August 23, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich
Epi-pins: Epigenetics on Pinterest
This post has been co-authored with Cath Ennis, University of British Colombia, Vancouver (author of Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide). Cath is a Knowledge Translation Specialist with the University of British Columbia’s Human Early Learning Partnership and the Kobor Lab at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.
Cath and I are interested in how epigenetics is made public, for example through visual aids, such as drawings, photos, diagrams, infographics and so on. We thought one way to access such visuals would be by looking at Pinterest, an image-based social media network; but, as you’ll see below, looking at Pinterest actually brought us back to words rather than images.
Epigenetics has a long history and is still evolving, but it is safe to say that “[r]esearch in epigenetics today is primarily concerned with the investigation of changes in gene expression, where the mechanism for this is something other than a change to the underlying DNA. The focus of research is on the dynamics of chemical modification upon the DNA, which enhance, decrease, initiate or silence gene expression.” (Pickersgill et al., 2013)
Epigenetics in its current form, as part of molecular biology, began to flourish in the scientific literature after 2003 (the end of the Human Genome Project) and has been popularised through at least four main channels of communication:
- Through the work of celebrity scientists or epigenetic champions who give TED talks, appear on YouTube videos, write comment and opinion pieces, and become go-to experts for journalists and film-makers.
- Through the dissemination of epigenetic stories by journalists and science writers.
- Through targeted campaigns by advertisers promoting (mostly unproven) alternative health and well-being products using traditional and social media.
- Through the labour of academic bloggers, podcasters and tweeters (some of them prominent scientists), almost all of whom are quite sceptical of some of the claims being made about epigenetics in the popular sphere.
Some of these efforts leave traces on Pinterest if they include images.
We searched Pinterest using the term “epigenetics” (on 18 August 2019 at 15.30 GMT [when we looked an hour later, things had changed]). (There are also ‘boards‘ or collections where individuals choose and collect pins dealing with epigenetics, which would deserve a separate analysis).
There was not only a wealth of images on display, but also a banner above the images showing the main themes, presumably found by an algorithm. We could have jumped straight to epigenetics-related content on the theme of, say, stress or trauma or diet or even art.
We decided to look more closely at the first 20 ‘pins’ (more about pinning and pins here). What surprised us was that many of them didn’t contain visuals but rather words.
The following ‘analysis’ is just a rough sketch. This is not a systematic study of epigenetics on Pinterest, using, for example, visual content analysis (see Conclusion below for some examples). We selected the first twenty pins (which now have changed substantially, so make of that what you will) and sorted them into three categories: university outreach, science/news communication, and alternative health promotion and pseudoscience.
We have a hunch that a very similar pattern of dissemination can be found on Twitter, but we haven’t looked at this closely yet.
The first pin we saw (on 18 August) displayed an educational poster on “What is Epigenetics?” with relation to child development, produced by the University of Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child. Another poster “adapted from” this one was displayed in another pin using similar words but ‘cuter’ pictures of children, not the more abstract representations used by the Harvard original.
Both posters talk about how “Epigenetics explains how early experiences can have lifelong impact” (both positive and negative ones) and that “[y]oung brains are particularly sensitive to epigenetic changes”. They point out that through epigenetics the environment affects gene expression, which means that “the old idea that genes are ‘set in stone’ has been disproven” (they don’t point to a source for this ‘old idea’ though). Experiences can, they say, “leave a unique epigenetic ‘signature’ on genes”… These changes can, the posters claim, be reversed, but the best thing is to reduce stress ”from the beginning” and bring up children in a nurturing environment.
One pin links back to a neuroscience news item on daytime sleepiness. Another pin refers to a popular science book on epigenetics, showing its cover. This is The Epigenetic Revolution (2011) by Nessa Carey.
A pinned YouTube video tries to provide an answer to the question “What is epigenetics?”. It’s by Carlos Guerrero-Bosagna and has gathered almost a million views. Carlos is a researcher at Linköping University looking at links between epigenetics and society, including autism. The video should be analysed together with other popular videos about epigenetics.
Another pin displays a sciencey-looking diagram entitled “Genetics vs Epigenetics” which was used in a popular article published in 2013 in Discover Magazine and entitled “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes”. The article begins by saying: “Your ancestors’ lousy childhoods or excellent adventures might change your personality, bequeathing anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes in the brain”. This was one of several articles dissected and found wanting by Kevin Mitchell in his 2018 blog post on Wiring the Brain entitled: “Grandma’s trauma – a critical appraisal of the evidence for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans”. We’ll come back to this topic in the next section/category.
Alternative health and pseudoscience
The rest of the twenty pins link to rather less reputable sources, mainly websites (two from Instagram) selling ways to enhance body and mind through changes in nutrition and lifestyle, through meditation, detoxification and so on. As an aside: If you follow the pins recommended underneath these pins you get into quantum physics, quantum consciousness, astrology and, we kid you not, ‘star shit’, an image saved to a board titled “Brainiac facts” along with the note “Human body ingredients. Everything, every element that exists, everything we are composed of was created in the death of a star. We are literally made of star stuff”.
Many of the pins in our alternative health and pseudoscience category display stock visuals of the double helix, mostly in blue, but many more depict what one may call inspirational texts, such as:
“Epigenetics: Science is proving that our bodies (sic) ability to heal and repair itself is greatly effected (sic) by our beliefs thoughts emotions and intentions for they have a profound vibrational effect upon our continually evolving genetic code We’re the programmers of the code DNA activation is our software upgrade.” [no punctuation] These words appear against a dark background and underneath readers can see a hand touching and lighting up a piece of a double helix.
