Rules for journalists reporting on genetics

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

It appears that University of Minnesota biologist and blogger PZ Myers has finally seen a few too many “x gene linked to y condition” stories. He snapped, writing that “I just get so annoyed at this tendency for the media to focus on simplistic discrete causes that are split into a black & white nature or nurture false dichotomy.” He also felt compelled to write a few rules for journalists, as scientist-bloggers so often do.

Two of the four rules cover subjects which should be old hat for most AHCJ members, namely “understand science and causality” and “put news and numbers in context,” and it’s not until he focuses specifically on genetics that the list really shines.

For the first rule, he uses a story headlined “Male infertility gene discovered” as a teaching example. The emphasis is mine.

Do not describe genes by the disease they cause when broken. This is a gene that contributes to male fertility. There is no infertility gene. If a man has a missing, damaged, or mutant form of this fertility gene, he may have problems conceiving children.

And, for the final rule, he builds on the basic, well-trod ideas of causality and context to provide a framework for interpreting gene discovery stories.

Learn this simple principle: genes affect how your body responds to environmental factors. Finding an allele associated with a particular physiological state does not mean you have described a cause. We also need to know how that gene acts, what triggers a particular pattern of expression, and what the gene changes in the cell. There are forms of genes that only have deleterious (or advantageous) effects given certain conditions; that effect must be described as a consequence of both the gene and a certain background or environment.

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