Emptypockets has a couple of good articles on this controversy. In the first article from the Next Hurrah, Pockets discusses how science information gets disseminated and how that relates to the problem of correcting misinformation especially in the blogosphere. Turns out that it was actually fairly easy to edisseminate corrected information about the Sheep study.
"The point I want to make here is that it turned out to be easy to expose PETA's lies. It did not take tremendous back-and-forth link wars. It just took a note saying "think a little harder about this before you believe it." And from there we were off to an honest discussion.
Was it easy because PETA's lies are so transparent, or because I was talking to an audience already receptive to critical thought or a pro-science message? Would the debunking penetrate the rest of the blogosphere, or stop at the walls of the political left? Once a lie has spread into the hive mind of the web, can you unspread it?"
Pockets then gives a rough history of what happened including the role of science bloggers.
But good sounding myths take a while to die and the alleged research using gay sheep rose again. This time bloggers such as myself picked up on a Times of London article claiming again that scientists were studying gay sheep and that "experts" were claiming that this could serve as a basis for screening out gays or providing a cure for homosexuality.
Pockets fortunately is on the case and has a lengthy investigative report in today's Daily Kos:
"The Times repeats and amplifies lies made by PETA in August claiming that Dr. Charles Roselli is experimenting on gay sheep to try to cure homosexuality -- total nonsense, but PETA saw that by targeting Roselli's work they could exploit the gay rights community and promote their anti-research agenda. At the time, I spoke out against PETA and talked with many bloggers who had been duped to set the record straight -- the story then died down, until it re-emerged, almost unchanged, in the Sunday Times last weekend. The question is, who's pulling the gay sheep fleece this time? And why?"
Pocket's research reveals the following:
1. The investigators have not been able to 'significantly alter' the sheep's sexual orientation.
2. The injection of hormones into the brain technique is pure fabrication (I wondered about that one myself)
3. The reports claim to have talked to some experts yet they ignored most of the recent literature on sexual orientation.
Why did the reporters, Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Gourlay, write this article and what was the role of PETA in getting this article written remain a mystery. Pockets notes that there are important ethical issues in research but these debates can't be had honestly if they are based on lies.
One thing that strikes me as interesting is that according to Pockets, Oakeshott is responsible for various disinformatative articles related to fetus's allegedly smiling and also the controversial plan B morning after pill. So the motivation might be to try to link PETA with the antiabortion crowd. See this link provided by pockets to my old "friends" at Concerned Women for America. Allegedly Oakeshott has gotten into other trouble as well as a quick google search showed.
But read emptypockets for yourself.
Seems to me that PETA and the Times reporter have done a great deal of harm not only to the research community but also to the credibility of the Times. I know I took the article as a springboard to talk about other issues.
I wrote for example:
"Obviously the research raises some ethical questions. Assume we can determine the possible sexual orientation of a child in utero and can intervene to modify this orientation. Should parents have the right to intervene to either abort or hormonally modify their offspring? On the one hand, reproductive rights are something many people have fought for over the last 50 years. How is letting women do this sort of thing any different? On the other hand, what are we doing to ourselves as a society if we allow people to do things that reduce the diversity of human experience for the sake of what we as parents want. If fetuses have some rights, is this sort of hormonal manipulation, merely another type of medical intervention such as prenatal surgery, or is it an immoral intervention insulting to the dignity of the person? I hope you see how this sort of issue has the potential of redefining many of the fault lines that divide us today."
And I think these are important questions, but they can't be meaningfully dealt with either if the information we have to go on is faulty.