Beautiful is not (necessarily) right: Overcoming the Phryne's trial syndrome


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BioEssays Editorial Board Member

We live in times where image is everything. Today, a 2 year-old child has seen orders of magnitude more images during his short life than the founders of modern Science (Galileo, Newton, Mendel etc.) could have observed during their entire existence. The seminal text of modern genetics, Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden by Gregor Mendel (1866) contains not a single illustration, merely text, numbers and a few tables. Even the legendary 1953 Nature paper by Watson and Crick on the structure of DNA has but one meagre black-and-white sketch of the double helix. In contrast, attractive coloured images are now a must in any respectable journal. It is easy to understand why papers published in leading, and not so leading, journals (in particular in the Life Sciences domain) are increasingly filled with colourful, supposedly self-explanatory, figures. Customary perusal of new issues of one's favourite journal most often starts by randomly looking at the invariably ‘nice’ images. Publishers encourage authors to submit coloured figures by decreasing – or just waiving – production charges. Some journals even instruct contributors to produce a graphical abstract to summarise the contents of the paper in pictorial form, with the explicit purpose of capturing the attention of a wider readership online. These days a text without images looks boring. But one wonders whether all this increasingly picture-book science does particular service to knowledge. One disadvantage of such practices is the shift from an abstract, often demanding, way of thinking, to mere visual reasoning. Since intelligence does not map to the visual cortex of our brain, it seems a bit dangerous to overdo imagery as the main support for a given conclusion in experimental science. The traditional abuse of optical or electron microscopy pictures selected to document biological phenomena (without proper statistics) has multiplied ad infinitum in recent years, notably with the widespread use of GFP (green fluorescent protein) and its multi-coloured variants. The most recent literature is packed with examples where the beauty of the (visual) result has obviously caused reviewers and readers to lower their guard and take for granted phenomena that old-school molecular biology would have subjected to fastidiously painstaking experimental verification. Every scientist has a favourite horror story in which a handsome image has led to a mistaken conclusion. The famous Bayer's adhesion sites that appear in electron micrographs of thin sections of Escherichia coli, and which were first claimed to explain inter-membrane protein transmigration, were later demonstrated to be an artificial post-mortem enhancement of streams of proteins. Beautiful biofilm architectures revealed by GFP-labelled bacteria growing on a surface, and examined with confocal laser microscopy, have been the subject of the most extravagant interpretations, most of them probably wrong. Structures of countless proteins have been proven erroneous after having been published as beautiful 3D predictions. I have myself succumbed to the lure of a good image by assigning a wrong function to a hole visible with the electron microscope in the centre of a multi-protein complex in bacterial auto-transporter proteins. Is there anything we can do to counter our innate tendency to accept as right what we see, and importantly, what we see as beautiful? In the Athens of the 4th century BC, a most attractive woman called Phryne was taken to court accused of very serious crimes. When it seemed that the verdict of the trial would be unfavourable, Phryne's advocate, Hypereides, tore open Phryne's robe and displayed her naked, which so impressed the judges that they set her free. The beauty of the image caused the judges' critical spirit to desert them – surely a sign of divine favour for Phryne in those times that lacked plastic surgery! Let us celebrate the beauty that many new imaging techniques allow us to extract from biological systems, but let us also be vigilant of the erroneous interpretations that the same images may lead us to. The worst fate of Biology would be to become a merely visual science rather than a quantitative discipline. More numbers and fewer images, please! Perhaps publishers should ask authors to produce a quantitative and machine-readable summary of their papers rather than (or in addition to) a graphical abstract. Aesthetics might lose, but knowledge would surely win.