Forum questions science reporting

Speakers at a genetics symposium review journalistic coverage and medical ethics.
Wednesday, March 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sensational news media coverage is contributing to an unrealistic view of the power of human genetics, said Peter Conrad, a speaker at a two-day conference sponsored by the MU sociology department.

This was just one of many issues raised at the Symposium on the Social and Cultural Implications of Human Genetics, which was held Monday and Tuesday at MU’s Memorial Union.

Conrad, a social sciences professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and co-editor of the book “The Double-Edged Helix,” said news media often reported new research but didn’t report later whether that research was shown to be false.

An example that Conrad gave was the coverage of research published in a 1990 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that said there was a gene that could show whether someone was likely to become an alcoholic, which became front-page news in several major newspapers.

Nine months later, the journal published an article that doubted the validity of the earlier “alcoholism gene” research. Stories about this research were buried deep inside most papers, if they were published at all, Conrad said.

“We report when things are found; we never report them when they are lost,” he said.

Such unbalanced coverage leads to “cultural residue,” ideas that are believed by most of a society to be fact, even though they have been shown to be questionable or untrue, Conrad said.

News coverage also leads Americans to be overly optimistic about the effects genetics can have on diseases and other conditions, such as obesity.

“We have known the genes that cause cystic fibrosis for years,” Conrad said. “None of this has actually helped us treat cystic fibrosis.” Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disease that causes the pancreas, lungs and intestines to become clogged with mucus.

Lee Wilkins, an MU journalism professor, told the audience that many of the problems with the coverage of genetics come from the fact that science journalists have trouble distinguishing between cutting-edge science that hasn’t received much scrutiny from other scientists, and established science, which has been verified by a large amount of scientific evidence.

“Trying to figure out where the weight of the evidence goes is a really, really difficult thing,” Wilkins said. “It’s difficult for scientists. It’s even more difficult for journalists. They’re not trained to do this, and they have a lot of stuff to sift through.”

Another issue that was discussed at the symposium were the ethical questions involving genetic counseling, the counseling of individuals on the probabilities, dangers, diagnosis and treatment of inherited diseases.

Bonnie LeRoy, a genetics professor at the University of Minnesota, gave examples of several ethical dilemmas, many of which she experienced. These included parents who wanted to know the sex of their child before it was born, with the intention of aborting the fetus if it was the wrong sex, and blood tests that inadvertently lead to the realization that a husband wasn’t the biological father of a child.

Peter Hall, an MU professor emeritus of sociology who organized the symposium, said the Department of Sociology is planning on holding another symposium for life-science related issues next winter semester. Topics could include brain research, HIV and AIDS or public health in Missouri.

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