On bad genetics reporting

This short article on the Independent’s website may not be the worst piece of genetics reporting ever, but given its brevity it may well take a new record for the density of errors and misconceptions. (To save you the trouble of hunting down the article it’s actually referring to, which of course is not linked, it’s this online article in Molecular Psychiatry).

Let’s start with the headline:

Sleeping is all in the genes

No. Data from twin studies suggest that the length of time people sleep for is around 44% heritable – that is, around 44% of the variation in this trait is due to inherited (and presumably mostly genetic) factors. The article being discussed in the piece provides no new information about the heritability of this trait.

Scientists have found the reason why some people need more sleep than others lies in their genes.

Scientists have found that one of the reasons people sleep longer than others is possibly a variant in a non-coding region of the gene ABCC9. Even if this association is real (and the evidence in the article is less than compelling), it explains just 5% of the variation in sleep length between people.

A survey of more than 10,000 people …

A survey of 4,251 people found the association between sleep length and the ABCC9 variant. This association was not replicated in a separate set of 5,949 individuals. The authors have a potential explanation for this lack of replication (based on the season in which the sleep length measurements were collected), and then did a post hoc re-analysis of their combined sample accounting for season that produced positive results.

showed those carrying the gene ABCC9, present in one in five of us,

The gene ABCC9 is present in all of us (hell, it’s even present in fruitflies). However, there is a genetic variation in one region of the ABCC9 gene, and one version of this variation is present in 17.3% of Europeans.

slept longer than the average of eight hours. The finding, which is published in Molecular Psychiatry,

This is true! The article is indeed published in Molecular Psychiatry. Well done.

could explain why Margaret Thatcher only needed four hours a night as Prime Minister while Albert Einstein was said to sleep for 11.

We do not know the genotype at this variant in either Margaret Thatcher or Albert Einstein. However, given the very small effects of this variant on the variation in sleep length within the population, we can say unambiguously that this variant does not explain the difference in sleepy-time between these two famous individuals.

Time is tight, and deadlines wait for no man. We should forgive the author of this piece for his more subtle errors – but there is no excuse for the “gene present in one in five of us” blunder.

Well, at least the headlines haven’t descended into complete populist madness and screamed about “the Thatcher gene”. OH NO.

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14 Responses to “On bad genetics reporting”

  • That’s hilarious!!!!

  • great work (your´s not the independent´s).

  • So what should they say, keeping to the standards of journalism?

    I’d start by changing that first sentence to “Scientists have found [a] reason why some people need more sleep than others lies in [a variant in the ABCC9 gene].

    This gets rid of the “gene for X” meme. It also at least makes a down payment on the notion that there are multiple reasons.

    The big problem is that this isn’t a good lede because the hook, sleep variation, isn’t in the first half dozen or so words. Fortunately, the headline supplies the hook, and the headline writer would probably have come up with a more suitable headline if the story was closer to accurate

  • Dan, we’ve had our disagreements and doubtless will again, but this is absolutely lovely.

  • John Roth: They shouldn’t have reported on this at all, because (unless you write a bad article about it) it is not very interesting except to specialists.

    They should have covered some really interesting genetics instead, and if that meant they needed to find a writer who actually knew genetics, rather than getting a general science journalist who’s expected to cover everything from astronomy to zoology to bang out a summary… then they should have done that.

    As for the hook, a good writer can make anything interesting, but only if they really know the topic.

  • John Holloway

    Fantastic post Dan. I’ll definitely put this in front of marketing next time they try to ‘improve’ a press release on a paper!

  • a computer program will make british tabloid writers redundant in the near future….

  • Dan – your comment on density of errors cracked me up good. What an article indeed!

  • michael lerman

    I see nothing wrong with the short note in “The Independent” on the duration of sleep. It is a short note written by a lay journalist for a lay British readership. The message taken home is that the gene ABCC9 may determine the duration of sleeps in humans. Maybe the numbers in this note are not precise but that’s not the case.
    I remember a story of a young NYT reporter given the task of writing about a newly found in somebodies attic supposedly an auto portrait by Rembrandt, she spend a year studying paintings by the Flamand school.
    Michael Lerman, M.D., Ph.D.

  • Michael Lerman, the problem with such a mistake-riddled article is that it assumes that the lay reader knows nothing about genetics and it’s not worth explaining in the least.

    The Independent wouldn’t dream, like any other major news outlet, wouldn’t dream of letting a journalist with no knowledge of economics cover the stock market. Why does science have to be different?

    The lay British reader could also be a theoretical physicist or an electrical engineer or software programmer – all educated people who know nothing of genetics.

    Nature News manages to report quality science in relatively simple language. Just because people don’t know any better doesn’t make it legitimate to report mistakes and perpetuate ignorance of science.

  • Daniel MacArthur

    Very well said, Yoni.

    Michael, the problems with the piece go beyond “the numbers” being “not precise” – it perpetuates well-known and egregious misconceptions about genetics (e.g. genetic determinism, the idea of “a gene for” a complex trait). As Yoni notes, it is perfectly possible for journalists to convey complex genetic topics to a lay audience in a relatively short piece without resorting to such insulting over-simplifications: Erika Check Hayden at Nature is indeed a good example of good genetics reporting, as is the superb Mark Henderson at The Times.

  • Good post. Can I make the point that Scientists are as much too blame as the journalists. Time after time a scientific story in the media has its origins with PR agencies, and University Communication Departments. These paid for services “sex up” a story to raise profile for the institution involved. Good science then becomes poor reporting.

  • The interesting short article on independent’s website was “really” short. I am just curious on whether it made it to print and which corner was it on to fill some left over ad space :)

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