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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« An Interview With A GSK Shanghai Scientist | Main | How Much to Develop a Drug? An Update. »

August 12, 2013

Cancer and Autism: Slow Down

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Posted by Derek

The New York Times had a rather confusing story the other day about the PTEN gene, autism, and cancer. Unfortunately, it turned into a good example of how not to explain a subject like this, and it missed out (or waited too long) to explain a number of key concepts. Things like "one gene can be responsible a lot of different things in a human phenotype", and "genes can have a lot of different mutations, which can also do different things", and "autism's genetic signature is complex and not well worked out, not least because it's such a wide-ranging diagnosis", and (perhaps most importantly, "people with autism are not doomed to get cancer".

Let me refer you to Emily Willingham at Forbes, who does a fine job of straightening things out here. I fear that what can happen at the Times (and other media outlets as well) is that when a reporter scrambles a science piece, there's no one else on the staff who's capable of noticing it. So it just runs as is.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Cancer | The Central Nervous System


COMMENTS

1. samadamsthedog on August 12, 2013 10:42 AM writes...

I didn't notice when I first read it that the NYT article is by Gina Kolata. I did notice that it wasn't well done, and the Forbes article is really good. But I remember reading her when she was writing for Science News under the moniker Gina Bari Kolata back in the late '70. Her articles impressed me then as paradigms of clarity. I'm surprised and disappointed, given my past impression of her, at the degree of oversimplification and even sensationalism that this article of hers evinces. I wonder whether writing for the popular press (if the NYT can be termed "popular") is responsible.

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2. RKN on August 12, 2013 11:31 AM writes...

From her wiki page: "Kolata studied molecular biology as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology"

Hate to have to play the credential-ism card, but I did more than "study" mol-bio, I got a bloody PhD in the field. And in this economy NYT, let me tell you, I'll write you sensational articles all day long, at half the price!

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3. Biff on August 13, 2013 6:54 AM writes...

This seems as good of a time as any to mention Michael Chrichton's "Gell-Mann Amnesis Effect." As I gain more and more exposure to how news is created and disseminated, I grow more and more convinced that Chrichton's observation was extraordinarily accurate:

'Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know. That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say.'

(Source of quote: A talk by Chrichton given at the International Leadership Forum in La Jolla, April 26, 2002, titled "Why Speculate?" The text is archived at http://bit.ly/167cU1W )

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4. NoDrugsNoJobs on August 14, 2013 11:38 AM writes...

#3 Biff - I agree completely though it wasn't until I got out of grad school and started working in the pharma industry what you describe. When I started reading the many articles on our industry I learned they were wrong about so many things. Then slowly the lightbulb began to go off above my head and I thought that they were probably also wrong about many other areas that I was not so familiar with - I've become incredibly skeptical of our media in general.

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5. Biff on August 14, 2013 11:49 AM writes...

Re. my comment #3, it was written in a jet-lagged stupor after two hours of sleep in a twenty-four hour period. "Chrichton" should be "Crichton," of ourse. When I wrote the comment, I knew that Crichton's name looked wrong, but it hurt my head too much to double check it and correct it. I'm still jet-lagged, so I wonder what work I do today will be cringeworthy tomorrow. Funny how the brain works.

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