Archive for April, 2013

The focusing illusion

Sat Apr 20, 2013 8:21 pm by Aught3

If you asked a large group of students the following questions: (1) “How happy are you with your life in general?” and (2) “How many dates did you have last month?” What do you think the correlation would be? In other words, what impact does the number of dates a student experiences on their happiness? When the study is done, the correlation is statistically insignificant (-0.012) indicating that dates have no impact on a happy student life. Now consider the following two questions: (1) “How many dates did you have last month?” and (2) “How happy are you with your life in general?” Now how will the number of dates correlate with life happiness? Quite well (0.66). This reversal in correlation upon reversing the question order is called the focusing illusion.

In the first set of questions the students had to consider their life in general first. All aspects, positive and negative, had to be added up and averaged out. Dating made up only a tiny fraction of their lifetime experiences and was judged unimportant by the students. In the second set of questions their focus was first drawn to the aspect of their lives devoted to dating, trying to recall the dates they went on over the last month. When asked how happy they were in general, dating was occupying a large amount of their cognitive attention and was a big component of their overall happiness judgment. Similar effects have been observed when asking about marriage, health, income, and location of residence.

If you are entering into a negotiation with someone the focusing illusion can be used to your advantage. By being the first to make your position known, you anchor the likely outcome nearer to your target. In a salary negotiation, for example, when you have in mind a specific amount for a raise – making sure that number comes out early will constrain the range over which the negotiation can roam. Another use, when selling a house, is to set the price as a non-round number. This tactic will limit the negotiation to the lower units making it more likely you will get the price you want. Setting your price at $799,800 will encourage a smaller range of buy offers than setting the price at $800,000. This is because buyers will focus at the $100 unit rather than the $100,000 unit when making counter offers. Priming the people you are dealing with the answer you want makes it more likely you will be pleased with the outcome.

However, there is a darker side to this cognitive bias. Advertisers make use of the focusing illusion and cause us to overestimate the positive impact their products will have on our lives. They show us people making creative use of their items and invite us to image how we would use them ourselves. By focusing our attention on the product we come to believe that it will markedly improve our relationships, happiness, or efficiency when it reality most products will only have a very small impact on our lives. Politicians also love to use the focusing illusion to narrow the window of debate. Rather than conduct a full discussion of the issue and the merits of various alternative solutions, politicians like to forcefully state their solution and then claim there is no other option. The political debate is shifted to the relative merits of the proposed solution only and any alternatives put forward are ridiculed as too radical and unlikely to have the perceived impact that the proposed policy will.

Avoiding the focusing illusion seems to be impossible. In the same way it is impossible not to think of an elephant, once the influencing factor has entered our consciousness it will immediately colour our future perceptions and decisions. If time allows, try to make the decision at a later date when the focusing factor has receded in importance. Another tactic is to shift your focus to concentrate on what isn’t there. If you think about the information that has been left out you may give your conscious mind a more accurate conception of the problem at hand. If an advertiser or politician claims a particular benefit for a product or policy try to think of the things they are not claiming. If their policy will create more jobs why are they not talking about its impact on government revenue? If an advertiser is touting their product is high in vitamins, ask yourself what they might be leaving out about its sugar content. Training in formal argumentation helps but remember that nothing can break the focusing illusion once it is in place. Be on your guard.

Faulty Premises 2

Sun Apr 14, 2013 5:27 pm by Laurens

In my last post I discussed some of the more common and simplistic logical fallacies. I would recommend going back through that post if you are unsure what a logical fallacy is, as this post will assume that the reader has some prior knowledge.


Argument from Authority

This can be a tricky fallacy because we all know that often arguments such as those put forth in research papers rely on the referencing of relevant authorities in various fields to support them. Quoting Stephen Hawking when talking about the physics of black holes, for example would not be a fallacy because he is considered an expert in that field and there is consensus among experts on much of what he says. Thus his words can be trusted to a reasonable degree.

The fallacy occurs when someone uses the authority of an individual that is not a reliable expert on a given subject. For example it would be inappropriate to use the views of an engineer to support an argument about biology. No matter how much of an expert they might be about engineering, this has no bearing on the veracity of their views on biology.

