In “Making Stories Visible The Task for Bioethics Commissions” (Issues in Science and Technology 27/2), Meera Lee Sethi and Adam Briggle explore claims made for science finds – under the banner, “Critical skepticism is always appropriate”: blockquote> Narrative explanations can help us understand difficult scientific issues, but they can also mislead us. Critical skepticism is always appropriate.
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“This is the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer,” Venter said to a roomful of journalists. He spoke of long months spent “debugging” errors in the synthetic DNA and of “booting up” the cell into which it had been transplanted. Finally, he explained that the scientists who had created the cell, known as Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, had “encoded” a series of messages into its genetic material, including the names of authors and key contributors, the URL of a Web site, and three literary quotations about the nature of discovery and creation.
By framing his work through the narrative of computer engineering, Venter was crafting a story about synthetic biology that presented it as a safe, repeatable, and controllable technology. Life, ran the story beneath his words, is essentially information. Organisms are information-processing machines. Creating life is like making a machine; if its design contains errors, we will find and fix them. And like a machine, the nature of a synthetic organism is so malleable to engineering that its DNA can be stamped with its creators’ intentions.
“What Venter’s doing,” says Rejeski, “is making use of an engineering narrative that sends a message to the policy people and the public that all this has a high degree of controllability. People tend to think, well, engineers do a fairly good job. Most of the time, bridges don’t fall down. But a cell is essentially a stochastic system, and we don’t have that kind of control over it. Venter’s got enough of a microbiology background to know better. He’s using a reassuring story that makes everything seem much simpler and less risky than it really is.” [….]
Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista