The wrong way to write about science

Over at Download the Universe, the science ebook review, I have a new article about one way that well-intentioned science journalism can go very, very wrong.

The trouble starts when Scott Johnson, author of an essay called "Ghost in the Cell," tries to write about two extremely complicated issues — violence and epigenetics — without acknowledging that there is any complexity involved. And the trouble gets worse when he decides to cast an African-American woman in Oakland, CA, as the perfect example of the "kind of person" who might have a genetic predisposition to violent behavior.

Here's how the article starts:

It's a prize that scientists have sought since the early nineteenth century: a biological marker that predicts violent behavior in humans. In the 1830s, phrenologists believed head bumps could reveal a criminal personality — often, prostitutes and the poor were said to have bumps that marked them as deviants from birth. But today, it seems this pursuit may have moved beyond the realm of pseudoscience.

Thanks to recent discoveries, we have evidence that the genes of abused children are marked by the experience. Over time, these effects leave them prone to depression and make it harder for them to control their violent impulses. Could we be on the cusp of discovering a scientific approach to a social problem? In an essay for Matter magazine, former war correspondent Scott C. Johnson suggests that we are. Unfortunately, Johnson fails spectacularly to explain the complexity of this problem, and winds up telling a story that distorts both the science and the reality of abuse in many people's lives.

Read the rest over at Download the Universe.