Siddharta Mukherjee's Writing Career Just Got Dealt a Sucker Punch


Author: 
Theral Timpson

Siddharha Mukherjee won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction for his book, The Emporer of All Maladies.  The book has received widespread acclaim among lay audience, physicians, and scientists alike.  Last year the book was turned into a special PBS series.  But, according to a slew of scientists, we should all be skeptical of his next book scheduled to hit book shelves this month, The Gene, An Intimate History.

Publishing an article on epigenetics in the New Yorker this week--perhaps a selection from his new book--Mukherjee has waltzed into one of the most active scientific debates in all of biology: that of gene regulation, or epigenetics.

Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary biologist known for keeping journalists honest, has published a two part critique of Mukherjee’s New Yorker piece.  The first part--wildly tweeted yesterday--is a list of quotes from Coyne’s colleagues and those who have written in to the New Yorker, including two Nobel prize winners, Wally Gilbert and Sidney Altman, offering some very unfriendly sentences.

Wally Gilbert: “The New Yorker article is so wildly wrong that it defies rational analysis.”

Sidney Altman:  "I am not aware that there is such a thing as an epigenetic code.  It is unfortunate to inflict this article, without proper scientific review, on the audience of the New Yorker.”

The second part is a thorough scientific rebuttal of the Mukherjee piece.  It all serves as a great drama about one of the most contested ideas in biology and also as a cautionary tale to journalists, even experienced writers such as Mukherjee, about the dangers of wading into scientific arguments.  Readers may remember that a few years ago, science writer, David Dobbs, similarly skated into the same topic with his piece, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, and which raised a similar shitstorm, much of it from Coyne.

Mukherjee's mistake is in giving credence to only one side of a very fierce debate--that the environment causes changes in the genome which can be passed on; another kind of evolution--as though it were settled science.   Either Mukherjee, a physicisan coming off from a successful book and PBS miniseries on cancer, is setting himself up as a scientist, or he has been a truly naive science reporter.   If he got this chapter so wrong, what does it mean about an entire book on the gene?

Coyne quotes one of his colleagues who raised some questions about the New Yorker's science reporting, one particular question we’ve been asking here at Mendelspod.  How do we know what we know?  Does science now have an edge on any other discipline for being able to create knowledge?

Coyne’s colleague is troubled by science coverage in the New Yorker, and goes so far as to write that the New Yorker has been waging a “war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists and technologists.”     

From my experience, it’s not quite that tidy.  First of all, the New Yorker is the best writing I read each week.  Period.  Second, I haven’t found their science writing to have the slant claimed in the quote above.  For example, most other mainstream outlets--including the New York Times with the Amy Harmon pieces--have given the anti-GMO crowd an equal say in the mistaken search for a “balance” on whether GMOs are harmful.  (Remember John Stewart’s criticism of Fox News?  That they give a false equivalent between two sides even when there is no equivalent on the other side?)

But the New Yorker has not fallen into this trap on GMOs and most of their pieces on the topic--mainly by Michael Specter--have been decidedly pro science and therefore decided pro GMO.

So what led Mukherjee to play scientist as well as journalist?  There's no question about whether I enjoy his prose.  His writing beautifully whisks me away so that I don’t feel that I'm really working to understand.  There is a poetic complexity that constantly brings different threads effortlessly together, weaving them into the same light.  At one point he uses the metaphor of a web for the genome, with the epigenome being the stuff that sticks to the web.  He borrows the metaphor from the Hindu notion of "being", or jaal.

“Genes form the threads of the web; the detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being.”  

There have been a few writers on Twitter defending Mukherjee’s piece.  Tech Review’s Antonio Regalado called Coyne and his colleagues “tedious literalists” who have an “issue with epigenetic poetry.”  

At his best, Mukherjee can take us down the sweet alleys of his metaphors and family stories with a new curiosity for the scientific truth.  He can hold a mirror up to scientists, or put the spotlight on their work.   At their worst, Coyne and his scientific colleagues can reek of a fear of language and therefore metaphor.  The always outspoken scientist and author, Richard Dawkins, who made his name by personifying the gene, was quick to personify epigentics in a tweet:   “It’s high time the 15 minutes of underserved fame for “epigenetics” came to an overdue end.”  Dawkins is that rare scientist who has consistently been as comfortable with rhetoric and language as he is with data.

Hats off to Coyne who reminds us that a metaphor--however lovely--does not some science make. If Mukherjee wants to play scientist, let him create and gather data. If it’s the role of science journalist he wants, let him collect all the science he can before he begins to pour it into his poetry.



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