Scientific advances can be at the same time interesting and incomprehensible for those who do not have the necessary knowledge basis to understand what the fuss is all about. And given the extraordinary complexity of current scientific knowledge, everyone – even scientists themselves – is bound to be ignorant in many more subjects than they are experts on.
Scientific journalism is not always capable of keeping up the pace with everything that goes on in the many areas of advanced research, especially in the current climate, in which media companies are undergoing a major crisis. And specialized journalists in science are probably more expensive than the bean counters are willing to pay.
So it is not uncommon to have important scientific hallmarks to be announced in newspapers and TV newscasts in a way that generates much more confusion that understanding – just consider recent examples, such as the brouhaha about the Higgs boson, unfortunately nicknamed “the god particle”.
On top of that, scientific lingo is often appropriated by all kinds of quacks and cranks to lend credibility to their particular brand of insanity, and more often than not as part of a sales pitch. Just consider how much abuse poor quantum mechanics has suffered in the last decades, being invoked to “explain” everything, from homeopathy to the “soul”…
As in many SciFi TV shows, a patchwork of sciencey sounding words are strung together to create an impression of highly sophisticated science – with the difference that TVs technobabble is harmless. Mostly, anyway.
And now to the case in point: epigenetics. There are many interesting things in that field that contribute to a better understanding of biological processes. But it certainly does not mean that memories are transmitted generationally or anything remotely like that. And, inevitably, it is being hijacked by the usual suspects to support their brand of woo.
One of my favourite references on the internet, PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula, has featured many posts on the subject, including the takedown of one of the most egregious offenders, Deepak Chopra. As can be seen below, he even “prophesized” this was going to happen. I encourage anyone interested in the subject to read all the posts I link to below. Just to give a taste of each post, I copied a small quote from each of them. I hope you enjoy reading them.
“Epigenetics is the study of heritable traits that are not dependent on the primary sequence of DNA. That’s a short, simple definition, and it’s also largely unsatisfactory. For one, the inclusion of the word ‘heritable’ excludes some significant players — the differentiation of neurons requires major epigenetic shaping, but these cells have undergone a terminal division and will never divide again — but at the same time, the heritability of traits that aren’t defined by the primary sequence is probably the first thing that comes to mind in any discussion of epigenetics. Another problem is the vague, open-endedness of the definition: it basically includes everything. Gene regulation, physiological adaptation, disease responses…they all fall into the catch-all of epigenetics.”
“Let me tell you the hard part about writing about epigenetics: most of your audience has no idea what you’re talking about, but is pretty sure that they can use it, whatever it is, to justify every bit of folk wisdom/nonsensical assumption that they have. So while you’re explaining how it’s a very real and important biological process that is essential for development and learning and behavior, half your readers are using the biology to confirm their biases about evolution and inheritance, and the other half already know all the basic stuff and want to get to the Evisceration of the Wrong, which is always the fun part anyway.”
“It’s easy. If it uses the word ‘Lamarckian’ without boldly prefixing it with ‘not’, you can just stop reading. Likewise if the word is prefixed with ‘pseudo-’, ‘semi-’, or ‘quasi-’. Just skip it. It’s too confused to bother with.”
“The thing to watch out for next is revealed at about 4:00 in the video, where he talks about using diet and behavior to give yourself a “healthy epigenome”, whatever that is. I’m sure some unscrupulous, dishonest someone, somewhere is writing a diet book about super-foods to super-charge your epigenome for you and your baby. I’m calling it. There are already plenty of pseudoscientific books that mangle the concept of epigenetics. I’m sure the ones that will turn it into a marketing fad are coming up soon. We’ve already got a lot of books touting the microbiome as the cure-all for everything — I can easily imagine the fusion of the epigenome and microbiome hype machines popping up on Amazon.”
“No, ma’am, you can’t make a cancer disappear by consciously modifying your epigenome. The proper approach is to go to a real doctor or two, not Chopra, and listen to their recommendations. Cancers are not acts of will, punishments for sins, or subject to thoughtful consideration. But Deepak Chopra has made a lot of money by implying that they are, and drawing in desperate, sick people who will grab onto any glimmer of hope, no matter how false.”