genomics & society

Telling Fact from “Non-Fiction”

Posted by Myra I. Roche on April 11, 2012

The previous post which can be found here has generated a couple of comments so far.  One was from Kelly Hogan, one of the contributors to this blog.   Her comment can be found here.  We also received a comment from Phil Harrell of NPR after we sent this email:  The UNC Center for Genomics and Society blog has taken the opportunity of using the story aired April 1, 2012 about the fictitious preschool requiring DNA samples to help our trainees who study ELSI (Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of the Human Genome Project) topics develop critical thinking skills about genetic testing. Entitled: Fact or Fiction: Analyzing Media Reports about Genetic Testing, the post can be found at Thanks for giving us this great example.

He responded:  Hi, my name is Phil Harrell; I’m the producer behind that April Fool’s gag.  This is SUCH a cool use of that bit of silliness!  Thanks for letting us know. 

In this post, I thought it would be helpful to ask some specific questions about the story to which I hope you will have some comments.  I agree with Kelly’s comment  that by building the story using a realistic (at least to “Manhattanites”) setting, the reader/listener is lulled into thinking that the information will be fact not fiction.  Although the line between the two can be blurry (fiction writers also often use realistic settings to lure their readers into caring about the characters), the source (NPR) and the style added to our, perhaps unconscious, expectation that the story was non-fiction if not “fact”.

In the last post, I was most interested in trying to parse out the facts from the fiction specifically in the description of the genetic testing that was proposed.  The description’s vagueness makes it even more difficult.  For example, can fetal DNA be isolated from maternal blood?  If so, what kinds of genetic information can be gleaned from testing it?  Are traits such as “most likely to succeed” better predicted by genetic testing or by handwritten notes in a high school year book?

Hand-in-hand with any story about genetic testing comes the obligatory comment about “ethics”.  What is meant in the story by “extremely ethical?”  Is that kind of like being a little bit pregnant?  What kinds of implications are raised by the statement that the testing “results” will be “delivered” to the school in about a month?  What about the description of this testing as a “clinical tool”?

Lastly, I am still very intrigued by the experiment I did on myself when, after I clearly knew it was an April Fools’ joke, I could readily admit that if I had listened to the story (ok, half-way listened, while driving, for example) I would have “believed” it, in the sense of: yes this could be a report of something really happening.  Perhaps that stems from the ubiquitous outlandish claims about the abilities of genetic testing, many of which would be better classified under another genre; science fiction.  But does listening to a story from human voices somehow deafen us to logical holes in a tale?  Are we more critical evaluators of information if we can read it?   What implications does that have for the effective communication of genetic information, especially in the era of whole genome/exome sequencing?   Tell us what you think.


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