Another form of this fallacy occurs when someone appeals to the views of a relevant expert, and holds them to be true whilst ignoring the fact that there is no consensus among other experts in that field. For example one might quote a particular scientist and use them to support a particular view on the evolution of language, taking their word as truth, whilst completely ignoring the fact that many other experts disagree.


Quote Mining

This fallacy is similar to the argument from authority in that it uses quotations often taken from well-known figures. The difference here is that the quotation is taken out of context, or important information is left out. Take a look at this quote from Charles Darwin:

“But, as by this theory, innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?”

This appears to the reader as though Darwin is saying that there is a problem with evolutionary theory—the lack of transitional fossils. Quotes like this are frequently used by creationists in an attempt to show that even Darwin had doubts about his own theory, however if one puts this quote into context, one can see that a crucial piece of information is left out:

But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth? It will be more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the Geological Record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been imperfectly made, and only at long intervals of time.

When put into context we can see that Darwin did not view this question as an insurmountable problem with no conceivable answer, its just that the following sentences were removed to give this impression. The use of quotations in such a misleading manner can be difficult to spot (especially if one does not have access to the original material to look it up). As a general rule of thumb, one should be weary of people using quotes from experts that appear to contradict their known views or appear to be saying something extraordinary.


Misleading Use of Polls and Stats

Many people use stats and polls to support their arguments, however these can often give misleading results. Where possible, one should always examine these to see whether the results may have been biased in some way. Lets use an imaginary statistic to illustrate this: 7 out of 10 British people state that that British weather is miserable.

Lets say you look into this poll and find that it was only conducted among a small number of people in Northern Scotland. The first issue would be sample size; a poll that uses a small number of individuals cannot be extrapolated to be representative of an entire nation.

The second area of potential bias is in the location of the survey, Northern Scotland is generally colder than southern parts of Britain and thus it might be expected that there would be more people who are unhappy about the weather in that region. This cannot be considered representative of the entire nation.

You might also find out that the survey was conducted in mid-January when the winter is at its worst and most miserable, a factor likely to affect people’s answers on the matter. You then discover that the survey was conducted among farmers, who as a general rule spend more time outside than people in other professions—another way in which the answers might be biased.

Finally you hear that the actual question asked was “do you agree that the weather in Britian is miserable?”—when asked in this way the question is presupposing that the weather in Britian is miserable and might thus influence the answers given.

These are a few examples in which polls and surveys can be biased. It is advisable to try to ask the following questions, when presented with such results:

  • Was the sample size large enough to be representative?
  • What factors in the method of the survey might lead it to be biased? (location, individuals asked, method of asking etc.)
  • Was the question leading or presumptuous in any way?

Of course many polls and statistics can be enlightening and are carried out in ways that eliminate bias, but it is always useful to view these results in a critical manner.


That’s all for now. Hopefully I have given some insight into various kinds of logical fallacy. I would be interested to hear some feedback, comments and criticisms about these posts, and ask a specific question; would you like me to continue posting about logical fallacies, or should I move on to discussing other topics?

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

Thu Apr 11, 2013 5:10 pm by he_who_is_nobody

I volunteer at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, which was created in 1986 and is made up of two floors of exhibits. There are several different halls to the museum, some change over time, but the main thrust of the museum is found in eight halls that make up the Walk Through Time. This section of the museum focuses on the geological history of New Mexico from Precambrian to the present. The exhibits in the halls may change, but the overall theme of them stays the same.

In this blog post, I am going to give a general overview of the museum by describing the eight main halls that make up Walk Through Time. I will provide the map of the museum so one will be able to follow along while reading this post. In addition, this post is the beginning of several posts I will be doing about the museum. Some will be about specific halls, while others will be about specific exhibits found in the halls. This post will always be referenced, thus one will know exactly which part of the museum I discuss in the future.

Walk Through Time starts on the second floor and works its way back down to the first floor.

Hall One: Origins

In this hall, one is given a brief overview of the formation of the earth and how life might have started. It covers the Precambrian and Paleozoic periods of the earth. Walking farther into this hall one is shown fossils of some of the first life forms on earth and modern creatures that resemble that life. This hall also briefly covers the origin of land-based life. At the end of this hall is the beginning of the major theme of this museum, and that is the natural history of New Mexico. There are fossils, displays, and murals that cover what New Mexico was like at the end of the Paleozoic and beginning of the Mesozoic.

