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There are few sectors of society that are virtually defined by their blatant willingness to manipulate literature and images for their personal gain;  among them, totalitarian regimes, self-righteous celebrities, sensationalist journalists, and, perhaps most surprisingly, scientists. 

The photo above is an image of dust, taken under a Scanning Electron Microscope. For as amazing as these instruments are (sometimes capable of magnifying images 500,000 times), they are unable to render images in color. That only happens when we humans go in and artificially add color to them, à la Photoshop.

To be fair, this particular image doesn’t come from a site that proclaims any photographic verisimilitude, and it especially does not consider itself an authority on science. It’s one of those ad-cluttered tabloid wannabes that would have bombarded you with a deluge of pop-ups a few years ago . But it’s not as if they’re unique in their deception–ever since they figured out how to print biology books in color, they’ve been doing this–just Google “microbiology textbooks” for a generous selection of schoolbooks with motley amoeba and microphages unapologetically plastered on their covers. Some are more self-conscious, it seems:  they’ll write “colored image” in small print, as if that alone excuses it. 

Call me persnickety if you must, but when we as a society have come to regard photographs as having some sort of inherent truth to them, as being able to testify impartially to those things that would otherwise elude our observation, there is some sort of ethics to be observed when publishing them. Some would say that this sort of image doctoring does not compare to the likes of Stalin, since its intent does is not to deceive, but rather to entertain. But that sort of argument presents us with a sort of philosophical:  is a lie not a lie if it’s not meant to be a lie? And is this colored dust a lie in the first place? 

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. lexicory
    April 1, 2012 at 1:45 am

    I don’t think that this counts exactly as a “lie”- many scientists enhance photographs to help to observer understand better and to differentiate between certain aspects of the photograph, especially when that photograph is of something very small (such as these particles) or very large (such as galaxies in space.) Many of the pictures we see of our solar system are colored and enhanced by the photographers and scientists. Space is dark and cold, and the brilliant colors we often see in textbooks or computer backgrounds are completely colored by computers and filters. Oftentimes our eyes can’t detect the light and colors in space, even when we’re “there” (such as astronauts.) The infrared light is undetectable with our eyes, and must be enhanced so we can get an idea of what it looks like. To me, this isn’t making a lie, and neither is enhancing the dust particle pictures; it’s simply a way to help us understand and comprehend what we’re seeing when these particles are looked at. Plus, any way for scientists to make science such as this more interesting to people is always a good thing- few people are interested enough as it is.

  2. April 1, 2012 at 2:11 am

    I will agree with Lexi and her comments about the above photograph. Many photographs are enhanced for several reasons. I liked Lexi’s comment about space and the fact that is seems so colorful even though its such a vast open space surrounded by blackness. I don’t believe this is a “lie” either. It’s exactly what Lexi said and the fact that photographs are just enhanced to make us understand what is really going on. I just looked at the picture for a few minutes and connected the objects as to what they seem to look like. It’s pretty interesting that some parts look like forks and straws. The fact that this is a picture of dust is very ironic.

  3. April 1, 2012 at 2:31 am

    But how can the both of you really say that it’s done to make us undertand reality, when, in fact, you seem to acknowledge that it’s rather the creation of a different reality? If, in your own analogy, space is not colorful, then isn’t any colorful representation of it a false one? I think your analogy, lexicory, may be a false one, anyhow: where alteration in the case of space photographs is necessary just to see it, adding color to a scanning electron microscope image is done so merely for enhancement. Just look at all the black-and-white images you see when you search for electron microscope images. So, as for the alteration for education argument, I simply don’t buy it.

    As for the alteration for entertainment aspect, I’m willing to concede that that’s all it is. But when does alteration for entertainments’ sake become deception? It’s an entertaining notion, to be sure, that we landed on the moon (https://uw20sciencemediaandculture.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/the-first-trip-to-the-moon-a-hoax/), but if it turned out to be false, could we excuse it for that factor alone? After all, if we took lexicory’s word for it, we’d have to submit ourselves to the idea that “any way for scientists to make science such as this more interesting to people is always a good thing.”

  4. HK
    April 1, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    I don’t think scientists are lying to us by enhancing electron microscope images with color. Most of the time, it’s as Lexi said, to help us distinguish different aspects of the image, as electron microscopes show us an unfamiliar world. Without color, many of these images woulds be meaningless and abstract. So there’s a practical reason. Other times, you’re right, it is simply to make the image more beautiful or entertaining. So maybe a microphage isn’t really purple, but does it really take away from the science to represent it colorfully even if we don’t know for sure what color it is? It’s a bit of a slippery-slope logical fallacy to compare electron microscope image enhancement with a lunar landing hoax.

    • April 1, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Your points are well taken. But, with regards to the moon landing analogy, it was a slippery slope argument, to be sure, but that alone doesn’t render it fallacious. It was a rhetorical response to lexicory’s claim that “any way for scientists to make science such as this more interesting to people is always a good thing.” It served to illustrate that the fact that coloring the images was done to attract people to science should not in itself excuse what we might otherwise consider deceptive–if, of course, we would consider it deceptive at all.

  5. April 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I also agree with Lexicory, although I do see some valid points about enhancement being deceptive. I think that the enhancement is only deceptive if there is no note with the photo detailing that color has been added or something enhanced for the purpose of reader/viewer clarity and understanding (or entertainment as has been mentioned). But the enhancement itself is not a real issue, because like Lexicory and zg11 have mentioned it helps us understand or see different aspects of a photograph we cannot see with our human eyes but in reality do exist.

  6. April 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    There are many ways to interpret science, and using Photoshop or instagram is just one of them.Through these programs, photos can be manipulated to help stimulate interest in science and portray science as an interesting and unique study that is not limited to just one category. Although manipulating photos might attempt to illustrate a more inviting concept, a chemistry text book is the same as any other chemistry textbook – the information is the exact same. Coloring images helps outline concepts and clarify certain diagrams or scientific processes that occur. Some people struggle with studying a black and white diagrams, and adding color certainly helps many students identify what is what and also provides an element of clarification to a confusing subject. Speaking from personal experience, I prefer colored images because they help me identify and label certain figures on scientific diagrams and I ultimately gain a better understanding of the topic. I realize that those diagrams do not depict the topic being studied with 100% accuracy, but it does help me understand and memorize the concept(s) much easier. As long as people realize that the images are not the exact images of what you will encounter, I believe using color to enhance the subject material and provide clarification is a unique and creative approach to teaching and learning science.

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