Science journalists: no more simplistic pseudo-genetics, please

A few articles published in the newspapers today have hit me right in a few sore spots, making me crankier than usual and compelling me to write a few new rules for science journalists. Pay attention.

This first story is titled Male infertility gene discovered. It does an OK job of describing the actual study and even gets into the nuances farther in, but the lead is awful.

Rule #1: 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.

Rule #2: Get some perspective. Deeper in, the story casually mentions that only 4% of men with fertility problems have a mutant allele of this gene. This is a non-story. Hundreds (at least) of genes contribute to fertility. What this is is a routine tale of a clinical observation, part of normal, ordinary science, that may be the grist of the scientific mill, but isn’t worth a superficial news item about one datum. How about writing a story about genetic factors in general that affect fertility? That would at least have some context. As is, this is an inflated press release.

Here’s another news item: New study claims ADHD has ‘direct genetic link’. It’s far less impressive than the headline suggests.

Rule #3: Comprehend the science first. This study does not show a direct link. Instead, it finds that children diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to have a spectrum of diverse genetic abnormalities. Cause and effect are not demonstrated. Specific ADHD-related genes are not identified. It shows a correlation between one measure of physical health and another measure of neurological properties.

Rule #4: 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.

There. I feel better getting that off my chest. 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.