I’ve recently expressed some disgust with those who confuse the metaphors used in teaching with reality. Metaphors are very important in teaching as they provide a means by which to explain that which does not fit into common language. I have previously discussed several specific examples of this ranging from the DNA “code” to the “Big Bang.” What strikes me as particularly upsetting is that these metaphors are used as arguments against the specific theories which they are used to explain. With the concerned scientists, this does not particularly disturb me as many will easily dismiss these arguments as based upon several false premises. What does concern me is the public use of these arguments are effective at swaying the general public as this is the only explanation for these theories they have heard; thus attacking and refuting the metaphor or using it as an argument for a certain cause (“Intelligent Design” for example) is effective for lay audiences.
Now that I have completely alienated most non-scientist readers, and bored the scientists, I shall move on to the metaphor of the “DNA code.” Why use this phrasing? It alludes to the binary codes of computers and the three “letter” codons of mRNA. This mostly dates back to a very old argument about the hereditary material in cells. Any portion of DNA which was not responsible for the production of a protein was seen as “junk” with the sequences resulting in proteins being referred to as “genes.” I’ll spare the details, but as such, comparing DNA sequences to “code” makes it far easier to explain just as it is far easier to use “Big Bang” than to go into all the very complex mathematics which were used to derive this.
We have an obligation, as the scientists, the scientifically literate, and the students of science, to explain that attributes of a real code such as in computers or cyphers do not extend to the metaphorical code of DNA. In the same way, real explosions are absolutely nothing like the “Big Bang,” other than very superficially. When you hear someone very publicly state things such as “DNA contains information because it is a code,” you cannot just laugh histarically and walk away, very publicly explain why this is incorrect.
Note: you are allowed to giggle, laugh, or chuckle before you do so