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Open Reading Frames: The Genome and the Media - Mike Fortun - Page 2

Let me give you an example, the first of several I will take from Richard Preston's wonderful New Yorker profile of J. Craig Venter and Celera Genomics, with one of the most direct opening lines in any genomics article ever: "Craig Venter is an asshole." (These are somebody else's words here at the outermost edge of Preston's article, but they establish a frame that runs around the entire article) But it's later in the article that Venter is quoted as saying: "My view of biology is 'We don't know shit.'"(1)

Now if I were really trying to push this open reading frame business, I might try to read both of these statements in terms of some psychoanalytic anal stage narrative about assholes not knowing shit. But I'm more interested in this as a succinct statement of scientific modesty and honest recognition of the limits, margins, and frayed edges of our knowledge. The statement of modesty is, of course, buried within the margins of an article largely about immodesty, but I'd like to push the statement even further, entirely de-identifying it with Venter's persona and taking it for the statement about the life sciences that it is.

I am so grateful when writers elicit these kinds of marginal utterances from their scientific subjects, and I immediately put them into my teaching files. The undergraduate science and engineering majors at RPI come to my classes and say back to me all the ebullient, oversimplified, overoptimistic, overdeterministic things about genomics and the human genome project that they have sucked up from various media outlets, mostly cable TV and the internet. They get positively defensive when I try to open up any hole in their certitudes about the superhuman powers that genes and genomes exert on all aspects of our lives. So it's great to be able to throw a quote like this up on the screen, authorized with Craig Venter's name, and ask them to reconcile it with what they think they already know about biology.

What I hope happens is not the simple reversal of "gee, I thought we knew everything about our genes and now I know we don't know shit" - although with 18-year-olds, simple reversals are always something to watch out for. In some ways, I don't want them to be able to reconcile the statements at all; I want it to bother them that we know things about genes that are incredible compared to what we knew even five years ago, AND we don't know shit. What I hope for is some understanding of a frame and its margins, and at least an opening to the question: what would the world be like if appreciation of our ignorance were installed at the center of our knowledge and media frames, and immodest scientism and egoism inhabited the margins? What would television look like, what would science look like, what would ethics look like in a culture in which the aesthetics or affects attached to both knowledge and ignorance were reversed? A biology oriented more toward non-linear effects and epigenesis may be an important part of such a shift.

(1) Quoted in [Preston, 2000 #19, 68]


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