Hall Two: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

In this hall, the first thing you see is a wall talking about the largest extinction event in earth’s history. Next to that, they show what the oceans looked like (with fossils and art) in the Paleozoic and compare with what it looked like in the Mesozoic. The beginning of the hall deals with the early Triassic and has displays of living fossils featuring lungfish (including a live specimen) and coelacanth. Phytosaurs and Placerias, which made up the bulk of the land base life forms during the late Triassic, dominate the late Triassic part of the hall. This hall also includes a display of the earliest mammal (Adelobasileus) and talks about how exactly scientists are able to classify mammals using their ear bones. This hall also includes an exhibit on Coelophysis, New Mexico’s state fossil.

Hall Three: Age of Super Giants

In this hall, some of the largest dinosaurs to ever live are displayed. This hall is about the Jurassic, which is the period that dinosaurs truly became the dominant animal on the planet. Two of the dinosaurs on display in this hall are Seismosaurus, the longest dinosaur to ever be discovered, and Saurophaganax, the largest carnivorous dinosaur of the Jurassic.

There is also a display showing the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. It compares the anatomy of Archaeopteryx with that of a pterosaur, a small dinosaur, and one of the first true birds in order to show the homology between the bird/dinosaur and dissimilarity between bird/dinosaur and the pterosaur.

Hall Four: New Mexico’s Seacoast

In this hall, one is able to find a display that shows the movement of the sea that once covered most of New Mexico for all of the Cretaceous period. Because of this sea, the Cretaceous period is one of the most fossiliferous periods in the whole state. When first walking into this hall, one sees into the bottom floor, which has a mosasaur sculpture surrounded by blue floors and walls, representing the sea that covered the state. Next to that is a coastal jungle, which is filled with fossils and sculptures of the creatures that once inhabited the coastal region of the inland sea. One walks down a ramp passed other fossil displays and the coastal jungle. When walking into the first floor one comes into a room entitled “A Bad Day in the Cretaceous”, which shows a film projected on the wall of a meteor striking the earth. Once one leaves this area one walks closer to the mosasaur display.

Hall Five: Volcanoes

In this hall, one is treated to a walk through a generic volcano. New Mexico has more extinct volcanoes than any other state. Inside this hall, it discusses all four different types of volcanoes and the lava they produce. It also shows examples of all four volcanoes with ones found in New Mexico. This hall has been here, virtually unchanged since the museum opened in 1986 and is still one of my favorites along with most of the people that visit.

Hall Six: Rise of the Recent

In this hall, one is able to see a brief overview of much of the Cenozoic of New Mexico. This hall contains some of the most beautiful murals in the whole museum. The best mural in this hall is the mural showing the evolution of the horse. There are a few fossil exhibits found in this hall including Diatryma, which was discovered here in New Mexico by Edward Drinker Cope.


Hall Seven: Cave

In this hall, an artificial cave is created to show all the different aspects of caves. There are different displays that light up and tell one about the different formations found in caves. This exhibit also discusses the life forms that one would find in a cave. In addition, a display talks about Carlsbad Caverns, which in my opinion is the most beautiful cave system on earth.

Hall Eight: New Mexico’s Ice Age.

In this hall, there are several different displays of the different animals found in New Mexico during the Pleistocene. This hall includes erected skeletons of a Columbian mammoth, two dire wolves, and a saber-toothed cat. It also has a mural, which depicts how lush New Mexico would have been during the ice age. This is also the only hall that contains depictions of human activities in the Museum, which is a mural of the Clovis People butchering a Columbian Mammoth.

Edited by Dean, 11/04/2013
Reason for edit: Spelling/word-choice alterations, all images but the first reduced in size by 50%.

The ENCODE delusion

Sun Apr 07, 2013 6:10 pm by Inferno

A few months ago, I wrote a post about junk DNA and ENCODE. Since then, more evidence has surfaced so I’ve decided to make this into a blog post. I’ve slightly modified the original post as well as added the new information plus all the relevant links. This is a long and sometimes technical post. Note: “Creationist” is interchangeable with ID-proponent. They’re the same.


