Saturday, January 29, 2011

Looking for examples of BAD genetics journalism

The students in my introductory genetics class have an unusual assignment - each of them has to find an error in the reporting of genetics and write a letter to the editor about it.  They're not very skilled at finding examples of such errors (and I'm afraid I haven't given them much time), so I'm asking the twitterverse for help.  If you've recently wrung your hands about some egregious error in the reporting of some advance in DNA or genetics research, we'd be very grateful if you would post a link (or other identifying info) in the comments.

Here's some more information about the assignment:

The students are asked to find somewhere in the media where an incorrect statement is made about a genetic topic. This could be in a tabloid, newspaper or magazine, on television, or in a news-media online source.  (General blog posts are not eligible, though media-affiliated ones are.)

These students are only part-way through their first genetics course, so the error needs to be pretty basic.  Examples I've given them include
  • describing genome sequencing as 'cracking the genetic code'
  • describing a bacterium with arsenic in its DNA as 'a new form of life'
  • credulously reporting about the predicted effect of what turns out to be an imaginary gene
  • claiming that gene A causes behaviour B, when it only slightly increases the probability of the behaviour.
The students write a draft letter to the editor (polite, concise, in correct English), and then do a complex peer review of each others' drafts, using Calibrated Peer Review (CPR).  (UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology is setting this up for us on a trial basis, as nobody here has used it before.)  They then polish their letter, submit it for final grading, and (we hope) also send it to its destination.

The present class is only 40 students, but if this assignment works well (and the CPR works well) we'd like to run it for 500 students next Fall.  This would lead to a barrage of letters to the editor complaining about the poor quality of their genetics coverage, and might even lead to an improvement in future reporting.


deevybee said...

I assume I should not say what I think is problematic but leave it to your students to work out?
DM me if you need more info.

deevybee said...

Here's another one:

Raychelle said...

This doesn't sound quite like what you're looking for, but the "Prosecutor's Fallacy" is an egregious example of DNA stats reporting. Reporters fall victim to it as well:

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