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Message (too well) received
03-17-2006
by Randall C. Willis  |  Email the author
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As you no doubt will have read and heard many times, the world suffered a great loss recently when long-time stem cell advocate Dana Reeve, wife of Christopher Reeve, succumbed to lung cancer. Aside from the laudatory comments about her advocacy work and her devotion to her wheel-chair bound husband, I was struck most by the reaction of the media and general public to the fact that she died of lung cancer despite never having been a smoker.
 
It appears that in our efforts over the last four decades to warn people about the hazards of smoking, we have inadvertently over-simplified the message to the point that people believed that a smoke-free life was a guarantee against lung cancer. This raises the question of how many people have missed or ignored the early signs of impending disease under the false belief of invulnerability. We will, of course, never know.
 
The recent attention also forces me to ask what other messages we have over-simplified into irrelevance. As someone involved in communications and more particularly the media, I am often put in a situation where I have to simplify or "streamline" the facets of a story into a piece of editorial that can be easily digested by a wide audience. In doing so, I walk a fine line between providing a coherent story that covers the most salient facts and one that glosses over complex concepts with sweeping generalizations that lack meaningful substance.
 
As an editor of a trade publication, and previously of a peer-reviewed publication, I have the luxury of writing for a fairly narrow audience that has at least a passing familiarity with most of the technical and corporate concepts I describe. But as communications manager for a nonprofit research program in a Toronto teaching hospital, I needed to translate complex bioinformatics and systems biology concepts to lay media in the hopes of getting widespread coverage of our work.
 
To do so, I tried to explain our main database as being the "Google of biological information" and compared a new pictographic language devised to describe protein characteristics in terms of Egyptian hieroglyphs. If I could have fit in a dinosaur, I would have.
 
Each piece of scientific esoterica brought with it new challenges and took me closer to the edge of what even I felt was an acceptable analogy. Luckily, the resources and technologies I was describing didn't impact human health, so I felt that I had a lot more leeway in my descriptions.
 
As we have seen, however, our attempts to link disease and behavior may not be as benign as we first thought and we will all have to remain vigilant as we walk the increasingly finer line between spinning a story and dumbing it down. Someone's life may literally hang in the balance.

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