Case study and cautionary tale for science writers
The pother over the New Yorker’s epigenetics piece is a case study–by which I mean cautionary tale–for science writers. (Epigenetics is the study of mechanisms that change the behavior of genes without altering their DNA sequence–essentially by turning genes on and off. Broadly speaking, epigenetics is how nurture shapes nature.) The piece is a fine example of the chief science-writing challenge: How damned hard it is to explain a complicated topic without major distortion. Even for a writer as talented as doc Siddhartha Mukherjee, who won a Pulitzer for his 2010 book about cancer, The Emperor of all Maladies.
Response to the piece from scientists appears to be entirely horror-stricken. I haven’t been able to find a single defense. The biggest complaint from the scientist-critics is that the piece focused pretty much exclusively on one epigenetic mechanism: modification of histones. (Histones are proteins sometimes described as spools used for winding up our six feet of DNA so tightly that it can be crammed into the cell nucleus, a feat scientists have likened to stuffing 10,000 miles of spaghetti into a basketball. Modification involves histone tightening or loosening, thought to either restrict or provide access to genes.)
There are other, terribly important, epigenetic mechanisms that the New Yorker piece ignores, the critics point out. Transcription factors for instance, proteins that turn genes on and off. Also the many forms of non-coding RNA.
Mukherjee apologizes, sorta
Brian Resnick’s post at Vox is inclined to cut Mukherjee some slack, partly because the author sent Resnick an apologetic email. Mukherjee told Resnick he had erred in not emphasizing gene regulation–but also noted that the piece is an excerpt from his new book that explores the topic more. (However, see this Why Evolution is True post wherein Matthew Cobb, who just reviewed the book for Nature, asserts that the New Yorker piece is not an excerpt.)
Not having read the book, a history of genetics called simply The Gene, I can’t say whether that’s true. But even if it is, so what? A magazine piece is supposed to stand on its own.
Resnick says, “The print New Yorker only has so much space. These choices aren’t always easy, but in journalism, they’re necessary. We can only tell one story at a time.”
Epigenetics is one story. One intricate story. No matter our space constraints–and I’d argue, enviously, that 6000 words doesn’t strike me as terribly constrained; I’ve written on epigenetics in 2000 words and even in 700–what we can do is alert readers to the fact that the details we’re emphasizing for space reasons are only part of that story. A couple of paragraphs noting that histone modification is but one chunk of the very complex tale of epigenetics discoveries, and offering a bit of description of some of the other parts, wouldn’t have been a big deal in a 6000-word piece.
And the change wouldn’t even have required added wordage. To keep within the generous word count, that new explanatory material could easily replace some of the too-extensive family history in the piece. Mukherjee’s mother and aunt are identical twins but differ in a lot of ways. This hook is perfect. It’s an irresistible anecdotal lede for a piece explaining how the same genetic material can generate different outcomes. But the trip to New Jersey and other travelogues are just clutter.
PAUSE FOR BRIEF RANT: Writing for Story distorts and cripples explanatory prose. The fact that narrative science/medical journalism is fashionable–and at some pubs obligatory–doesn’t make it right. Or informative.
What the pissed-off scientists said
Here are some detailed criticisms from scientists, several from Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True. As an introduction, Coyne collected several complaints from scientists here and published a long critique by Mark Ptashne and John Greally here.
Coyne himself dissected coverage in Nature and Forbes, with particular emphasis on Mukherjee’s insistence that he did too discuss transcription factors. (He didn’t.) In this post Coyne also savaged Mukherjee’s discussion of Shinya Yamanaka’s Nobel-prizewinning work on transcription factors.
In another post, Coyne takes note of Mukherjee’s responses to criticisms sent directly to the New Yorker (not the ones on Coyne’s blog.) He also knocks down the claim that epigenetics somehow proves Lamarck and the idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics. (It doesn’t. In fact, contrary to what you may have heard, there is absolutely nothing in epigenetics research that contradicts or forces rethinking of molecular biology/genetics basics. For an impressively irritated critique of the idea that epigenetics confirms Lamarckism, see this Gene Expression post by Razib Khan from last December.)
Michael Eisen provides a kind of metanalysis of the scientific dispute, especially about the idea of a “histone code,” at his blog it is NOT junk, reprinted at Science 2.0: “[O]ne might come away with the impression that this is disagreement about whether cells and organisms can transmit information in a manner above and beyond DNA sequence. And this is unfortunate, because there really is no question about this. Ptashne and Allis/Mukherjee are arguing about the molecular details of how it happens and about how important different phenomena are.”
The idea of a histone code, Eisen says, is mysterious enough that “people can imbue it with whatever properties they want. And scientists and non-scientists alike have leapt into this molecular biological sweet spot, using this manifestation of the idea of epigenetics as a generic explanation for things they can’t understand, a reason to hope that things they want to be true might really be, and as a difficult to refute, almost quasi-religious, argument for the plausibility of almost any idea linked to heredity.”