genomics & society

Fact or Fiction: Analyzing Media Reports about Genetic Testing

Posted by Myra I. Roche on April 5, 2012

One goal of creating this Center for Genomics and Society blog was to encourage communication within and between the Centers for Excellence in ELSI Research (CEERs).  We welcome members of the other NIH-sponsored CEERs (Case Western Reserve University, Columbia University, Duke University, Oregon Health Sciences University, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Washington)  to our virtual conversations and hope to hear from all of you.  We invite you to contribute by submitting comments and/or writing posts.  The “About” page tells how to get started.

The topic of genetic testing has been extensively covered by the media but it can sometimes be challenging to sort out fact from fiction.  One tactic is to obtain information from credible sources.  But that technique backfired for some readers of a recent NPR report.  Usually a very credible source, NPR reported a story about a prestigious new preschool on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that plans to require their tiny applicants to submit a DNA sample in order to be considered for admission.  Why did this story raise some hackles?  Read the article and the comments here and decide for yourself.  It is even more fun, and, interestingly much more convincing, to listen to it, even though essentially the same words are used.  Try it here yourself and tell us if you agree or not.  The familiar sound effect at the very end serves as the biggest clue.

Suspicious readers/listeners, however, also noted the clever, tongue-in-cheek touches such as the name of the Headmaster (Headmistress?), Rebecca Unsinn (check your German dictionary), the name of an expectant couple who hope to secure their child a place in the school, Elizabeth Tauschen, (include an umlaut over the “u”) and her husband, Mr. Tromper (try a French dictionary this time) and the name of the pre school “Porsafillo Pre” (an anagram).  The April 1st proposed start of this Brave New Preschool Policy confirmed, for some, that the story was just an elaborate April Fools’ (or Porsafillo Pre) ruse.  But read the comments and you will see that, not only did many initially believe the story, they were outraged by it.  But not as outraged as they were when they found out they had been tricked.  Apparently, it’s not nice to fool NPR followers.

But if the conscious planting of clues in the choices of names wasn’t enough to uncover the ruse, (which, again, is not so obvious in the audio version) the description of the proposed genetic testing certainly strained all credibility.  But an eagerness to believe, coupled with a tenuous hold on the reality of genetic testing, only serves to illustrate why DTC companies continue to make money.  While the lesson may be to always read the fine print, as discussed in a previous post, this is not a viable option for those with limited genomic health literacy.

Just as the rest of the NPR story cleverly mixes both credible and nonsensical components, their description of genetic testing contains a similar mix.

According to the story, “scientists” will be “looking for genetic markers that indicate future excellence — things like intelligence, confidence and other leadership traits.  Elizabeth (Tauschen) is 24 weeks pregnant…From Tauschen’s blood test, scientists will isolate her unborn baby’s genetic makeup then pass their findings to the admissions office at Porsafillo.  About a month later, results will be delivered to the school.   Ms. Unsinn says: “This is not unethical at all. If anything, it’s extremely ethical. This is now no longer a subjective decision,” she says. “This is a clinical test that can show us how a child will perform throughout its life.”

So which parts of this description are fact and which are fiction?   Tell us what you think by posting a comment to this post.

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3 Responses to “Fact or Fiction: Analyzing Media Reports about Genetic Testing”

  1. Kelly Hogan said

    Funny. I didn’t have the pleasure of listening to this or reading it before I was already alerted to the “Porsafillo Pre” nature of this. Facts?
    1. I know a few Brooklynites with young kids– there is a reputation for being overly anxious about getting their kids into schools and many parents go to extraordinary means to ensure it. (note– the story did not say parents cmplained about the affordability of an applicatoin process like this). New Yorkers think about applying to high schools the way the rest of the country thinks about applying to college. The setting for this story made it believable.
    2. Genomic testing is being used more widely. A test, such as a direct to consumer personal test has a turn-around time of about a month. Thus the timing of the story (published in 2012 with realistic waiting times) made this believeable.

  2. martha k said

    Fact:
    Fetal DNA can be extracted from the mother’s bloodstream and tested. But it seems to require some genome-wide analysis to make sure you are looking at fetal DNA and not the mother’s, something that would clearly be cost prohibitive in an example like the April fool’s gag.
    Here’s a study link: http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/2/61/61ra91.abstract
    And a related article from 2010: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2010/12/fetal-dna-sequenced-from-mothers.html

  3. Myra I. Roche said

    You are right, Martha. Fetal DNA can be captured from maternal blood. Here is a link that describes the current clinical application. http://www.nature.com/gim/journal/v14/n3/full/gim201173a.html

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