Monday, January 30, 2006

More on Seed

This, I thought, was very well-reasoned. Unfortunately, the Seed folks would never give it a moment's thought because it comes from a quarter they regard as "politicized."

Seeds of Doubt
by Brandon Keim

One of the more interesting publications to debut in recent years is SEED, a slickly produced magazine founded with the intention of exploring, in their words, the "trends and icons that are redefining science's place in popular culture." In practice, this means a determinedly edgy editorial aesthetic and lots of artsy black-and-white photographs of skinny models in designer jeans and tight shirts.

SEED’s editors certainly have a keen sensibility for the permeation of our lives by the products and ideas of science, and a knack for making them accessible to the 18 to 34 year old demographic upon whom the hopes of society's marketers are bestowed, and whose tastes and views constitute the popular culture of our youth-driven society. It was thus a matter of particular interest when, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 'discovery' of DNA's three-dimensional structure, James Watson made an appearance on the cover of SEED’s March/April edition.

In the photograph, Watson relaxes on a stool in front of a studio photographer's screen, ostensibly in the moments before the shoot begins; he is attended by a fetching blonde makeup artist in leather pants, and on the floor before him is a sycophantic young man gazing reverentially upwards. The image is insightful. Watson is, and has almost always been, far less of a scientist than a proselytizer, a salesman — an icon. Unfortunately, one of SEED's flaws is an unquestioning acceptance of the logic of celebrity, and the suspension of critical rigor towards those who have attained it. Readers are treated to a typically glowing account of Watson, one which focuses with some insight on the phenomenon of his celebrity and self-promotion, but leaves untouched both the origins of his sucess and the actual science upon which his career — and, simultaneously, modern genetics — was founded.

The standard mythology of Watson and Crick, repeated consistently during the anniversary coverage, venerates them as a pair of visionary micronauts, a Lewis and Clark of the cell. However, a number of their colleagues deserved just as much credit — most prominently, Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray photographs of DNA defined the shape of the double helix,
and researchers at King's College in London, who suggested that the strands of the helix ran in opposite directions. Without them, and without the repeated corrections of patient and forbearing colleagues, the efforts of Watson and Crick would have gone nowhere.

Of course, their 'achievements' would not have been rewarded with half a century of the highest honors our civilization offers without the disproportionate importance subsequently attributed to DNA — its endowment "with mystical powers like the narcotic soma of Hindu ritual". So
wrote Richard Lewontin, a contributor to this issue, in a recent New York Review of Books commentary on Watson's latest book.

These "narcotic" effects are efficiently summarized in SEED’s thematic centerpiece, a list of fifty DNA-based ideas "that have shaped our identity, our culture and the world as we know it." The first item on the list, entitled "The New Soul", explains that "'Soul' is being ousted from our lexicon by 'DNA' as the new and improved tag for that ethereal x-factor." Following the dismissal of our spiritual self-conception is a wildly inaccurate description of prenatal genetic testing as a "crystal ball" of uncontested clarity; the claim that "understanding DNA may one day allow us to write our genetic future"; an assertion that an avant-garde portrait composed of DNA provides "instructions on how to remake the sitter"; and the bizarre statement that the "dominant alphabet" of the human race "is changing from 1s and 0s" of computer coding "to As, Ts, Cs and Gs".

All in all, it's a comprehensive review of genetic reductionism — what Stuart Newman, who in this issue discusses how the once-fertile area of systems biology was ignored because of our obsession with genes, calls "the twentieth century notion that genes represent a privileged level of explanation." He is joined by the aforementioned Mr. Lewontin, who examines the underappreciated complexity of cellular machinery and delivers a stinging indictment of genetic manipulation's failures. Taken together, and in conjunction with the critique of so-called DNA self-replication, put forward in our last issue by Barry Commoner, they are welcome counters to the scientific and popular misconceptions that have been repeated so frequently of late.

But while the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of DNA's discovery are, like all such nniversaries, rituals of immediate focus, they also encourage us to contemplate the scope of history and time, especially in regard to science; and there is nothing so common in the history of science as universal theories which rise to prominence and are soon swept away, the contributions of their advocates placed in proper perspective. In another fifty years, perhaps, we will say the same of Watson and Crick, and the importance that is now ascribed to our contemporary notions of genetics.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Seed magazine & scienceblogs

Back to Seed Magazine. My comment about Seed "trying too hard to be hip" is actually a big caveat for me. This problem goes to the identity of the magazine.

The purpose of the magazine, it seems to me, is to help build a community of the scientifically literate.

But the effort seems destined to fail if they envision that happening through a magazine that one commenter called "a Maxim for science."

Maxim is essentially a well-done magazine for male morons. What lessons is Seed supposed to draw from this quarter?

And it isn't that the commentator who brought up Maxim is off-base. He has identified precisely what the problem with the magazine is: it's trying to bring together an intellectual community with an anti-intellectual instrument. The contradiction is written all over the magazine.

The thing is that what they're trying to pull off hasn't been done before. To my knowledge, there has never been a widely accepted voice for/by/of the scientifically literate. What Maxim pulled off was easy by comparison: cut the claptrap and give 'em some cleavage. A time-honored formula that need only be updated.

How do you properly make science seem "cool and relevant and edgy?"

My first suggestion would be to not make ostentatious efforts to be cool and relevant and edgy. Go for simple, straightforward and minimalistic. Don't overcommit to any particular field of study, group of people or style. Be true to the scientific spirit and experiment in an open-ended fashion. In other words: feel your way forward.

And, for God's sake, don't run long articles with big blocks of text faced by incredibly distracting graphics, or intersperse various textual elements randomly with graphics. Short attention spans may be something you have to live with, but you shouldn't be in the business of enforcing them.

These are all lesson already learned by Wired. And Seed doesn't have the luxury of repeating those mistakes. Wired had a lot of dumbass millenarianism behind it (remember cyber____, e____ and virtual ______ till you were ready to barf?).

Seed and science will have to show their relevance not just reap the rewards of irrational exuberance. So away with the trappings of pseudo-hipness and cut to the stories that will change the way people think about the world. Away with the Steven Pinker worship and let's have let's have some hard, critical looks at science.

Let the trappings grow up organically out of the core concerns of the magazine. You are building a culture not a clique.

Will Seed be able to pull it off? Maybe. But it's going to take some truly daring modesty and caution.

Science itself has been hurt of late by some of the same tendencies toward shallowness and showiness Seed has displayed, and the troubles surrounding evolution are what we reap from this.

For instance, much evolutionary psychology is, quite simply, bad science, and it's been long tolerated because it takes natural selection as a given. But it is long since past time that science stopped counting the display of appropriate allegiance as a scientific credential. Science should be, first and foremost, a highly self-critical endeavor. So far, Seed gives little reason to think that'll happen in its pages.


Saturday, January 21, 2006


Seed magazine--which you probably have never heard of, but should have a look at now that I've let you in on it--has launched a whole slew of science blogs.

Seed looks to be an outgrowth of the whole "Third Culture" movement (which you can check out at The Edge).

So far, the magazine has tried a bit too hard to be hip, and has been a bit too chummy and cogratulatory with the scientists the Edge folk have always been happy with (Stephen Pinker, for instance), and a bit too self-congratulatory it taking up its enlightened social position.

But the blogs may lead to something a bit more open, and quite a bit better, more later.