Dear Dr. Grumpy
To defend my profession:
You scientists DO understate the results of studies to "may possibly". It's not until you see lots of people die of something called "cancer" that you state the disease "isn't even a single disease- it's hundreds."
And a good scientist needs to have his or her nails removed without painkillers before one will state that, "XYZ causes ABC." How long did it take to figure out smoking causes cancer? That too much fat is not good for the heart?
That leaves Marty Anyreader wondering what the heck cancer is, and why, after throwing all that money at the problem, medical folks can't cure Cousin Tillie's breast cancer.
And you expect us journalists to explain that? We, who were the champion spitballers in the back of the room while you guys were soaking up all the teacher's attention? The ones who didn't take a single science course or even (gasp) statistics and probability in college?
Now, multiply that problem throughout the population of newspaper readers and television viewers. You have less than 30 seconds to explain a complicated scientific discovery to Marty Anyreader before he loses interest. So, editors think they have to "punch up" the story. Heaven forbid that he/she/it misses the Cure For Cancer!
Remember, as a journalist, our understanding of the basic science involved is sketchy at best. Readers/viewers is less than that (I know there are PhDs and the like out there, but ...)
Anyway, I think you see the problem. It's like explaining to Ms. Anypatient that she has Glioblastoma Multiforme. You have more time than we do. A little more at least. And your patient has more interest
My suggestion (besides requiring basic science for journalism students) is that scientists keep writing for other scientists. The research is valuable even if it does wind up in "Genetics Research and Lab Decor." However, when the article is published know that there will be a writer from "Dead Rat Weekly" who is having "Pulitzerchosis" and is itching to be the next Woodward or Bernstein.
In defense of my hungry colleague: Dr. Hodgkin's results, no matter how obscure, still suggest SOMETHING that might stop the cancer's spread.
To a scientist that is promising. Worth looking at further. I don't know if the result in the math sense is a significant number, but to a layperson, it is interesting. To someone with ovarian cancer or a loved one with ovarian cancer, it's a lifeline.
Maybe (or maybe not) it's something that will treat human ovarian cancer. But at least it will add to our store of knowledge.
But remember what I said about the science background of most journalists. To Reporter Hungry and Editor Avarice, this is big stuff. So it gets headlines.
And then doctors get women and their families wanting to know why YOU aren't using Dr. Hodgkin's' latest advance.
There is your audience and your "translator" to the masses. Good luck.
Dr. Grumpy responds:
Thank you for your letter. I appreciate you sharing your side of the issue.
I agree with you. All research, and every breakthrough, has to start somewhere. People focus on Penicillin being discovered by accident, but ignore that those situations are exceedingly rare. The majority of medical breakthroughs take a lot of time, patience, and money.
The trouble isn't in the research, it's how people make a huge leap of illogic from preliminary findings in non-humans, and suddenly want that treatment TODAY! A lot of treatments that looked remarkably good in preliminary stuff (look up Dimebon if you wish) have later fizzled in large scale human trials.
One topic that I did NOT touch on is the number of times you guys are screwed over by an unscrupulous Dr. Hodgkin. It wasn't really the main theme of the post, but I could have written this instead:
"Let's say Dr. Hodgkin does some research on rat ovarian cells. He finds that in 25% of rats with ovarian cancer, there is a gene that may be able to stop cancer spread.
He gets published in the obscure journal Genetics Research and Lab Decor. But no one pays attention. And to continue his research, he needs money. And he'd also like a promotion. But his stuff is obscure enough that he doesn't get a grant.
So he calls Mr. Hungry Reporter, and "leaks" his results in a way that makes them sound far more promising, and immediate. Mr. Reporter isn't a scientist, and has to take the story at face value. So he publishes what Dr. Hodgkin told him, making it sound like the cure of ovarian cancer is close.
Now the attention is on Dr. Hodgkin. His university is in the spotlight, and suddenly wants to put money into his program (after all, they don't want to look like they're ignoring a cure for cancer), so they solicit donors and promote Dr. Hodgkin. When his research is, in fact, anything but groundbreaking. He's simply manipulated the media in a way that is unethical (or pretty damn close)."