DNA tests don’t do anything, or, how to read wine science news

Yesterday, a headline appeared in my email inbox, courtesy of Wine Business Monthly’s daily run-down, that read “DNA tests defeat wine barrel fraud.” About four different reactions crossed my mind more or less simultaneously.

1. I doubt it. Sounds like journalist hype.

2. Took them long enough; haven’t we had that technology for awhile now?

3. DNA tests don’t defeat anything. People defeat things.

4. Nifty!

I mightn’t have thought any more about it. But having spent the past week or two tearing apart assorted wine writings for evidence of how we make science happen in words, it seems I can’t just read anything anymore without asking: what do these words DO?

The headline is from a Wine-Searcher brief about new French technology to identify the geographic origin and species of barrel oak. But, really, the article is about the French asserting that they’re better than everyone else. The first three sentences of the piece outline, in very general terms, what the DNA tests do: researchers have genetically profiled enough oak trees to create a database against which new samples can be compared. Extract some kind of genetic information from tiny bits of barrel, compare that genetic “fingerprint” against the database and look for matches, and you’ve figured out where the oak used in the barrel originated.

I’m actually elaborating on what the Wine-Searcher piece said from general knowledge of how genetic testing works because the article spent its remaining 29 sentences describing how this technology fits into maintaining the cultural superiority of French oak over Hungarian oak. I’ve put it that way for a reason.

The DNA test itself might (maybe, in a very limited way) be value-neutral. But the way the test is constructed and used embodies the values of the researchers and the networks of interested industry members and funding agencies and organizations surrounding the researchers. The test determines geographic origin. Which geographies are important? Were American oaks included? We don’t know, because it wasn’t relevant, i.e. the French aren’t much worried about American fraud. How finely-grained do we want to make our distinctions in those famous French forests? The test isn’t value-neutral. The test is part of a network of people and organizations and values and priorities and economies and things. And in this case, the test has been enrolled in a program of asserting that French oak is both different and better than Eastern European oak. And that unscrupulous barrel makers are threatening consumers — and the integrity of the industry — by trying to pass off inferior stuff as the genuine article. So the headline actually is accurate (sorry, me #1 and 3), even if it left out some bits. The full version: “DNA tests” created by French researchers are enrolled in a program,  funded and commercialized by the leading French wine research institute INRA and the French Institute of Technology for Forest Based and Furniture Sectors (FCBA), “defeat wine barrel fraud” and increase the value of French oak.

But the article goes on to say that coopers aren’t so sure that this technology is useful after all. Barrels are complicated with many different pieces. Testing all of the pieces would be expensive and cumbersome. Not testing all of them wouldn’t necessarily prove anything useful about the barrel. The Wine-Searcher piece sets up the common dynamic: scientists say that new technology will help; industry people (coopers, here) say we’re not so sure. Maybe the coopers aren’t willing to be enrolled in that INRA- and FCBA-led program. INRA has decided that their participation doesn’t matter. Their own news release says, with certainty, that the test “will be an effective deterrent against fraud and will promote traceability measures with wood industry stakeholders.” Who’s right? Not really important. The important thing is the conflict. Everyone isn’t on the same page, which means that moving forward will be sticky.*

I’m not suggesting that the Wine-Searcher writers should have done things differently, though just a little more detail on the tests in that first paragraph would have gone a long way. It’s impossible to tell how much information these scientists and their tests can give us about a particular barrel: country-of-origin and species, or what forest, or what part of a forest? The headline overstates the case, but that’s journalism and readers know the genre: the title grabs our attention so that we read and figure out that the headline isn’t exactly true.

“Scientists craft DNA tests to verify wine barrel identity claims” — a more accurate headline — is cumbersome and less effective as an attention-grabber. If we want to be precise about it, we can say that the headline uses metonymy, a specific figure of speech in which a part of something stands in for the whole, more complicated thing. “DNA tests” stands in for “scientists who have developed and conducted DNA tests.” Cognitive linguistics says that metonymy doesn’t confuse readers; no one is running around out there thinking that DNA tests have evolved sentience and will be lobbying for the right to vote or applying for drivers’ licenses (I hope).

So if my point isn’t to call out journalists for promoting scientific inaccuracy — something I do often enough, but not today — what is my point? That words construct and reflect how we see the world. Wine researchers are plagued by the persistent failure of winemakers and growers and assorted other industry non-scientists to do what science clearly says is the right thing. We know that overhead sprinklers are a terrible way to irrigate grapevines in Eastern Washington state, so why are growers still using them? Why do people do wrong things against their better interest, even when they’ve been told that they’re wrong? First, because those industry non-scientists see pieces of their own complex networks that the scientists don’t/can’t/won’t see. They’re probably not being unreasonable (probably; everyone’s unreasonable sometimes); they’re working with different considerations. Second, because “science” is never just “science.” Science is always part of value-laden programs into which winemakers and growers and coopers may or may not want to be enrolled. The science isn’t just right; the science is part of an agenda. Third, because words make technologies real to people. We interact with ideas, scientific and otherwise, through words. Words tell us what ideas can and can’t do. And, in this case, words have helped criminalize Hungarian oak…and made a new French technology a good deal more limited and parochial than it might otherwise.

 

 

*The French have a habit of developing great, or at least new and complicated, ideas at the administrative level only to have them fail majestically at the implementation level because everyone else/the common people/the people actually affected by the technology saw problems the administrators never considered. See Aramis and the 1970’s attempt at French electric autobuses, among others. Or maybe everyone does this sort of thing and we just have a habit of noticing the French cases.

 

One thought on “DNA tests don’t do anything, or, how to read wine science news

  1. Oh dear…”Words”.

    Once you get to “words” there’s nothing but trouble. Not too many people get there (you’re one of the few living examples I’ve encountered).

    Are you Buddhist by inclination?

    “Some may slander, some may abuse;
    They try to set fire to the heavens with a torch
    And end by merely tiring themselves out.
    I hear their scandal as though it were ambrosial truth;
    Immediately everything melts
    And I enter the place beyond thought and words.”
    ― Yoka Genkaku

    “clouds very high look
    not one word helped them get up there”
    ― Ikkyu, Crow with No Mouth

    “I have found so many angels trapped inside undisputed jargon that I find myself digging at the words, in order to release them, from the books that unfairly captured their soul.”
    ― Shannon L. Alder

    “All words are dead.
    Their meaning decays with use as we build ever more complex structures of pre-determination over what little life they may once have mirrored.”

    – Dave

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