The main problem with this story is not what scientists have claimed and then found, but rather what the popular press has (mis)understood. This is also a story about scientists failing to communicate science properly. AronRa said on the 31st of May, 2009, in his video Ida Know (the first of a five-part summary about the 47-million year old primate fossil Ida) the following, which also holds true about this story:

But sadly, the media isn’t entirely to blame, some of this has been done by scientists.

It is highly inappropriate sensationalism and the way it’s described is very misleading to anybody who doesn’t understand taxonomy very well and almost nobody does.

The same is true in this case, only substitute “taxonomy” with “evolution”, “genetics” and “biochemistry”.
A pop-science journal Arstechnica (Author John Timmer) has also commented on this phenomenon:

ArsTechnica: Most of what you read was wrong: how press releases rewrote scientific history

Many press reports that resulted [from the ENCODE release] painted an entirely fictitious history of biology’s past, along with a misleading picture of its present. As a result, the public that relied on those press reports now has a completely mistaken view of our current state of knowledge (this happens to be the exact opposite of what journalism is intended to accomplish). But you can’t entirely blame the press in this case. They were egged on by the journals and university press offices that promoted the work,and, in some cases, the scientists themselves.

Unfortunately, things like well-established facts make for a lousy story. So instead, the press has often turned to myths, aided and abetted by the university press offices and scientists that should have been helping to make sure they produced an accurate story.

I’ll go into the details of the ENCODE story near the end, but first we need a short history of “Junk DNA”.

A history of “junk DNA”

The story begins with Susumu Ohno. In 1970, he wrote a book (Ohno, 1970a ) in which he laid out the argument for the role of gene duplication in evolution. We now know that it does indeed play its part. One thought experiment he had regarded genes that were duplicated (in his example, three sequences sharing the same sequence) and not under pressure by selection any more. If there is no selective pressure, they would mutate and two out of three would likely serve no function, due to high mutation rates.

Ohno 1970a, p.62

[It is likely that] in a relatively short time, two of the three duplicates would join the ranks of ‘garbage DNA’.

This was the first time anything like this was proposed. Only two years later, in another paper (Ohno, 1972) would he coin the phrase “junk DNA”. So what was “junk DNA” or “garbage DNA” to him? Well it’s based on a very well-known observation:

Ohno 1972

If we take the simplistic assumption that the number of genes contained is proportional to the genome size, we would have to conclude that 3 million or so genes are contained in our genome. The falseness of such an assumption becomes clear when we realize that the genome of the lowly lungfish and salamanders can be 36 times greater than our own.

As we now know, we have roughly 20,000 genes, which fit well with Ohno’s prediction of no more than 30,000 genes. It was also observed that there can be a lot of duplications and insertion of retroposons without affecting the body in any way. I talk about this later on, under the heading “pseudogenes”.

At the time of Ohno’s writing, “junk DNA” was “meant to describe the loss of protein-coding function by deactivated gene duplicates, which in turn were believed to constitute the bulk of eukaryotic genomes”. (Genomicron, 2007)

A very important part follows:

As different types of non-coding DNA were identified, the concept of gene duplication as their source, and therefore “junk DNA” as their descriptor, found new and broader application. However, it is now clear that most non-coding DNA is not produced by this mechanism, and is therefore not accurately described as “junk” in the original sense.

So in the original sense, we don’t have a lot of “junk DNA” after all. The important thing to know here is that the term has been butchered by the media to mean all non-coding DNA, which strictly shouldn’t be called “junk DNA” but rather “pseudogene”, coined in 1977 (Jacq et al. 1977) to describe a functionless gene. Now note the miscommunication: There is a difference between “junk” (stuff one keeps) and “trash” (stuff one throws out). This was noted in 1988:

Brenner 1998

There is the rubbish we keep, which is junk, and the rubbish we throw away, which is garbage.

And in 1990, Brenner said the following:

(S. Brenner, The human genome: the nature of the enterprise (in: Human Genetic Information: Science, Law and Ethics, No. 149: Science, Law and Ethics, Symposium Proceedings (CIBA Foundation Symposia) John Wiley and Sons Ltd 1990, Source) <– One problem with that blog post is that much of it is wrong. I merely provide the source to show where I got the picture from.

