Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why Does Slate Think Basic Biology is Esoteric?

The news for today is not that the Supreme Count unanimously ruled against patenting naturally occurring genes in the Myriad case. At least, I saw that as such an obvious no-brainer that my fingers will not type a sentence that unequivocally states that such an item is actual news. No, the surprising part was in the Slate article I read on it, ostensibly about Justice Scalia's ignorance of the science, a key paragraph clearly condemns us all:

To Scalia’s credit, the science in Myriad is convoluted, especially for someone who hasn’t taken biology in decades. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, takes an admirable stab at elucidating it at the outset, explaining the basics of genes, chromosomes, and “the familiar ‘double helix.’ ” He even expounds upon nucleotides for a time, penning what must be the most esoteric sentence in the court’s modern history: “[T]he nucleotide cross-bars are chemically connected to a sugar-phosphate backbone.” (One suspects Thomas was less than enthused to be assigned this case.)

I'm left spluttering at the idea that a high-school biology sentence (which I italicized in the quote above) can be classified as "most esoteric" in any way. That is about as straightforward a description of DNA structure as you can get. It's probably at about the level of the letter Francis Crick wrote to his 5th-grade son describing the Watson-Crick DNA structure.

I don't want to name the particular author because it's not about that one author -- there's an editor, there's a readership, there's a whole culture implicated here, including me, because it's my job to let everyone know how this stuff works. It's about a whole culture that depends upon, even worships, science, and yet considers the word "nucleotide" to be excruciatingly esoteric, even boring. And that's the worst word in that sentence, folks. All of the other words are numbingly common. In fact, to me, those other words are the boring ones.

Power to the people through general biology and chemistry courses required for all college grads! Those courses are crucial. We need to understand how genes work, and I need to teach my students to the utmost end of my ability to prepare them for a world in which they will need to know DNA structure to understand Supreme Court rulings. Their language needs to include the word "nucleotide."

Also, the polticial angle in the wording of the headline: in my view Scalia is not being ignorant here -- he's being honest about his own limits in the face of complicated science. The article is clear on this, but the headline is not, and I have the feeling that an anonymous editor is more responsible for that tone than the byline author.

On the other hand, come on, the science is really not all that complicated, not compared to thousands of daily tasks. It's just that it seems complicated because it is not a daily task to you. That's fine, but we've got to try and address that, perhaps by making it closer to a daily task to use the word "nucleotide." You have a citizen's responsibility to learn biochemistry, just as I do to learn law. I promise not to be bored by law if you promise the same for my topic!

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