Monday, December 22, 2008

Who the Heck Is George Johnson?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Epigenetics at SEED. The article in SEED was written by a scientist who wants to change evolutionary theory in order to accommodate epigenetics. I pointed out that this was a poorly written article. One of the worst problems was the definition of epigenetics, which was broad enough to include the kitchen sink.

Abbie Smith picked up on this on her blog ERV. She agreed that the SEED article was not helpful [ew... epigenetics in SEED...].

Along comes someone named George Johnson. He interprets Abbie's criticism of the science, and mine, as a rant against science journalism. Well, he's right, even though in this case it's science journalism being written by a scientist. Apparently science journalists (I assume George Johnson is one) are very sensitive about criticism from scientists. Apparently science journalists are very good at what they do ... how dare scientists criticize what they write about science!!!

Watch George Johnson make a fool of himself on this bloggingheads video with John Horgan. Johnson reads my name from the ERV posting but it seems he didn't bother to read my posting. If George Johnson has the courage to show up here I'll be happy to explain to him why this particular SEED article is bad. He's welcome to read all my other criticisms of science journalism and and attempt to defend the science journalists.

Pay close attention to Johnson's comments when he reads the passage from Abbie's blog. It's clear that he doesn't know what chromatin is and he doesn't know what epigenetics is. On the other hand, he is certain that Nicholas Wade, who writes about molecular biology, is a great science writer. How would George Johnson know this? Johnson may be able to tell whether Nicholas Wade is a good writer but he sure isn't in a position to judge whether he's a good science writer since the most important thing about science writing is accuracy and Johnson knows nothing about molecular biology.

This may be one of the biggest problems with science writers. They can't tell the difference between science and writing. And they don't like it when scientists point this out to them.


  1. Word, brother Sandwalk. These guys are about the biggest tools I have seen grace Bloggingheads.

  2. Yeah, I don't get what these dumbfucks are going on about for eleventeen fucktillion minutes of blabbering. Motherfucking dipshits.

  3. George Johnson is an award-winning science journalist, frequent writer for NYT and an author of several well-reviewed books :-)

    Quick review of his articles (linked to on his web site ) confirms that the guy NEVER knows the subject he is writing about. A total hack ... err, a classic science journalist.

  4. Well, it is certainly hard for science journalists to satisfy all scientists when there is marked disagreement among scientists themselves on some topics, such as how far does epigenetics stray away from typically neodarwinian evolutionary explanations.

    The neodarwinian framework we have received since the 1940's cares mostly about genes, and the ways by which they may increase their frequency in populations. From this perspective, the effects of the environment on organisms are a secondary topic and not part of any actual "evolutionary" explanation. Somehow, it is "biology", yet never "evolution". Some scientists think that is the way it should be: Others, like myself, disagree.

    Regarding this, epigentics has introduced a lot of new exciting experiments and data on how much environmental change can directly affect both phenotype AND inheritance, without changes in DNA sequence. I think this indeed challenges traditional ways of evoutionary thinking. But I don't really care if someone like Larry disagrees, and says there is nothing new there. I shrug. It's not the end of the world. Maybe some day they will catch up.

    However, it is hard to ignore and not chuckle a little whe you see how they then become all pissed and scandalized when science journalists pay attention to scientists who disagree with their pet opinions, sspecially if they question the the excellence and basic completeness of the 1940's neodarwinian framework as the best thing ever for evolutionary theory. Heresy!! End of the world!!!

    They will the proceed to do us the favor of making complete fools of themselves by going into a generalized rant against science journalism, the decadence of civilization, etc etc, clearly portraying themselves as the only illuminated people, while everything around them is collapsing... it's really veey, very silly. Where does this come from? Anti-creationist paranoia, perhaps? It certainly is non-scientific, and kudos to George Johnson for sniffing it out (despite not being a scientist).

    Take, for example, Larry's lame demand for a single, all-accepted definition of epigenetics. It seems he will refuse to take any role for epigenetics in evolution seriosuly until a unanimous defintion of epigenetics is achieved. This is pretty weird, taking into account he knows perfectly well the problems that are presented in definings words like "evolution", or even "gene". If we think like Larry, the role of genes in evolution cannot be seriously considered until we have a unanimous defintion of "gene" (still pending!). Larry's selective attitude against epiegentics does not comre from science, even if he may not know it. He's creating excuses. Very, very, bad for a scientist.

