David Mertz: Science needs storytellers

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 11:45pm

I read an article recently in The New Yorker written by the physician-scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee, which introduces the topic of epigenetics through stories about his mother and aunt. They’re identical twins, but Mukherjee remarks on how their personalities differ despite their genetic similarity, which he alludes to in the title, “Same But Different.” He attributes their distinctive qualities to another layer of biological data encoded over the DNA in each cell of the body. The epigenome, he says, is a system composed of proteins and other small molecules that interact with DNA, controlling how it is read, which, in part, defines individuality.

It was a welcome example of how employing a personal narrative can be used to explain an area of science by bringing it to life, enabling a casual reader to absorb the information comfortably. Epigenetics and other areas of science might otherwise seem intimidating or dry if encountered through a textbook or peer-reviewed article. It’s enjoyable to leisurely read and learn about an unfamiliar subject, but also interesting to observe how a familiar subject is presented to somebody else in an unfamiliar way. In this case, however, biology experts reading Mukherjee’s explanation of epigenetics reacted differently.

The article quickly received widespread criticism for providing an incomplete explanation about the mechanisms of gene regulation. An article in the scientific journal Nature noted that one genetics researcher said the article was “a horribly damaging piece” for the field. Another called it “a truly painful read.” Researchers believed some of Mukherjee’s descriptions were inaccurate and noted that he failed to include any mention of transcription factors (a completely different group of molecules that affect how DNA is read), misleading the public about the true inner-workings of gene expression. Naturally, a more objective explanation of the science would have left little print room for his personal narrative, which may not have appealed as much to the magazine’s non-science-specific readership. Mukherjee himself has acknowledged his article’s shortcomings, but The New Yorker has defended the content.

This controversy highlights an important discussion about the communication of science. Because science, especially biology, can be so complex, anyone actually working in the field must have a deep understanding of where the boundary of knowledge exists in order to ask the right questions and to obtain the answers that extend that boundary. A researcher might spend years trying to understand the mechanism of a new cell-signaling pathway, when thousands of different pathways are already confirmed to exist, and many more remain undiscovered. There arises a substantial gap between the depth of what scientists believe to be true or possible, and what the lay-public has the capacity to understand.

Mukherjee exhibits how storytelling is an important method for communicating science. Using personal anecdotes and explaining concepts at a surface level is effective in enabling a lay-audience to relate and understand. Inevitably, many mainstream media outlets will fail to present scientific topics with thoroughness and depth when constraints, such as word count or air time, exist. In these cases, it should be acknowledged by journalists, who can direct someone with a deeper interest to sources where they can learn more.

But sometimes science can be packaged so artificially for the media that the message presented hardly resembles the conclusion of the original study. In a recent episode of his show “Last Week Tonight,” comedy news anchor John Oliver bashed media outlets like Time magazine, “The Today Show,” local news broadcasts and even the TED series for sometimes overlooking the diligence and nuances of scientific studies in order to hook the viewer with a catchy headline. (In one instance, a study testing the effects of eating chocolate on childbearing, which turned out to show no effect, somehow received the local news headline: “Eating moderate amounts of chocolate could benefit mom and baby.”) While attention-grabbing headlines are important for sequestering viewers and readers, journalists should ensure more consistency from what the study concludes to what the reader or viewer sees by interviewing the researchers themselves, instead of merely trying to interpret conclusions in press releases.

Keeping scientific news and discussion in the mainstream media is vital to the dissemination of new knowledge. In addition to accuracy, reach is also important. Those believing that dry, comprehensive accounts are the only tools for distributing new findings will be greatly disappointed in their lack of permeation among the general public, when people cannot connect to the concepts. A more scientifically informed public generates new ideas for solving problems and better policies. The scientific community should appreciate journalism that creatively shares new findings and, instead of quickly antagonizing its messengers, should request for findings to be communicated accurately with the proper context and implications.

In “Same But Different,” Mukherjee chooses to prioritize telling a story to explain epigenetics instead of purely objectifying the subject matter and diluting the element of humanity he uses to connect with his audience. His new book “The Gene: An Intimate History” becomes available May 17. It will include other narratives and fill the scientific holes left by his article, providing a more comprehensive, yet still accessible, understanding of gene regulation. Hopefully it will appease his critics.

David Mertz can be reached at drmertz@umich.edu.