And even in 1973, Ohno suggested a potential function for “junk DNA”:

Ohno, 1973

The bulk of functionless DNA in the mammalian genome may serve as a damper to give a reasonably long cell generation time (12 hours or so instead of several minutes)


Genomicron, 2007

From the very beginning, the concept of “junk DNA” has implied non-functionality with regards to protein-coding, but left open the question of sequence-independent impacts (perhaps even functions) at the cellular level. “Junk DNA” may now be taken to imply total non-function and is rightly considered problematic for that reason, but no such tacit assumption was present in the term when it was coined.

Gregory goes on to make a very astute observation: If there is no function for all genes, creationists are in serious trouble. (Note: Recent reading of a creationist blog post suggests that there is at least one creationist who does not adhere to this and thinks it wouldn’t matter much if their prediction weren’t true. I’ve yet to find the original source [a guy called Axe?] so I’m left to wonder how that should work… This doesn’t detract from the point that most creationists do hold the view presented both above and below.)

Genomicron, 2007

[This is why] all non-coding DNA must, a priori, be functional.

To satisfy this expectation, creationist authors (borrowing, of course, from the work of molecular biologists, as they do no such research themselves) simply equivocate the various types of non-coding DNA, and mistakenly suggest that functions discovered for a few examples of some types of non-coding sequences indicate functions for all (see Max 2002 for a cogent rebuttal to these creationist confusions). Case in point: a few years ago, much ado was made of Beaton and Cavalier-Smith’s (1999) titular proclamation, based on a survey of cryptomonad nuclear and nucleomorphic genomes, that “eukaryotic non-coding DNA is functional”. The point was evidently lost that the function proposed by Beaton and Cavalier-Smith (1999) was based entirely on coevolutionary interactions between nucleus size and cell size.

Apart from the above mentioned potential function for “junk DNA”, many more have been identified since:

Genomicron, 2007

Examples include buffering against mutations (e.g., Comings 1972; Patrushev and Minkevich 2006) or retroviruses (e.g., Bremmerman 1987) or fluctuations in intracellular solute concentrations (Vinogradov 1998), serving as binding sites for regulatory molecules (Zuckerkandl 1981), facilitating recombination (e.g., Comings 1972; Gall 1981; Comeron 2001), inhibiting recombination (Zuckerkandl and Hennig 1995), influencing gene expression (Britten and Davidson 1969; Georgiev 1969; Nowak 1994; Zuckerkandl and Hennig 1995; Zuckerkandl 1997), increasing evolutionary flexibility (e.g., Britten and Davidson 1969, 1971; Jain 1980; reviewed critically in Doolittle 1982), maintaining chromosome structure and behaviour (e.g., Walker et al. 1969; Yunis and Yasmineh 1971; Bennett 1982; Zuckerkandl and Hennig 1995), coordingating genome function (Shapiro and von Sternberg 2005), and providing multiple copies of genes to be recruited when needed (Roels 1966).

In addition, I believe one can add both Epigenetics and Evo-Devo to that list.

Finally, Genomicron notes the following:

Genomicron, 2007

More broadly, those who would attribute a universal function for non-coding DNA must bear the following in mind: any proposed function for all non-coding DNA must explain why an onion or a grasshopper needs five times more of it than anyone reading this sentence.


Now I need to explain pseudogenes. I think the easiest way is to use this picture from the wikipedia article, which I modified for the purpose of illustration:

As you may know, amino acids are encoded by reading DNA sequences in triplets. If, as in the above sequence, an insertion, deletion and point mutation occurs, the triplets are read differently. The results in amino acid encoding are shown above. If the new sequences produce premature stop-codons or, as in this case, simply different amino acids, genes may not be activated and proteins may not be produced. Sometimes they are encoded but do not actively help the organism.
These are then called pseudogenes.

The ENCODE delusion

A few months ago, the ENCODE staff published some research, which prompted the following statement by the EFF:


On September 19, the Ninth Circuit is set to hear new arguments in Haskell v. Harris, a case challenging California’s warrantless DNA collection program. Today EFF asked the court to consider ground-breaking new research that confirms for the first time that over 80% of our DNA that was once thought to have no function, actually plays a critical role in controlling how our cells, tissue and organs behave.

