May 20, 2003
reportage & complexity

I just had a call from a woman from the New Yorker who's putting together content for an "advertorial" supplement on breast cancer. Nothing like finding myself in limbo land between ads for drug companies and editorial content--even if it's in the New Yorker.

She was talking/thinking/typing at the same time (in fact, she even forgot to introduce herself until I asked her a couple of minutes later). This makes me uneasy because misstatements are easy to make in science reporting. It's not that we should subject the general public to the stultifying prose that you see in a scientific journal, but I think science writers have to be good filters; and being a good filter entails getting the complexity of the full scientific story first and then simplifying. If you simplify right off the bat, you're going to get something wrong. I think I'm pretty good at explaining complex concepts, providing that I'm given time to explain them, but the reporters I've talked to always seem to be in a rush.

Hey, there are patients out there, we want to get things right.

Anyway, she wanted me to say how many genes we require for our predictive models. I tried to explain that we shouldn't pin ourselves to a small subset of genes because breast cancer is complex, and different features of the tumor's behavior are going to involve different groups of genes. She retorted that NKI/Bernards/Friend got down to 70 genes, and that Chuck Perou got down to a couple of hundred.

I guarantee that 70 genes will never tell the whole story for breast cancer.

Posted by erich at May 20, 2003 07:28 PM
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