How did he manage to pull this off? It's not much of a secret. He knew what he was writing about and that gives him an unfair advantage over most other science journalists.
Let me show you what I mean. Here's John Timmer's profile on the Ars Technica website.
John is Ars Technica's science editor. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Biochemistry from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley. John has done over a decade's worth of research in genetics and developmental biology at places like Cornell Medical College and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He's been a speaker at the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers and the Science Online meetings, and he's one of the organizers of the Science Online NYC discussion series. In addition to being Ars' science content wrangler, John still teaches at Cornell and does freelance writing, editing, and programming.See what I mean? He has a degree in biochemistry and another one in molecular biology. People like that shouldn't be allowed to write about the ENCODE results because they might embarrass the scientists.
Here's an example from his article ...
This brings us to the ENCODE project, which was set up to provide a comprehensive look at how the human genome behaves inside cells. Back in 2007, the consortium published its first results after having surveyed one percent of the human genome, and the results foreshadowed this past week's events. The first work largely looked at what parts of the genome were made into RNA, a key carrier of genetic information. But the ENCODE press materials performed a sleight-of-hand, indicating that anything made into RNA must have a noticeable impact on the organism: "the genome contains very little unused sequences; genes are just one of many types of DNA sequences that have a functional impact."There's lots more where that came from. Here's his conclusion ...
There was a small problem with this: we already knew it probably wasn't true. Transposons and dead viruses both produce RNAs that have no known function, and may be harmful in some contexts. So do copies of genes that are mutated into uselessness. If that weren't enough, just a few weeks later, researchers reported that genes that are otherwise shut down often produce short pieces of RNA that are then immediately digested.
So even as the paper was released, we already knew the ENCODE definition of "functional impact" was, at best, broad to the point of being meaningless. At worst, it was actively misleading.
But because these releases are such an important part of framing the discussion that follows in the popular press, the resulting coverage reflected ENCODE's spin on its results. If it was functional, it couldn't be junk. The concept of junk DNA was declared dead far and wide, all based on a set of findings that were perfectly consistent with it.
Four years later, ENCODE apparently decided to kill it again.
More generally, the differences among non-coding DNA, regulatory DNA, and junk DNA aren't really that hard to get straight. And there's no excuse for pretending that things we've known for decades are a complete surprise.BRAVO John Timmer! Well done, even if you did have an unfair advantage.
Unfortunately, this is a case where scientists themselves get these details wrong very often, and their mistakes have been magnified by the press releases and coverage that has resulted. That makes it much more likely that any future coverage of these topics will repeat the past errors.
If the confused coverage of ENCODE has done anything positive, it has provoked a public response by a number of scientists. Their criticisms may help convince their colleagues to be more circumspect in the future. And maybe a few more reporters will be aware that this is an area of genuine controversy, and it will help them identify a few of the scientists they should be talking to when covering it in the future.
It's just a shame the public had to be badly misled in the process.