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Response to David Bump

Posted by pbio on 07 May 2009 at 22:21 GMT

Author: David Goodsell
Position: Associate Professor of Molecular Biology
Institution: The Scripps Research Institute
Additional Authors: Graham Johnson
Submitted Date: December 10, 2007
Published Date: December 11, 2007
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

"Truth" is such a slippery concept, changing with the different needs and expectations of different audiences. As we mentioned in the final section of the essay, the creation of any illustration requires a careful weighing of the subject to be presented, the data that is available to support the subject, and the level of prior knowledge of the audience. Take, for instance, these two examples:

In perhaps the most famous molecular illustration, Watson and Crick presented a diagram to describe their proposed structure of DNA. This diagram is artistic license taken to the extreme: it shows no atoms, no bonds, it is stripped of everything molecular, but the obvious way that this diagram explains the process of genetic information transfer has made it a lasting icon. In their original report, the figure caption states clearly that "this figure is purely diagrammatic," but that caveat is rarely mentioned in the thousands of places that the diagram is used now. Does this diagram show the "truth" about DNA? Is it misleading since it ignores the atomicity of DNA? Does the clear and obvious way that it depicts DNA structure and function outweigh the possible misapprehensions, especially with audiences that have little prior knowledge of atoms and molecules?

Graham and I have both been called upon to create pictures of protein synthesis for textbooks, popular articles, and science museums. Our illustrations have changed over the years, as more and more data have become available...but there is still not enough data to create a comprehensive molecular illustration of the entire process. It is not possible, however, to say to the authors: "You can't include a picture of protein synthesis because we don't know the structure of eIF4a." Throughout this work, we have used artistic license to fill in the gaps with our current best guesses at the missing portions.

We agree that it is essential to convey uncertainties gleaned from our confidence in the data when training current and future scientists. However, we feel that when vying to hold public attention against Hollywood's cavalier portrayal of science, any liberties in our relatively accurate, data-driven representations must be quieted to a footnote available to those seeking deeper exploration. While appropriate for a college level textbook, an illustration riddled with visual exceptions, omissions, and highlighted uncertainties would quickly make a more general audience lose sight of the important message an illustration may attempt to convey.

No competing interests declared.