ANALOGIES GONE BAD!
There is a lovely analogy to help people understand DNA code: DNA can be seen as a language.
- letter = DNA base (A,C, G, or T)
- Sure, it is a bit confusing to us because the letters are A, C, G, and T but it’s deciphered in our bodies.
- word = codon (collection of 3 bases)
- sentence = gene
- paragraph = regulated expression or chromosome (seen it both ways)
- novel = genome
It works nicely because you can see how genes are made up of codons that are made of letters (similar to human languages).
On the surface, that’s great. But we have to remember that people may fill in some of the details of the analogy and give new attributes to the science-y thing that we are trying to explain.
I had a great example today during a discussion of genetics with non-expert adults. They were engaged and wanted to learn more (a dream audience). Several of them knew the language of DNA analogy and wanted to know what language is ‘spoken’ by humans as compared to strawberries. (We were extracting DNA from strawberries at the time.)
Their understanding was that each organism might have a different language, even if the bases were the same (English vs. French for example) so it might be difficult to import genes from one organism to another. Some people believed that the letters are probably different between bacteria and mammals*. So, we spent some time talking about how the code is the same for all organisms.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve had this experience with the language of DNA so I now explore the topic with audiences. What’s the big deal? Well, the three times that I’ve discussed the sameness of DNA across organisms, the follow-up question from the audience is always:
So what’s the big deal about GMOs then? (this is only about the scientific issues)
That of course leads to a different area of conversation – and not my area of expertise. It does make me want to study the audiences and somehow ask about attitudes to genetic technologies and understanding of DNA ‘language’ but for now, I’ll stick with anecdotes.
These conversations do highlight that a small misunderstanding can shape your attitude to science and its applications. So we need to be careful explain the limitations of analogies.
Do you have a similar story with scientific analogies?
* Sometimes I get into a conversation about epigenetics and how it can add some extra information – but the underlying letter/word analogy still holds.