Always Remember that "Epi-" Is A Handwave

When someone tells you that a phenomenon is "epigenetic" -- or "epi-" anything else -- bear in mind just what "epi-" means.
The prefix epi, or ep if followed by a vowel or the letter "h", is derived from the Greek preposition ἐπί meaning: above, on, over, nearby, upon; outer; besides, in addition to; among; attached to; or toward.
Thus, when someone describes some phenomenon as being caused by "epi-*," it generally means "I am sure the cause is around * somewhere."

When someone tells you that something is "epigenetic," what they mean is, "I'm sure it's something to do with the genes, and while it isn't the genes themselves (or I'd say it was genetic, and be expected to prove I was right about that), I'm sure that the cause has got to be around the genetics somewhere."

 Very often this is a completely unproven assumption. It strikes people as plausible because (a) we don't fully understand how genes work, but (b) we do know that various factors seem to 'turn on' or 'turn off' their functionalities. The implication is meant to be that some factor -- we don't know what or how -- is acting on the genes somehow. But in fact, we often can't really say that the genes have anything to do with it.

With all that said, read this article.


Tom said...

So, should we call social scientists "episcientists"?

Grim said...

Heh. :)

Eric Blair said...

It all sounds suspiciously like Lysenko. But I'm not a scientist.

William said...

Conflation and misunderstanding to be generous. Or maybe just very hopeful thinking.... Epigenetics, as I understand it, is simply used to refer to anything that might influence how a cell expresses it's genetic code. I'm distantly familiar with ongoing research looking into this avenue to personalize and individualize medical treatment. But it's very young research at this time. My experience says the social (psudo- in my opinion) "scientists" have a reasonable expectation that, since hugs and love, as well as hate and abuse, can have a direct and measurable impact on the intercellular environment, there may be a real psycho-emotive influence on gene expression... That being said, quality research in that area is.... pending....
So, it's a cool word, with real meaning, and the possibilities are limited only by how well we learn to influence our intracellular environments. But that's also as far as I know we've gotten to date.

William sends.

Ymar Sakar said...

Epicenters of scientific cages where the status quo is unquestioned.