Recently, several media outlets, including NPR, the New York Times, and Big Think, have covered the story of Ph.D. student in Electronic Arts Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who makes 3-D "masks," or "portraits," of the faces of unknown individuals using the DNA they unwittingly discard on such things as cigarette butts and chewing gum. The media coverage has conjured an Orwellian dystopia for readers (check out the first few comments on the NPR piece for a sample). The artist herself apparently shares these concerns. In addition to her upcoming exihibit, Stranger Visions, she will be leading policy discussions on the implications of her art. She's also working with the Delaware medical examiner's office to try to identify the remains of a 20-year-old body.
The problem? As I commented over at Bill of Health, based on what she's said about her methods, they do not allow her to predict someone's face with anything but the crudest of guesses.
Matthew Herper of Forbes took my criticisms and those of others directly to the artist. I confess that her response does not make me feel any better. Even if you're "only" engaging in art, it seems to me that when that art has an obvious science policy message — indeed, one that you invite — you have some obligation to be clear about how "speculative," as she puts it, your art is. But when you decide to move from the world of art into the world of science, and to start leading policy discussions based on your speculative art and working with forensic examiners? Then you really have a strong duty to be very clear about what your work does and does not mean. Among other things, you should take care when talking to the media, and correct the media if they get it wrong. (This is, of course, a lesson that applies to all scholars, including legal scholars, not only to scientists.)
Yesterday, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, an international consortium that pools and conducts social science research on existing genome-wide association study (GWAS) data, and on whose Advisory Board I sit, published (online ahead of print) the results of its first study in Science. That paper — "GWAS of 126,559 Individuals Identifies Genetic Variants Associated with Educational Attainment" (plus supplemental data) — like much human genetics research, has the potential to be misinterpreted in the lay, policy, and even science worlds. That's why, in addition to taking care to accurately describe the results in the paper itself, including announcing the small effect sizes of the replicated SNPs in the abstract, being willing to talk to the media (many scientists are not), and engaging in increasingly important "post-publication peer review" conversations on Twitter (yes, really) and elsewhere — we put together this FAQ of what the study does — and, just as important, does not — show. So far, our efforts have been rewarded with responsible journalism that helps keep the study's limits in the foreground. Perhaps Dewey-Hagborg should consider issuing a similar FAQ with her speculative art.
[Adapted from a post and comments at Bill of Health]