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?Why do people get sick? Science close to answer?

Yeah, right. That?s the assessment on the just-published hapmap papers from a headline writer at NorthJersey.com, the Web site for several newspapers in the region. And the headline writer is not alone; the story that follows is pretty uncritical too. This reflexive applause?and there were other enthusiastic media reports about this latest analysis of the human genome--generates ridiculous expectations of immediate cures. That?s bad news for scientists who can?t possibly meet them. It?s lou

By | October 28, 2005

Yeah, right. That?s the assessment on the just-published hapmap papers from a headline writer at NorthJersey.com, the Web site for several newspapers in the region. And the headline writer is not alone; the story that follows is pretty uncritical too. This reflexive applause?and there were other enthusiastic media reports about this latest analysis of the human genome--generates ridiculous expectations of immediate cures. That?s bad news for scientists who can?t possibly meet them. It?s lousy for the reputation of science journalism too. The reader gets no hint that there are many questions about how useful a hapmap approach will be for illuminating complex disorders?or how long it will take for hapmapping to affect clinical practice. The perfect antidote to this unsound optimism is supplied by the hapmappers themselves. Simply consult paragraph 3 of the main paper?s Conclusions section. No doubt few will read it, and even fewer will tape a photocopy above their computers?although all genomics researchers and science journalists certainly should. There the researchers lay on their cautions, stating: ?rigorous standards of statistical significance will be needed to avoid a flood of false-positive results,? and urging ?conservatism and restraint in the public dissemination and interpretation of such studies, especially if non-medical phenotypes are explored.? That?s an oblique reference to the embarrassing history of genetic association studies, especially association studies in the fraught field of behavioral genetics. How many times has ?the? gene for alcoholism been found?and then lost when subsequent research failed to confirm? Or genes for depression, and schizophrenia, and sexual orientation, and cognitive ability, and personality traits? Lots. Yes, genes are significant in these and all those other complex traits and in disorders like cancer and cardiovascular disease. But figuring out which genes, and exactly what they do, has frustrated a lot of really smart people for a really long time. It seems unlikely those frustrations are entirely at an end. The hapmap approach may speed progress on complex trait studies. Let us hope also for progress in two other areas that, the researchers remind us, have sometimes been lacking in past research on complex traits: sound statistics and conservative interpretation?by journalists as well as scientists.
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