been called the “Sherlock Holmes of Food.” Not every listener will have heard of him, of course, but he is sort of like a prominent media personality from the psychology of eating. He had a book that was pretty popular called Mindless Eating.

What has emerged in the past couple of years, and BuzzFeed has done an excellent job of reporting on this, is that a lot of papers out of the Wansink lab just have statistical errors, and they seem to be what’s called p-hacked. It’s not outright fraud or anything like that, but it’s using a sort of casual approach to statistical inference, so you can gather a lot of data, let’s say, and then just like analyze it 500 different ways until you find something that works, and then you publish just the thing that works. It looks like you found this thing, but really you were just kind of looking around a cloud of noise to try to find anything that looked like a signal. So Wansink did that.

I’m going to stretch to connect to the octopus stuff because when you actually look at some of these studies on octopus intelligence that are casually mentioned as citations for why we love them, why we think they’re so amazing, actually there’s some methodological problems in octopus research. I don’t want to say that the field is damaged or anything, but it did come up when I was researching the octopus piece that some of the classic studies of octopus intelligence have some experimental confounds, like the experimenter is right there, which means the octopus might be getting subtle signals like a Clever Hans–style, which hole it should reach its arm through.

Anyway, so yes, this is a theme that I’m quite interested in in general, which is how science is done, and how you know that even peer-reviewed published papers are true. The Wansink case at Cornell is just an extreme version of that.

Yeah, you wrote about how he’s a marketing professor, and he wanted to try to get people to eat fruits and vegetables, right?

Yeah, one of the things I think that is interesting there is there’s sort of almost like a parable-like quality. Wansink comes from a business and marketing background. He was obsessed with a book, The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, which is mid-20th-century book about the power of marketing and subliminal messaging, and the way that advertisers can manipulate the consumer. But he’s kind of like the good-witch version of that, I mean, this is how he presents himself in his book and elsewhere. His goal, which I think is a laudable one, is how can I use the techniques and state-of-the-art methods of marketing and advertising but for good? How can I get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, using all of the tricks of the trade of heartless big business?

Some of his famous findings include the idea that if you go into a school lunchroom and you rebrand all of the foods to make them sound more amazing to kids, so you call your carrots “X-ray vision carrots,” and you call your broccoli “awesome treetop” something. If you do that, then kids will eat more vegetables. So that’s a way of using the logic of Nestle or General Mills, but instead of trying to push whatever empty calories, you’re pushing healthy foods. People love that. Media loves that. Consumers love that stuff. Public health officials love these ideas because they sound so smart. The problem is, that the research that was the basis for that wasn’t really very sound, potentially. The point that I was trying to make in that piece was I think Wansink—he has this great idea, he produced some research that wasn’t that rigorous in support of that idea, and then what do you do?

Well, if you see the world in terms of marketing and persuasion, now you have to market your research and persuade other scientists. The marketing and persuasion kind of took over at every level, and so he was trying to push a healthy product to kids, but what he ended up doing along the way, in my opinion, was he was pushing maybe the junk-food version of science to his peers. Something I think very complicated happened along the way there.

Yeah, I mean it does seem that there’s this trend. I don’t know if it’s because of social media or the internet, of trying to make science cool or headline-friendly, and the problem with that is that sometimes the actual science or the facts get portrayed inaccurately. Right? What are your thoughts about that?

Yeah that’s interesting. There’s a couple things going on, that, as I see it. One is that science journalism could be thought of as this broader thing, science communication, or #scicomm. Science communication, there’s sort of encompasses both science boosterism, science reporting, and—something that I think is not generally discussed, but is equally important to the other things—that I would call science criticism. They’re all kind of interested in explaining science—which is sometimes very technical—and communicating it, but otherwise they’re doing very different things.

Now there’s also this other element that you raised. We were just talking about marketing, like pushing content to consumers. That’s the interest of the publication, like Slate wants people to read Slate stories. Right? So that’s kind of like a, almost like another consideration, and it feels even like a separate question, like I’ll write my octopus piece. My editor will design a headline. Assuming the headline is accurate, if it brings more people to my story, that’s good for Slate, and it makes me feel good too. So I’m OK with that, but I think there is sometimes tension between those three tracks that I mentioned: science reporting, science boosterism, and science criticism.

And so you called Wansink “perhaps the most egregious—or at least the most cartoonish—villain of the replication crisis in psychology,” and that’s referring how he or his students would kind of select or massage the right sets of data to achieve some sort of results. So replication is a big issue among science and science community, and you’ve been covering it for a while now. Can you talk about that topic? What’s been going on with it?

This is something that I’ve been working on for a few years. There’s been a dawning realization, I would say since about 2010 or 2011, that a lot of findings, particularly in psychology or social psychology can’t really be trusted.

I think one of the things that once you realize that a lot of this research might not be so reliable, you can start to try to reproduce it as closely as possible to the original. So that’s been happening a lot, especially in psychology. Specific studies where you just say, “Let’s figure out exactly what the researchers did to start with, and if we do it again, will we get the same results?” There’s some kind of philosophy of science issues about what does it mean if you redo the same experiment where you do the best you can at redoing it, and you get a different answer, which do you trust—the first time you did it or the second time you did it?

There’s been a lot of really interesting work in trying to think about how can you evaluate the credibility of a finding, how can you double-check it, and—they call this sort of metascience—how do you make higher-level judgments about an entire research literature? I’ve come across this multiple times now in my reporting where I’ll see the science of something, let’s say that’s been studied for years, hundreds of times by labs all across the country and all around the world, so we’re talking hundreds of different scientists involved, and they all come to the sort of the same answers. Such and such is this thing that happens. And then there’s one big, very carefully done replication project, which says, “Wait a second, maybe all those people are wrong.”

That’s terrifying as a science journalist, and I think it should be terrifying as a science consumer also. It’s one thing, like oh one study came out and then proved to be not true. That’s the self-correcting nature of science. I mean that does happen, sure, but what I think the reason that I call it a replication crisis and picking up on what others say, is that you can have an entire lineage of research or a tree that grows from a single study at the beginning and spreads out in all different directions, where the same mistake is getting propagated, or the same over estimation of how important something is, is getting propagated and spreads, and that’s really scary because as a science journalist and consumer, you like to think that you have some tools at your disposal for evaluating whether I should trust something. One of those tools is, is this just one preliminary study, or have lots of people done it, and has it passed peer review? What I’m saying is that certain things can be repeated hundreds of times in different ways, and pass peer review hundreds of times, and still be wrong. That’s why I’m so drawn to this topic and keep coming back to it.

You’ve covered a lot of big issues in science for Slate. What do you think are some of the stories in the scientific community that haven’t been reported on enough?

Well, I think this comes back to that question of the three types of science communication. I tend to think that science criticism doesn’t get enough attention, and I don’t see why science shouldn’t be reported on in the same way that we do cultural criticism. When there’s a new movie, we have a critic who criticizes it. Why not take that same critical approach, which I think is a hallmark of science itself, and apply it to the coverage of science, both scientific institutions—which are in their own way commercial and political entities, and should be covered as such—but also with the intellectual project of science? It has cultural values bound up in it, and also there are questions about how it’s done, and whether it’s reliable. I think all those things are very sort of important in understanding how we use evidence to make decisions and policy. It all comes back to how do we make the world a better place, if I can be grandiose for a second.