The Trans-ideological Potential of Epigenetics

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by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

As discussed repeatedly on this blog, epigenetics is a rapidly emerging field of research akin to genetics but with some substantial differences. In addition to the differences in the sciences of genetics and epigenetics—which differences are more a function of the ontological assumptions of each than the actual science—there are significant differences in the narratives of both. In the contexts of policy and politics, these differences in narratives are perhaps more salient than are the scientific differences.

In this context the “narratives” of epigenetics refers to the politically relevant interpretations of epigenetics which, while related to the science of epigenetics, are not the science itself but the political use of that science. As such, there are a number of aspects of the science of epigenetics which complicate the conventional ideological dichotomizations of conservativism versus liberalism around which are organized so much of our historical and contemporary politics[1]. For example, most of the policy solutions prescribed for obesity have their roots in either a conservative narrative of obesity which emphasizes personal responsibility, or a liberal narrative of obesity which emphasizes the overriding causal influence of the environment [2]. The opposition of these ideologies in obesity policy narratives is reflected across a wide swath of policy domains. These ideological orientations are generally assumed to be diametrically if not fundamentally opposed.

The science of epigenetics, though, contains elements of both dispositional and environmental influences at once. Thus, both conservative and liberal narratives can both be constructed simultaneously from the science of epigenetics. At this early stage in the emergence of both the science and the narratives of epigenetics there are two potential routes for the policy narrative use of the science of epigenetics: Either those aspects of epigenetics which are conducive to the different ideologies will be emphasized, resulting in mutually exclusive conservative and a liberal narrative of epigenetics, or that by complicating or combining these longstanding ideological orientations epigenetics will actually provide a ‘third-way’ for the ascription of causes for highly politicized issues such as obesity. In the former case, policy contests will be more or less business as usual with epigenetics as just one more arrow in the ideological quivers of opposing sides. The latter case, though, would open the way for unanticipated policies which are not beholden to either one of these currently predominant ideological poles. This complication of conventional ideologies resulting in unprecedented combinations of policy orientations would be just one indication of the true political impact of epigenetics.

Revealing the narratives

I conducted searches for articles on epigenetics in two major newspapers: the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the New York Times (NYT) to see how epigenetics is talked about, and whether there were these ideological differences in the narratives of epigenetics. These newspapers were selected for the level of circulation of both their print and digital editions, the scope of their readership, and their differences in ideological biases. These two posts are the number one and number two newspapers in the United States in terms of weekday circulation, and are also two of only three newspapers with a national instead of a local or regional readership[3].  As discussed by Lawrence (2004)[4], while these two posts are perhaps not as direct an indicator of the general public perception of an issue as a national survey, they are still excellent sources for tracking how an issue is framed by and for elites, and how an issue is presented to the general public.

Also, according to the analysis of Gentzkow and Shapiro (2010)[5], on a scale of user-based ratings of conservativeness—from 1 (liberal) to 5 (conservative)—the NYT (owned by the NYT Company) scores a 2 and the WSJ (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp) scores a 4. Each post is also located on opposite ends of the liberal-conservative slant index constructed by Gentzkow and Shapiro (2010). These differences in ideology are important for identifying possible differences in the composition of the epigenetic narratives from these sources.

When the epigenetics narratives—or the words used to describe epigenetics—in articles from both sources are compared with each other, a number of interesting patterns emerge (full results to be published in forthcoming paper). Again, a reasonable expectation is that the reporting on epigenetics in the NYT would emphasize those aspects of epigenetics which are congruent with a liberal emphasis on the causal influence of the environment, while the reporting on epigenetics in the WSJ would emphasize the personal and dispositional aspects of epigenetics. Instead, there are many instances in which the narratives from both sources share narrative elements, even to the point that the epigenetics narrative in the NYT demonstrates both liberal and prototypically conservative elements, just as the narrative of epigenetics from the WSJ also shows both conservative and liberal elements

The Trans-ideological potential of epigenetics

At the beginning of this post, two possibilities were offered for the emerging narratives of epigenetics. Because of the causal mechanisms revealed by the science of epigenetics which blur the conventional boundaries of our insides and our outsides and between the individual and their environment, epigenetics is capable of producing both conservative and liberal narratives. One possibility of this potential dualism is that each ideological orientation would just co-opt those aspects of epigenetics which fit its preconceptions. The other possibility is that epigenetics would compel a unique third way narrative which, while containing elements of both ideological narratives, is actually beholden to neither conventional ideology.

The preceding suggests the latter much more than the former. As discussed before, science-based policies are the result both science and narrative development. Science-based narratives do not reflect just the science but also an ideological interpretation of the science, just as science itself is a process of narrative formation often informed by ideology[6]. A valid question at this early stage is therefore which factor will have more influence on the other. Indications are that at this early stage the narratives of epigenetics are molding the existing ideological narratives and not vice versa.

Given the high level of attention devoted to epigenetics in the sciences, the incorporation of epigenetics into policies is only a matter of time. Although there are as yet no epigenetics-informed policies per se, this vector of influence suggests that when there are such policies they will be composed of both individual and environmental aspects and not isolated to either ideological orientation, regardless of the source. What these new policy prescriptions will be which result from this unique combination of the previously juxtaposed environmental and personal narratives remains to be seen, but the results just discussed suggest that the science and narratives of epigenetics promise potentially transformative possibilities for politics and policies which transcend the conventional ideological dichotomizations.

What do you think? Do the narratives of epigenetics provide a potential ‘third way’ for policy? Or is this just a result of the early formative stages of the narratives of epigenetics?  I am curious to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.

[1] Conover, P. J., & Feldman, S. (1981). The origins and meaning of liberal/conservative self-identifications. American Journal of Political Science, 617-645; Huntington, S. P. (1957). Conservatism as an Ideology. American Political Science Review, 51(02), 454-473.

[2] Kersh R. 2009. “The politics of obesity: a current assessment and look ahead.” Millbank Quarterly 87(1):295–316; McBeth, M. K., Clemons, R. S., Husmann, M. A., Kusko, E., & Gaarden, A. (2013). The Social Construction of a Crisis: Policy Narratives and Contemporary US Obesity Policy. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 4(3), 135-163; Niederdeppe, J., Robert, S. A., & Kindig, D. A. 2011. “Peer Reviewed: Qualitative Research About Attributions, Narratives, and Support for Obesity Policy, 2008.” Preventing chronic disease, 8(2).

[3] Alliance for Audited Media. 2015. “Research and Data.” http://www.auditedmedia.com/news/research-and-data/top-25-us-newspapers-for-march-2013.aspx (April 6, 2015).

[4] Lawrence, R. G. (2004). Framing obesity the evolution of news discourse on a public health issue. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 9(3), 56-75.

[5] Gentzkow, M., & Shapiro, J. M. (2010). What drives media slant? Evidence from US daily newspapers. Econometrica, 78(1), 35-71.

[6] Fuchs, H. U. (2015). From Stories to Scientific Models and Back: Narrative framing in modern macroscopic physics. International Journal of Science Education, (ahead-of-print), 1-24; Sheehan, R. J., & Rode, S. (1999). On Scientific Narrative Stories of Light by Newton and Einstein. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 13(3), 336-358; Wise, M. N. (2011). Science as (historical) narrative. Erkenntnis, 75(3), 349-376.

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