But as I showed above, functions for “junk DNA” have been known since before the term was even coined! This is what I’m talking about when criticizing the way scientists convey science and the way newspapers bring it to the public. (Luckily, some scientists have spoken out against the ENCODE fiasco. And hey, even some folk from the ID-crowd.)

But let’s back up a little. ENCODE has been working for quite some time now and, as you would expect, it has been talked about since at least 2007. (Arthur Hunt on Panda’s Thumb, 2007) Even then, Creationists wanted to claim what they claim now, namely that all DNA has a definite function. There was (at least) one problem for them: A 2005 paper (Wyers et al. 2005) showed that “much of the RNA made by a cell is thrown away. This includes RNA encoded by intergenic regions.” (Quote from Arthur Hunt, 2007)

PZ Myers documents a second story, with a 2010 paper (van Bakel et al. 2010) explaining once again that genes only make up about 2% of the genome, while the rest is non-coding.

That takes us back to the 2012 report from ENCODE. They claimed that 80% of the genome serves some biochemical function, with “function” being defined as participating “in at least one biochemical RNA- and/or chromatin-associated event in at least one cell type”. That’s where the real problem in communication lies: The definition of the word “function”.

PZ Myers

That isn’t function. That isn’t even close. And it’s a million light years away from “a critical role in controlling how our cells, tissue and organs behave”. All that says is that any one bit of DNA is going to have something bound to it at some point in some cell in the human body, or may even be transcribed. This isn’t just a loose and liberal definition of “function”, it’s an utterly useless one.

I’ll try to make this as clear as possible, so I’ll draw on an analogy. Imagine you found two ball-point pens. One of them is a normal pen, the other lacks the ball-point. The first pen has a definite function: To write. The second one may have other functions (like removing ear-wax from your ear), but that’s not a definition of function any sane person would recognize.
The same happened to ENCODE: The way they define “function” is so broad that it’s absolutely useless. Indeed, much randomly generated DNA can be said to have “function” under this definition.

Also note that in his blog, Ewan Birney (kind of) explains what “function” means in ENCODE terms. What’s noticeable is that it could just as well have been swapped for “specific biochemical activity”, which takes the wind out of the sails completely.
In another Q&A point, he said that using the 80% number instead of the 20% functional bases (notice a difference?) was used to… hype up the story. That’s basically it.

Ewan Birney, Q&A

Q. Ok, fair enough. But are you most comfortable with the 10% to 20% figure for the hard-core functional bases? Why emphasize the 80% figure in the abstract and press release?
A. (Sigh.) Indeed. Originally I pushed for using an “80% overall” figure and a “20% conservative floor” figure, since the 20% was extrapolated from the sampling. But putting two percentage-based numbers in the same breath/paragraph is asking a lot of your listener/reader, they need to understand why there is such a big difference between the two numbers, and that takes perhaps more explaining than most people have the patience for. We had to decide on a percentage, because that is easier to visualize, and we choose 80% because (a) it is inclusive of all the ENCODE experiments (and we did not want to leave any of the sub-projects out) and (b) 80% best coveys the difference between a genome made mostly of dead wood and one that is alive with activity. We refer also to “4 million switches”, and that represents the bound motifs and footprints.

We use the bigger number because it brings home the impact of this work to a much wider audience. But we are in fact using an accurate, well-defined figure when we say that 80% of the genome has specific biological activity.

And again from Arstechnica:

So even as the [2007] paper was released, we already knew the ENCODE definition of “functional impact” was, at best, broad to the point of being meaningless. At worst, it was actively misleading.

In the lead paper of a series of 30 released this week, the ENCODE team decided to redefine “functional.” Instead of RNA, its new definition was more DNA focused, and included sequences that display “a reproducible biochemical signature (for example, protein binding, or a specific chromatin structure).” In other words, if a protein sticks there or the DNA isn’t packaged too tightly to be used, then it was functional.

That definition nicely encompasses the valuable regulatory DNA, which controls nearby genes through the proteins that stick to it. But,and this is critical,it also encompasses junk DNA. Viruses and transposons have regulatory DNA to ensure they’re active; genes can pick up mutations in their coding sequence that leave their regulatory DNA intact. In short, junk DNA would be expected to include some regulatory DNA, and thus appear functional by ENCODE’s definition.

