Saturday, May 29, 2010


Okay, I can see the intended humor of the above cartoon, but I really don't like it. What is it trying to say? That scientists see themselves as god-like? They don't. No one is more aware of a scientist's fallibility than scientists. It is central to the process of science to criticize and find flaws in one's own work and that of others. That simply shows that in doing science, we expect to make mistakes, and that sometimes the mistakes aren't obvious or glaring. Hardly god-like.

Is it trying to say the general public should view this achievement as god-like? They shouldn't. If they do, they misunderstand what science is. Basically, we observe the world around us, make lots of (well-informed) guesses about how it works, then look for reasons to think that guess is wrong. Edit, lather, rinse, repeat... endlessly. Sometimes we find guesses that work better than older guesses, sometimes we find that old guesses couldn't logically be correct, and sometimes we're left hanging in limbo for excruciating periods of time. Dark matter and dark energy are two concepts that come to mind with respect to the latter: we have ample evidence that they exist, but we don't really have a clue as to how they work or what they are. In fairness, we have quite a few things we know they aren't, so that's progress. Hardly god-like.

Is it trying to say the cartoonist sees this as god-like? Unlikely. Political cartoonists may be the one group of people as a whole who are more cynical, sarcastic and jaundiced with respect to human nature than I am. And I'm not inclined to see any human achievement as god-like.

Is it saying that this is a miraculous achievement? I suspect that's what it's trying to get at, but even that is a clean miss. Yes, if you focus for years on achieving some particular goal- in this case, inserting a synthetically created DNA molecule into a cell to "create" a functioning life form- you are much more likely to reach that goal, at least compared to your chances if that's not what you're trying to do. The news surrounding this has made it sound comparable to the leap from hand-cranked mechanical calculators to modern integrated chips. It's more like figuring out how to write a very simple program to display "Hello, world" on computers that we just happen to have laying all around us. To quote from the Wiki article linked there,
Such a program is typically one of the simplest programs possible in most computer languages. It is often considered to be tradition among programmers for people attempting to learn a new programming language to write a "Hello World!" program as one of the first steps of learning that particular language. Some are surprisingly complex, especially in some graphical user interface (GUI) contexts, but most are very simple, especially those which rely heavily on a particular command line interpreter ("shell") to perform the actual output.
And there you have it: it can be surprisingly complex, but most often it's pretty simple. It's not as if we now have the ability to create life from scratch.

This is not to detract from the researchers' efforts and achievement; both are impressive, and deserve respect. But I think the cartoon above both denigrates the concept of "God," and overstates the nature and impact of what was done. And yeah, I'm probably over-thinking it, but it really does get under my skin and irritate me when I see stuff like this, and science is an area where I feel more comfortable calling "hubris alert" when I see it happening.

For a more thoughtful context and framework in which to place this news, see the always excellent Olivia Judson's commentary on the news this week. I really need to point to her writing more often, and this week's essay is a great place to start.

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