“Most of us have heard of DNA…”

The image above appears at the head of an article on “the genomics revolution in European agricultural research” in the April 2014 issue of research*eu focus magazine which reports on “EU policies, initiatives, programmes and projects related to research and technological development and their exploitation”.

It’s a somewhat bizarre image, really, as it illustrates a fiction. “Most of us have heard of DNA” is how the article begins, and that being so, most of us will readily identify the helical … things … in the picture as representations of DNA. But look more closely. There is no hint of the atomic structure which ought to be evident at this scale and the backbone is stouter than the sausage-like ‘base pairs’. And what are those ‘bits’ floating around in the background? They’re much smaller than even water molecules would be at this scale. The image isn’t an accurate representation of DNA at all. It’s just a play on the ‘double helix’ trope which is a cultural signifier that popularly identifies the “scientific”.

Looking on, you might feel that the surfaces of the helices remind you of something. Scanning electron microscope images, perhaps? Yet DNA molecules are too small to be seen at anything like that resolution with SEM. Look at those ‘base pairs’ again. Is their appearance reminiscent of mitochondrial cristae or intestinal villi? Those images are artefacts of imaging processes at completely different levels of resolution from each other and each a different level again from molecular DNA.

The image signifies molecular or cellular biological science in a variety of ways, but the aggregate effect of the signifiers relies on us having only the most superficial understanding of the science they signify. Any more than that, and the aggregation of signifiers becomes a joke.

I don’t really know what motivated the artist (apparently a Kazakhstani operating under the name of vitstudio) to create this image, so my criticism is directed at the people who write research*eu for choosing to use it. Their objective is, I suppose, to ‘educate’ us about EU research framework programs. That is, to reassure us that all that public money – taken from us as taxes – is being spent on things that will ultimately benefit us. Or our children. Or our children’s children. Perhaps.

This is a fairly serious matter, so you might think that they would expect us to take it seriously. Odd then, that they feel the superficial ‘scienticity’ of the image is appropriate. More so when you consider the lightweight article that follows it: a vague description of “omics” methodologies and of how they might improve animal heath or crop yields. As aspirations, those are hard to argue with, of course, but they are just aspirations. What is completely missing is any assessment of why spending on these particular projects is a better bet than others. Even less, an assessment of how much they add to nonreductionist, non-“omics” approaches.

Like the image, the article reassures us that great “sciency” stuff is going on, but only to the extent that we have a superficial, uncritical understanding of what is being said. The moment the reader takes an active, critical interest, the facade crumbles. The article and illustration mock science even as they rely wholly on a benevolent cultural attitude to science for any credibility at all. The article is of science and about science, but is it part of the scientific literature? Where does it sit in the ecology of literatures?

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