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Disturbing trend: Journalists hype fears when discussing human genetics

Genetics is scary. That’s the popular and entirely regrettable meme that dominates the narrative pushed by “progressive” and hard right critics of rather straightforward genetic research.

One of the biggest perpetrators of that simplistic framing is the Center for Genetics and Society, a US-based precautionary-obsessed NGO that is always quick to invoke “ethical concerns” when it discusses a development in genetics that it reflexively doesn’t approve of, such as many types of gene therapy (which it simplistically labels “eugenics”), synthetic biology, the application of population genetics to medicine or even educational gene screening programs for college students.

CGS loads almost every discussion of genetic breakthroughs with references to “perils” and unattributed concerns about “radical new” genetic techiques. So much for balanced, contextualized discussions about science.

Its latest sly slam is directed at a new IVF technique being debated in Britain that uses three genetic parents to create an embryo. This procedure could help avoid possible mitochondrial disease and could benefit tens of thousands of people who would othersie pass on this debilitating disorder to their children through the maternal line.

CGS’s arcy Darnovsky takes UK regulators to task for—OMG—asking for public input on a new technology. Since when is asking for a reasoned public consultation on an issue bad?

Darnovsky has her skirt in a bunch because eliminating the diseased line would require adding less than 1 per cent of DNA from a healthy donor. About 10 to 20 couples are year are thought likely to be suitable for the treatment.

Is this controversial? Sure. That’s the exact reason why public discussion is a perfectly reasonable proposal. Any technology that involves modifying life is worth a health debate. This occurred, for example, before doctors began transplanting organs from one person to another, or used animal organs in humans, or created artificial tissues and organs. In open societies, open debate is good—which is exactly what the Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is trying to foster.

Appealing for the widest possible response to the consultation, Professor Lisa Jardine, chair of the HFEA, said: “This is very promising for solving the awful problems of mitochondrial disease. But if it is allowed it will affect future generations in perpetuity. It will affect the nature of society to all eternity. Everyone in Britain should have a view on this.”

That’s hardly wild-eyed moralizing. Let’s discuss this publicly. Instead we get rants designed not to foster dialogue, but to kill this nascent technology in its infancy. The CGS is using its bully pulpit not to educate but to intimidate.

Alas, that’s part of a disturbing trend in covering human genetics. We are currently being treated to similar examples of this in coverage of a spate of dramatic recent developments in whole genome sequencing, including new DNA tests for newborns. One can discuss the issue objectively, as Gina Kolata invariably does for the New York Times. Or a journalist can pump controversy, framing new develoments as “dangerous” or “prickly”—as NPR did recently in a piece on genetic sequencing. (However, as Razib Khan notes in his Gene Expression blog, “in defense of NPR they seem like Physical Review Letters in comparison to other media, such as the BBC.”

Rob Stein’s piece rolls out tired clichés, analogizing incremental developments in DNA as Gattaca. And then, without any evidence, he whines and ruminates about public fears about the “power of DNA” and the “alarm bells” it is purportedly setting off—although almost no one is fearful of DNA sequencing, except perhaps hyped-starved journalists.

Thankfully, well-respected science bloggers and journalists are pushing back. Joining Razib is Holly Dunsworth, co-author of the well-received book The Mermaid’s Tale, who discusses the distressing spread of “scare” genetics stories in her blog. They follow a predictable script, she writes: “(1) Start with a headline that demonstrates controversy. (2) Present a story about science-related news (whichdoes not require controversy to be news). (3) End it ever-so-briefly and vaguely with dissent, doubt, outcry or warning.”

It’s the style of advocacy-disguised-as-reporting perfected by CGS and on display in this brief NPR article as well. There are consequences to such anti-science narratives beyond merely purveying superficial journalism, notes Dunsworth, an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island. “… [T]he same fear that I’m trying to mitigate through education is the same fear that some journalists and ethicists seem to be perpetuating if not creating,” she writes.

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