Another pin from the Mindful Design Feng Shui School says: “90% of what happens to you – including how your genes get expressed – is determined by your environment. This is the science of epigenetics. And the most important part of that environment is created by your beliefs, most of which you are not consciously aware.”
One pin is a combination of words and visuals, in this case drawings of a bicycle, a man and a woman, healthy fruit and veg, etc. The words say: “Your gene expression can change based on what you eat, how you move, your thoughts, feelings and social connections.” (After reading things like this, it’s always good to go back and read Kevin Mitchell’s blog post)
If you want to be more ‘out there’, you can look at a pin saying “Epigenetics is catching up to what Yogis have always known”, illustrated again with a double helix. The article itself talks about the Holy Grail, the Da Vinci Code etc. and says: “The Holy Grail, or the sacred chalice, is blood that holds high vibrational DNA.” And: “Science is now proving that DNA can be altered and programmed through a field called behavioral epigenetics. We are no longer victims of the past, but creators of our destiny. Epigenetics has proven what Yogis have always known: that your thoughts, beliefs, emotions, environment, and diet can change your life.”
A pin showing an image of a woman’s head and the words “How your mind can reprogramme your genes” leads to an article saying: “You are the ‘driver’ of your genetic roadmap. And not only your roadmap, but the thoughts and emotions you feel, the foods you eat, and how well you detoxify also pass down 3 generations!” An interesting verbal image or metaphor.
Underneath this article are two intriguing comments. One says: “Epigenetics explains naturopathy, prayers, good intentions, karmic law and even reincarnation of physical self in scientific way.” The other asks: “Hello, can this help with Huntingtins Desease [sic]?” This shows just how dangerous such hype can be!
Some pins link up with the work of Bruce Lipton who wrote a book entitled The Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles (2005), stressing the power of thoughts and beliefs and the way we can harness them to improve our health.
Many pins include promises about the power of epigenetics to change people’s genes. One pin relating to nutrition, again referencing Lipton, claims that “Genes are equivalent to blueprints; epigenetics is the contractor. They change the assembly, the structure.” Another novel metaphor. Another pin goes further and says: “’It’s in my genes, I can’t do anything about it.’ BULLSHIT. The field of epigenetics, led by Bruce Lipton (sic!), is proving that genes are not the end all be all of your health. What is more affective (sic) on your body is your beliefs, thoughts and feelings.”
Lipton is, according to Wikipedia, “an American developmental biologist who supported the theory that gene expression could be influenced (via epigenetics) by environmental factors i.e. environmental factors have a greater impact on their health than genetic research has previously determined”. The wiki article also stresses that his work remains on the sidelines of mainstream epigenetics – although he is widely cited as an authority on other social media platforms such as Twitter, often in support of pseudoscientific claims about alternative health products and services.
Another pin, related to an article on epigenetics and autism, is a PowerPoint slide with a double helix on the left-hand side and various bullet points, one of which claims “Can be transgenerational”, a rather contested assumption when it comes to humans.
Finally, a pin, linked to what one may call spiritual wellness, talks about epigenetics as “healing generational memory and inherited family trauma”. Another displays the title: “Epigenetics: The weird science behind inherited experience”, referring to “Holocaust survivors passing on certain behavioural traits to their offspring”, tapping into the fascination with transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and trauma, a topic of which scientific bloggers are greatly sceptical.
What can we learn from this quick survey?
- We tried to study visuals used to make epigenetics public. What we found was that words seem to trump visuals and that the visuals used were mostly conventional stock images of the double helix. These science-symbolising images were even used in combination with the weirdest claims, perhaps in an attempt to lend scientific authority to unscientific content.
- Epigenetics is portrayed as a way to escape the power of genes and (the strawman of) genetic determinism (blueprint, set in stone, blank slate, programme). Epigenetics, we are told, overcomes these barriers through diet and exercise but, more importantly, the power of the mind, thoughts and beliefs.
- Epigenetics is linked to trauma and ‘the ghost of generational memory’. An article pinned up on Pinterest refers to a 2016 book by Mark Wolynn entitled It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. (The cover of this book also features a double helix as part of its design). The article also says that “Slaves in the 1800s and before left a heavy generational footprint in the DNA of their descendants”. Trauma in all is forms resonates with many popularisers of epigenetics.
- The majority of pins link to articles or blog posts or book about epigenetics that are steeped in pseudoscience. The pseudoscientific pins we looked at are only the very tip of a large iceberg that has been growing for a decade. In 2015 Adam Rutherford, said (first on Twitter, then in print): “The legion purveyors of flapdoodle love a real but tricky scientific concept that they can bolt their pernicious quackery on to. […] Epigenetics is a real and important part of biology, but due to predictable quackery, it is threatening to become the new quantum.” (The Guardian, 19 July 2015). This is no longer a mere threat it seems!
Some of the researchers who have published Pinterest content analyses have concluded that aspects of the platform’s content related to public health topics can be actively harmful, for instance in the cases of vaccination, electronic cigarette and waterpipe smoking, skin tanning, and weight loss.
While scientifically inaccurate pins about epigenetics seem likely to have less direct and less serious impacts, they do have the potential to spread misinformation and false hope, and may contribute to the rejection of conventional medicine approaches. This first dip into the Pinterest pool highlights the need for a deeper dive, to understand the opportunities for dissemination of accurate scientific information to wider audiences as well as the potential harms of users sharing pseudoscience and other inaccurate content about epigenetics.