Mike published an impressive article on the Huffington Post a few days ago. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the controversy over junk DNA: A Genome-Sized Media Failure. Here's part of what he says ...
If you read anything that emerged from the ENCODE media blitz, you were probably told some version of the "junk DNA is debunked" story. It goes like this: When scientists realized that classical, protein-encoding genes make up less than 2% of the human genome, they simply assumed, in a fit of hubris, that the rest of our DNA was useless junk. (You might have also heard this from your high school or college teacher. Your teacher was wrong.) Along came the ENCODE consortium, which found that, far from being useless, junk DNA is packed with functionality. And so everything scientists thought they knew about the genome was wrong, wrong wrong.Way to go, Mike!
The Washington Post headline read, "'Junk DNA' concept debunked by new analysis of human genome." The New York Times wrote that "The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as 'junk' but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave." Influenced by misleading press releases and statements by scientists, story after story suggested that debunking junk DNA was the main result of the ENCODE studies. These stories failed us all in three major ways: they distorted the science done before ENCODE, they obscured the real significance of the ENCODE project, and most crucially, they mislead the public on how science really works.
What you should really know about the concept of junk DNA is that, first, it was not based on what scientists didn't know, but rather on what they did know about the genome; and second, that concept has held up quite well, even in light of the ENCODE results.
In the past week, lot's of scientists have demonstrated that they don't know what they're talking about when they make statements about junk DNA. I don't expect any of those scientists to apologize for misleading the public. After all, their statements were born of ignorance and that same ignorance prevents them from learning the truth, even now.
However, I do expect lots of science journalists to write follow-up articles correcting the misinformation that they have propagated. That's their job.