  5. @ A. Vargas

    You are clearly annoyed by Larry's confrontational style, but I think he has a valid point.
    Epigenetic modifications (whatever the definition) can change the way genes are expressed, but ultimately heritable differences in epigenetic strategies are encoded in the DNA.
    Since the modern synthesis only considers the expressed fitness effects of different alleles, epigenetics is simply absorbed by it. I fully agree that this is a very exciting research field, but it certainly does not require any change in the modern synthesis.

  6. In my opinion, the boom of epigenetics has simply added some empirical pressure for a long past-due revision of evolutionary theory, since neodarwinism has been all too focused on genes (and adaptationism) for too long.

    In other words, epigenetics helps, but is not necessary to be able to realize that the neodarwinian focus is too narrow to be an "essentially complete" framework for explaining evolution. Some pockets of evolutionary thinking interspersed here an there in the world have reazlized this long time before epigenetics (in fact, neodarwinian "hegemony" has never been complete, with some scientists always remaining unconvinced). You have all kinds of different degrees of heterodoxy. Jablonka herself is pretty much typically adaptationist. Gould himself was certainly under the imopression taht the theoretical framework is improvable, at least beyond adaptainims and Dawkins-style gentic reductionism.

    Revolution? I don't know, and honestly, I don't care... we can all live together having different opinions. What seems funny to me are the paranoid reactions of some. It's OK to be confrontational, but to be apocalyptic is a bit ridiculous, isn't it.

  7. By the way, since you say that "ultimately heritable differences in epigenetic strategies are encoded in the DNA", I'd love it for you to explain what do you mean by "encoded". I assume you are speaking only metaphorically?

  8. Considering the fact George has never commented at ERV or sent me an email, and has instead chosen to Bill-Dembski-notpologize on the Bloggingheads forum, I doubt he will show up here. And I doubt he gives a crap about epigenetics.

    Until my lab puts out a paper connecting dietary changes, epegenetic profiles, and cancer treatment.

    Then he will want to write an article on how magic epigenetics has cured cancer, which I will have to debunk on my blog.


  9. "I'd love it for you to explain what do you mean by "encoded". I assume you are speaking only metaphorically?"

    I meant to say that epigenetic modifications are performed by enzymes (e.g. DNA methyltransferase), and their genes and target sites can be found in the DNA.
    I am sorry if that was unclear, I guess I am one of the scientists that can´t write, haha.

  10. I'm still trying to figure out what the hell is 'chromatone'.

  11. Can we get off the mind numbing bandwagon that epigenetics requires methylation, acetylation, or other histone modification. psi + epigenetics in google may provide some perspective.

  12. George Johnson has a B.A. in Journalism with a minor in English, University of New Mexico (1975). Whenever he speaks about science, he shows clearly that he has only a very shallow understanding of any of it.

  13. Notwithstanding this confused rambling, George Johnson's biography of Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann is truly excellent and a must read

  14. ... maybe because the journalist has more context than you do, you know, stuck in your little rat hole of a laboratory...

    Where do you begin with that?

  15. Eva Jablonka is succeeding in given epigenetics a stinking name, and it was a problematical catch-all term to begin with. Nowadays it mostly seems to refer to any interaction at the molecular level that is not specified otherwise.

    One of the causes of scepsis about that Altenberg conference was Jablonka attending. Her book: Evolution in Four Dimensions was far from concisely argued (at least, so I thought, see my book review in Ethology 113 2007 730-732
    DOI 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2007.01330.x)

  16. Then "encoded" is a VERY inappropiate word for what you meant to say.

    Now, if what you are trying to say is that all there is to methylation is ultimately determined in the primary sequence of DNA, well, that is just false, sorry...

    Simply consider how the environment affects whether methylation occurs or not.

  17. I'm now about 5 minutes dumber than I used to be. Thanks (NOT) for the BloggingHead link.

  18. Someone who thinks he's hot shit cuz he writes for the NYT.