By Hank Campbell at Science 2.0
With the popularity of dark matter and dark energy as blanket terms for ‘this is weird and we don’t understand it but we are studying it, ain’t science awesome?’ in physics, it was only a matter of time before it caught on elsewhere.
So we have dark lightning and the life sciences made sure they caught the wave, migrating non-coding DNA (factual = booooring) from the colloquially misunderstood blanket term ‘junk DNA’ to the cooler and edgier 21st century ‘Dark Genome’.
Dark Genome as a term is not new in 2013. I’ve seen it floating around since 2010 or so (and biologists probably a lot longer than that) but I am predicting this is the year it takes off and reaches cliché status. Terms rarely catch on right away.
I had some hysterical ninny shriek ‘false equivalence’ at me recently – a political person masquerading in science, naturally – and I chuckled to myself and wondered if we were back in 2006. ‘False equivalence’, the realest-sounding made-up logical fallacy I know of, was invented in 2004 so that political writers could criticize the Viet Nam war record of President George W. Bush but keep the war record of Senator John Kerry, the official candidate of American media, off limits. Anyone who talked about Kerry hiring a film crew to watch him get off a boat and adding in bullet special effects was said to be using false equivalence It caught on – it’s a great non-specific retort for dumb people – and by 2006, even science blogging was overrun with it. Anyone who uses it today sends me back in time a little, like if they say they are going to a Savage Garden concert.
But it reminded me we need some new clichés.
To be fair to science media, it is nowhere near as bad about clichés as sports, perhaps because a lot of us watch three hours of sports live – and that’s a lot of sportscaster talking time to fill – while people who watch three hours of science live are usually scientists and not on TV. But when sportscasters like something, they go overboard. If you also get annoyed by overused sports clichés, I can use a term like “smash mouth football” and “they left it all on the field” and you might even know what year I am talking about.(1) Sports announcers are overrun with the things, but at least they create new ones every year.
Science media, not so much. ‘Missing link’ is always going to be in the running for cliché of the year, and NASA should trademark the phrase ‘implications for life on other planets’ but even journalists are sick of writing how ‘Baffled’, ‘Stunned’ and ‘Alarmed’ scientists are by the findings of every paper that gets into corporate news.
So I am making the early prediction; this is the year we go Dark.
Journalists need something new and Dark could be it. I, for one, welcome getting rid of headlines like “Junk DNA Not Junk After All! In Your Face, Biologists!” and replacing those with “Dark Genome Gets A Little Lighter” or “Baffled Scientists Shed Light On Dark Genome And Are Alarmed”.
Then it will catch on in other fields, including the pseudoscience contingent that are the anti-heroes to biology’s heroes; the GMO hysterics.
It’s only a matter of time before an advocate produces a paper where they rationalize that GMOs don’t harm anyone in ways we can detect because they are a ‘Dark Toxin’ – people get sick, and some of them eat GMO foods so there must be a correlation, science has just not discovered it yet. Mark Bittman then gushes over the idea in the New York Times and, presto, it is part of the factual record for 50% of America. A new field of study is born.
Once that happens, it is open season. We’ll get overrun with Dark Paleontology and Dark Social Psychology papers and people are going to want to blame someone.
Maybe we can blame Chris Claremont and John Byrne. In 1980, working for Marvel Comics, they took Phoenix, who they had already re-purposed from the wholesome Marvel Girl, and made her into Dark Phoenix, where she was all scary and hot and could eliminate a planet faster than Neil Tyson. Readers of “X-Men”, who had previously ventured to the story monthly to see good stories that oddly always had characters in Ugg boots, suddenly became treated to whole plotlines where the female villains dressed up in lingeries to show how dangerous they were.(2)
Dark Phoenix, though not in her Black Queen dominatrix outfit. They did change her costume from green to red to show how dangerous she was. Credit: Wikipedia.
How is that related to science? The average age for an R01 grant is now 42, which means a whole generation of scientists came of age when those comics were out and both ‘Dark’ and super-heroines in stiletto heels were cool. And Marvel was always the most science-based of the comic book companies – Superman was an illegal alien and Batman was part of the 1% but Marvel characters were genetically modified heroes – sorry, Frankenheroes – or bitten by radioactive spiders. You can bet scientists were reading about those characters and not “Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth”.
So if researchers in Spain want to talk about their work describing alterations in noncoding long chain RNA sequences (lncRNA) in Rett syndrome, they can say “Dark genome’ is involved in Rett Syndrome” and it sounds a lot more interesting. Not to pick on them, if a little sizzle sells some mouse model research steak, I am all for it.
I’m not just not looking forward to those Dark Sociology papers, so I will hide in my work; pursuing that PhD in Theoretical Phys Ed.
(1) Bleacher Report has a much larger list. A funny sample:
“He’s deceptively quick.” Justin Goar’s positive take: “I’m a deceptively good-looking genius. Also, I used to be deceptively slow—now I’m just obviously slow.”
(2) But to overturn convention, the good girl dressed in black lingerie and the bad girl dressed in white lingerie.