Saturday, July 30, 2016

Siddhartha Mukherjee tries to correct his book

There are lots of things wrong with Mukherjee's best-selling book The Gene. I've listed a few things that I know about [What is a "gene" and how do genes work according to Siddhartha Mukherjee?]. Others have come up with different problems.

The biggest problem is that Mukherjee misrepresents the current state of knowledge in genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. His misleads his readers by promoting silly viewpoints that conflict with the consensus view. He doesn't mention that there are other views that are well supported by tons of scientific evidence.

The best example is regulation of gene expression. He fails to explain the standard textbook understanding of transcriptional regulation by transcription factors—a view that's solidly backed by decades of work in biochemistry, developmental genetics, molecular biology, and genomics. Instead, he promotes a flaky epigenetic theory that, according to him, threatens to overthrow Darwinian evolution.

Mukherjee has been challenged by leading scientists, including Nobel Laureates. Now we learn that he will revise his book for the 5th printing. Read Jerry Coyne's blog for a summary of the epigenetic side of the controversy: Mukherjee corrects his new book in light of epigenetics kerfuffle, still defends his mischaracterization of gene regulation.

The article on the corrections was published in The Wall Street Jounral: Publisher Tweaks ‘Gene’ Book After New Yorker Article Uproar. Publisher Nan Graham of Scribner announced the corrections. Here's the last few paragraphs of The Wall Street Journal article ...
Ms. Graham said the changes in the new edition address a range of issues, from typos and missing photo credits to scientific details.

Dr. Mukherjee "is a perfectionist, and I try to be," she said. "These are standard corrections on a book of such ambition, with tight deadlines, about a field of science that advances every day."

The author added more caveats about epigenetics and additional clarification on how genes are turned on and off. He also nodded to the recent maelstrom: "Whether these marks contribute to the activity of genes, how they do so—and what their functions might be—is still hotly, often viciously, debated among geneticists."

Dr. Gilbert and Dr. Maderspacher said the changes to the book’s epigenetics section didn’t go far enough to satisfy their concerns.

"How much more explicit can one be?" Dr. Mukherjee said. "This is a crossfire of people who are debating fundamental terms… These disputes should be professionally handled in scientific journals."
  1. Mukjerjee is clearly not a perfectionist. Not even close. Neither is Ms. Graham.
  2. Nobody is criticizing Mukherjee about a "field of science that advances every day." He is being criticized for not doing his homework and not understanding stuff that's been around for decades.
  3. The importance, or not, of epigenetics is, indeed, hotly debated. Mukherjee came down on the side of the kooks. That's okay, he's entitled to choose whatever side he wants. He's not supposed to misrepresent this hot debate to his readers by ignoring the majority consensus view altogether.
  4. The disputes may or may not be professionally handled in the scientific literature. That's not the point. Mukherjee's book is written for the general public, not professional scientists. Like all science journalists, he should strive for accuracy.
Here's a quote from page 325 of his book. It will be interesting to see if it's changed in the 5th printing.
Although we fully understand the genetic code—i.e., how the information in a single gene is used to build a protein—we comprehend virtually nothing of the genomic code—i.e., how multiple genes spread across the human genome coordinate gene expression in space and time to build, maintain, and repair a human organism.
Mukherjee won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book. This book is also a best-seller. It will earn him tons of money. It will be interesting to see if this book wins any prizes or awards. If so, it will tell us that scientific accuracy is not a criterion used in making such awards. It will tell us that the quality of science books is going to judged in the same way as works of fiction.


3 comments :

  1. "The best example is regulation of gene expression. He (fSiddhartha Mukherjee) fails to explain the standard textbook understanding of transcriptional regulation by transcription factors—a view that's solidly backed by decades of work in biochemistry, developmental genetics, molecular biology, and genomics. Instead, he promotes a flaky epigenetic theory that, according to him, threatens to overthrow Darwinian evolution."

    According to professor Moran Darwinian evolution is dead, because it has been replaced by Modern Evolutionary Theory. I don't think any reader of this blog hasn't heard about it more than 100 times. So, why would someone like professor Moran be upset that another scientist is threatening to OVERTHROW DARWINIAN EVOLUTION THAT IS ALREADY DEAD ACCORDING TO HIS KNOWLEDGE?

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