Will Nicholas Wade Ever Learn?

Last year, New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade wrote a few articles in which he referred to genome sequencing as "decoding". I chastised him for his poor use of terminology, was pleasantly surprised when he began to correct himself, and then realized that he would never overcome his inability to communicate science clearly.

It appears that Wade has found a new, yet still incorrect, term for genome sequencing. In an article published today, Wade reports on the 454 sequencing of Jim Watson's genome. Only he reports the Dr. Watson's genome was "deciphered". At least he isn't writing about mapping genomes.

Here's a little key to help Nicholas Wade and other science writers differentiate between sequencing, decoding, deciphering, and mapping. In genetics, mapping refers to determining the location of a particular genetic element. This can be done by crossing individuals with different genetic markers to determine the recombination distance between the markers (this work was pioneered by Sturtevant) or by physically mapping the genetic elements using something like in situ hybridization. In genetics, decoding refers to determining the genetic code (something that was done a long time ago), while deciphering has no explicit meaning. Determining the actual sequence of a stretch of DNA or an entire genome is called "sequencing". If you mean sequencing and you write "mapping", "decoding", or "deciphering", you're only exposing your ignorance.

Update: Jonathan Badger and TR Gregory have more. Jonathan hits up the Jim Watson didn't discover DNA angle -- he helped figure out the structure.

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I don't want this to be taken as an attack or insult to you; just a suggestion.

A science writer ought to be able to use terminology properly; but they are nevertheless going to misuse terms from time to time. Some more than others; writers will vary in quality. I think it would be better all around to help a science writer develop and extend his expertise in a more upbeat and friendly fashion.

I'm not a totally disinterested party in making this suggestion! I will be in a similar position to Wade from time to time. I am not a professional scientist, but I have a long standing interest and enough background to explain aspects of science to others -- but not enough to be totally reliable. I've recently started a blog, where sometimes I will attempt a bit of science writing. But I'm going to mess up occasionally as well.

Cheers -- Chris

Chris, I'll be more polite when it's a one time error, but this is a common mistake that Wade makes (although he's not the only one). I'm going to be an asshole when someone makes the same error multiple times, or makes a common error that no one in the science writing community has bothered to correct.

Slightly off topic, but another important point none the less: If you want to garner the respect of a scientist as a science writer, the best thing you can do is learn how to put findings in the proper context. Not every published paper represents a huge paradigm shift that revolutionizes a field, despite the fact that many studies are reported as such by the popular press. This is the most difficult thing for science writers to master, and Carl Zimmer is the best at it in my opinion.

I'm with Chris on this one -- the post came off a bit overly cranky in correcting an error in terminology that probably 95% of the population, not being conversant in genentics, would be likely to make. It's understandable that scientists are sensitive about how their work is presented, and certainly we should strive for improvements both in accurate use of terms in reporting, and in the public understanding of that terminology. Hence the ScienceBlogs Basic Concepts series, which I regularly check when working on articles to keep things straight. But patience and politeness, even when dealing with a "repeat offender", is always the best approach. Especially since Wade responded positively to an earlier correction.

You want to not just be right -- you want to be heard. That's all I'm sayin'.

I don't think Wade actually read the post I wrote and corrected the error because of it. I think it was a mere coincidence, and I was playing off of it.

In regards to common mistakes, I think we (some amorphous group of people who get pissed off about these things) need to be as loud as possible to get science writers to correct their mistakes. Not only are science writers communicating information, but they're also teaching the general population about science. As teachers, it's in everyone's best interest that they don't garble the jargon -- in the example above, mixing up the words does not make the story any clearer, which is another problem with sloppy use of terminology.

I will back RPM up on this one, at least in regard to content if not tone.

I think science writers have an opportunity to introduce their readers to new terms and concepts. As I said in a previous posting:

Instead of resorting to the standard catchphrases and clichés, why not introduce your readers to some accurate terms and concepts with which they may not be familiar? You can catch the interest of readers and educate them on the basics rather than appealing to their misconceptions or lack of prior knowledge.

If we are critical of the wording in science writing, it is only because we recognize the important role that science writers play in educating others.

Have you written a letter to the editor, RPM?
I am a bit annoyed by this too, especially since he seems to be a repeat offender.

A related frequent DNA science-writing gaffe: describing Watson & Crick as having "discovered DNA" or placing the date of DNA's discovery at the time of their publication. Watson & Crick proposed a structure for DNA and how that structure might relate to hereditary information; DNA the compound had been discovered long before (by Miescher in the 1800's) and a lot of key work had already occurred prior to W&C that pointed to DNA's role as the information carrier and hints (Chargaff's rules) to some of its workings.

Back to the original comment: the failure of journalists to observe these particular distinctions irk me also. In particular, there are very different expectations which should be set by each term: to map a disease gene means you are very early in the process, whereas to identify the precise gene & mutations by sequencing means you are a lot closer to useful information (though often still very far from any clinical impact).

Jennifer Ouellette said,

But patience and politeness, even when dealing with a "repeat offender", is always the best approach. Especially since Wade responded positively to an earlier correction.

You want to not just be right -- you want to be heard. That's all I'm sayin'.

But Jennifer, you have to admit that RPM got your attention. If he had been "patient and polite" you might well have ignored his advice. As it is, you'll probably never make that mistake because you don't want to feel the wrath of RPM!

I say well done, RPM! Keep it up.

Go RPM - keep up the scrutiny of Nicholas Wade and his ilk.

I have watched the New York Times degrade over the last decade or so.

First to go, I think, was the Sunday Magazine which became another People Magazine, celebrity worship or celebrity castigation.

Next the actual news section went, culminating in Judith Miller and the unrelenting support of Bush and the Iraq Occupation. Mixed in to that was the plagiarism and the made-up stories.

Last thing I realized that the Science reporting was taking a hit as well.

I, an engineering professional, read pieces by by Gina Golota, one of which was a crazy piece on James Watson and his prediction that cancer would be solved soon (10 years as I remember) which is not science reporting, but the stuff of People magazine. Recently, Broad's diatribe on Gore's" Inconvenient Truth" and other nonsense such as Tierney's stuff was very distracting.

I am a "Big Brother" to a ten-year-old who has wonderful interest in science. Each week I save my Tuesday's Science Times Section and give it to him.

Thank God or whomever for Natalie Angier - she writes wonderful pieces, and books too. I'll keep giving the Section to little Evan and keep my fingers crossed, which I realize is not very scientific.

By John Coleman (not verified) on 01 Jun 2007 #permalink