Posted by: justawriter | September 29, 2009

Dear PBS

When you do a documentary of a person who has done something spectacularly stupid, it would pay to have an outside source vet any further information coming from that source.
Love,
Justawriter

I am watching a 2007 PBS documentary called Jewels of the Jungle. It features a Montana State University botanist named Gary Strobel. He has made a number of truly significant discoveries including a microorganism that produces the anticancer drug Taxol.
The problem I have with the documentary started with a spectacularly stupid statement that western science had turned away from examining botanical sources of drugs because they could make new drugs in the lab. If you are going to make that sweeping a statement, you better have a good set of statistics to back you. But the documentary just let that statement lie there like a steaming turd as it boldly pushed forward.
The entire show is based not so much on Strobel’s genuine accomplishments in favor of an extended version of the Galileo Gambit.
It seems that in the 1980s Strobel made a spectacularly stupid mistake. He believed he had found a microorganism that would inhibit the growth of the Dutch Elm Disease fungus in elm trees. He was told that he needed EPA approval before introducing an organism into the environment. Like a stupid Old West cowboy he went ahead rather than following the widely followed procedures for working with antifungal compounds. In the Reagan era antigovernment hysteria he was made out to be a martyr rather than a near criminal sloppy researcher.
The rest of the show wasn’t as bad, although Strobel made it seem that he was the only researcher ever to look for medicinal compounds in microorganisms that grow inside plants. Color me unconvinced. I think it tarnishes the long and noble science of pharmacognosy.
Oh my. His authenticity as a researcher and friend of the third world has just been confirmed because he has learned to play the diggery doo. Shoot me now.

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