Duck Genitals And The People Who Love Them


Now that I have your attention, I want to make a simple point about the intersection of journalism and public goods.

This week we were treated — and I mean that sincerely — to a conservative show of support for a White House proposal to fund the mapping of the human brain. Unfortunately it comes at a time when conservative trolling of less grandiose, publicly funded scientific research is at a historic high*.

So while President Obama hit a sweet spot with the BRAIN project, the right has simultaneously been in hysterics about the National Science Foundation funding a study of duck genitals. Well that study, it turns out, yielded some interesting results, including new information about the evolution of duck vaginas into the shape of clockwise corkscrews, to fend off forced copulation by male ducks, which have counter-clockwise, corkscrew shaped penises. Fascinating!Mike Tomasky comments, “this is obviously knowledge the human race needs; we have these species of animals around us, and it’s important to know how they live and survive, a knowledge that is important not for any application but simply for its own sake, and if you don’t agree with this assertion, we live on different planets.”

I would tend to agree. But I don’t really see any reason to accede the point about practical application.

If basic research never yielded findings that, say, led economic growth or greater economic efficiency, I’d still think it was worth funding. People would obviously disagree about how much money to spend, and that’s why we have politics. But the point is that basic research yields information that’s applicable outside the field of inquiry quite often and unpredictably, which is why we disburse public money widely. That’s true no matter how good Republicans on Capitol Hill get at mocking it, and precisely because it’s such an easy target, we should belabor the point.

Oh, and it creates great opportunities for reporters to write memorable stories that play well.

So for instance, a study of bear DNA that John McCain mocked as a “paternity issue or criminal,” but “a waste of money” either way, yielded information that turned out to be valuable to the people of Montana who live and work among grizzlies.

Likewise, when Eric Cantor snarked that “President Obama wants to raise your taxes so he can pay people $1.2 million to play World of Warcraft,” he was actually misleading people about an NSF grant funding research into how audio-visual stimulus of that kind might slow the cognitive effects of aging.

Etcetera. These stories of “wasteful spending” all entered the public consciousness through politics, but each enjoyed a second chapter because reporters were willing to take a second look. And the payoff for them was great.

The duck genitals story may have already run its course. But if years from now the Schlage Lock Company uses duck genital morphology to revolutionize home security (or something) the world will be better off, and people in this line of work will all have more great stories to write.

Obviously politicians behave like this because it’s an easy way to grab headlines and even when reporters do take the time to fact check them, the followup often comes too little, too late. But I think the duck junk saga is a great example of how reporters can avail themselves of the very same incentives to turn political dissembling about basic research into solid journalism that can flourish in a hyper-competitive news environment. It might not be enough to change politicians’ behavior, but it’s at the heart of what journalism’s all about, and for inquiring minds it’s also a great way to learn new and interesting things.

*anecdotally, anyhow