The ENCODE team itself bears a particular responsibility here. The scientists themselves should have known what the most critical part of the story was,the definition of “functional” and all the nuance and caveats involved in that,and made sure the press officers understood it. Those press officers knew they would play a key role in shaping the resulting coverage, and should have made sure they got this right. The team has now failed to do this twice.

All that being said, Sandwalk notes two things:

1) The word the ENCODE-people are looking for is not “function”, it’s “noise“.

2) The debate isn’t only about the definition of “function”, but something deeper. An additional problem may be that some scientists don’t understand evolution. That’s pretty sad in this day and age.


A further update comes from a 2013 paper in “Genome Biology and Evolution”. The paper is discussed over at Pharyngula and it basically rips into ENCODE’s papers. There’s a lot of technical stuff I needn’t cover, so I’ll limit myself to mentioning one thing: Other researchers have found only 10% true functionality, that’s 70% less than the folk over at ENCODE.

I’ll conclude:

1) “Junk” DNA was, from the moment of its conception, a misnomer. Just like “Big Bang” falsely conjures the image of an explosion, “junk DNA” falsely conjures the image of complete non-function or garbage. However, in both cases that’s not consistent with what scientists have been saying even before the term was coined. “Junk DNA” should not be in common usage. A more precise term would be “pseudogene”.

2) Conveying what “junk DNA”, non-coding DNA and pseudogenes are, as well as the nuanced differences between the terms, is a difficult job. Sadly, neither scientists nor journalists have done a good job of explaining the terms. It would be interesting to make an extremely careful and detailed YT series on this subject.

3) Much of the ENCODE hype rests on the definition of the term “function”. If the general public and creationists were aware of what “function” means in ENCODE terms, the hype would almost completely fade away. Note that I’m not saying that the results were wrong, inconclusive or not worthy of recognition, I’m simply saying that they were over-hyped. (Which would put them into the second circle of scientific hell!)

4) This problem also creates an opportunity. We now understand what we did wrong and this may encourage scientists to be more careful in the future when explaining things. I hope to make a blog series on the public understanding of science soon and this will be one of my focuses.

Below are all the references used in the creation of this post. The first one is only scientific papers, the second one is blog posts and opinion pieces.
All references with links attached are the resources I used myself, other resources in plain black are additional resources.


Andolfatto, P. 2005. Adaptive evolution of non-coding DNA in Drosophila. Nature 437: 1149-1152.

Batten, D. 1998. ‘Junk’ DNA (again). Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal 12: 5.

Beaton, M.J. and T. Cavalier-Smith. 1999. Eukaryotic non-coding DNA is functional: evidence from the differential scaling of cryptomonad genomes. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 266: 2053-2059.

Bejerano, G., M. Pheasant, I. Makunin, S. Stephen, W.J. Kent, J.S. Mattick, and D. Haussler. 2004. Ultraconserved elements in the human genome. Science 304: 1321-1325.

Bennett, M.D. 1982. Nucleotypic basis of the spatial ordering of chromosomes in eukaryotes and the implications of the order for genome evolution and phenotypic variation. In Genome Evolution (eds. G.A. Dover and R.B. Flavell), pp. 239-261. Academic Press, New York.

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References from pop-science resources

Gregory, T. R. 2007. Genomicron Junk DNA summary

Genomicron ENCODE reply

Brenner, S. 1998. Refuge of spandrels. Current Biology 8: R669.

Talk Origins summary

Talk Origins claim CB 130

Pandas Thum: Junk DNA

Possibly slightly misleading article at ScientificAmerican on Junk DNA <— Read this one only after you’ve read the other ones plus my summary, otherwise you might be a bit confused!

Sandwalk has many more articles on the topic. They’re not a must-read, though, merely more information on the same.

Findandpea have another great review of the way the media failed to report properly on this. But again, scientists fell for it too, so reporters are not exclusively to blame.

Finally, Genomicron maintains an updated list of posts on the topic over at his blog. In case you’re missing anything, it can either be found at Sandwalk or at Genomicron.

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