Palin was not talking about Drosophila

Now that I’ve had a chance to look at the blog reactions to the Palin fruit fly idiocy, I’m amazed at how rapidly everyone assumed she was talking about Drosophila. This is because most of the world – including virtually all Drosophila researchers – mistakenly believe that “fruit fly” is the proper common name for members of the genus Drosophila. However the proper common name for Drosophila is vinegar fly or pomace fly. Fruit fly properly refers to members of the family Tephritidae. Now, oddly (and I’m sure accidentally), Palin got it right – the project she was criticizing involved the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) – a tehpritid.

What I find particularly amusing about this is that I’ve had several conversations in the past few years – usually late nights at the bar at the annual Drosophila meeting – about how we should really get Drosophila researchers to use the correct name. But these conversations always end because we quickly realize that the whole issue is absurd. I mean when would it ever actually matter what common name we use for Drosophila. I mean it’s not like it’s ever going to be at the center of a presidential campaign or anything….

[UPDATE: There’s a great historical discussion of the common name of Drosophila in this essay from Mel Green]

[UPDATE 2: It seems that some people seem to think that I was saying that the fact that Palin was talking about Bactrocera instead of Drosophila makes her comments acceptable. I meant nothing of the sort. Whether she was talking about basic research in Drosophila or applied research in Bactrocera, her mockery of science is dangerous, vile and unacceptable. What I find most repugnant is the utter ignorance McCain and Palin manifest – and the pride they seem to take in it].

This entry was posted in science and politics. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. caseybergman
    Posted October 27, 2008 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Posted October 27, 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    So IS the drosophilia being used in research on autism?

    In my sketchy research through google I read that UNC is doing some research involving the drosophilia and memory and that they are somehow connecting that with autism. Since memory isn’t an issue in autism, I’m wondering just what they are finding and why they aren’t associating their research with alzheimer’s.

    (I have an autistic son and have been deeply involved in the issue for over 40 years.)

  3. K. Cotton
    Posted October 27, 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Let’s see, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Worldwide figures1 – Damage to the world olive crop caused by insect pests has been estimated to be 15% of production, or $800 million per annum. Olive growers spend $100 million per year on pests, 1/2 of which is for pesticides. Herbicides were applied to 38 percent of California’s olive acreage, with glyphosate the most commonly used. Insecticides were used on 31 percent of the acreage. Spinosad was the leading insecticide applied to the crop. It is expected that with the olive fly becoming more endemic, this figure will rise even further.”

    So, asking for $748,000 to fund research that might prevent $800 million in damage and lost crops annually – research that would be of worldwide benefit – is stupid? Spending a ninth of a percent of the annual loss potentially to prevent that loss is a poor use of research dollars? Looking for a solution that lowers toxic pesticide use, halves growers’ pesticide costs, increases food production, and ultimately saves consumers money has “little or nothing to do with the public good”?

    Ah, yes Palin’s ignorant mockery of the “correct” project is clearly preferable to what was thought to be ignorant mockery of Drosophila research. Brrrrrrr. It’s appalling that anyone that close to the Presidency thinks it’s appropriate to make jokes about a subject absent any knowledge or facts.

    Of course, what can one expect from a candidate who whines the press is being mean to her because she’s a woman? I’m embarrassed she is considered a representative of my gender – couldn’t we have gotten someone intelligent and strong instead of an uninformed, poorly spoken adolescent? I always thought once high school was over, we’d be done with bullies making fun of the nerds and straight-A students. But thanks to Sarah Palin, the cheerleaders and Joe Six Packs are once again being touted as the coolest kids in the school…and this time they think they’re qualified to run the country. Someone shoot me now (oh, wait, right, at least I can count on Sarah to pull the trigger!)

  4. Posted October 30, 2008 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Well, if Drosophila melanogaster are not fruit flies, then I think we should all, from now on, stop calling them fruit flies and call them “Freedom Flies” in honor of Palin.

2 Trackbacks

  • By Erratum « Scatterbrained on October 29, 2008 at 9:57 am

    […] 29, 2008 · No Comments I’ve done my due diligence now, and here’s something I just learned: Palin was not speaking about Drosophila. While this changes the subject matter, […]

  • By Weekly Address from Obama’s Science Gurus on January 25, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    […] The focus would not be on the high-profile results – the stuff that already gets written up in the popular press – but on the scientists, the way they work, the questions they are addressing and the tools they’re using to go after them. They would be short and fun – a kind of elevator pitch for government science. Maybe I’m overestimating public interest, but if done right, I think these could be very popular. People care about medical research, about space missions, about fighting global warming, protecting the oceans – and they could care about lots of other things, including even “fruit fly research in Paris, France“.  […]