Sunday, January 20, 2008

UCSF Scrambles to Undo Damage

As I wrote about earlier this week, UCSF researchers released a study linking a new drug-resistant strain of staph known as MRSA USA300 to the gay community, prompting worldwide headlines that read such 1980s flashback headlines as "FLESH-EATING BUG SPREADS AMONG GAYS" and "EPIDEMIC FEARED--GAYS MAY SPREAD DEADLY STAPH INFECTION TO GENERAL POPULATION". Aside from fueling general fears, the report (and headlines) gave ammunition to anti-gay groups like the Concerned Women of America, who used this latest research as a rallying point for their point of view that homosexuality is sexually deviant behaviour, and these infections are proof of it. And while conventional wisdom says everything becomes a fad 20 years after it was originally around, this is one particular period of the 80s I think we could all do without.

Anyhow, the UCSF researchers actually appeared to realize the damage done, and are waging a media war of their own to undo the inaccurate media reports, misconceptions of what their study said, and undermine groups who are trying to twist their study for other agendas. On Friday, the university and its researchers issued an apology, saying
their release had “contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading.”

“We deplore negative targeting of specific populations in association with MRSA infections or other public health concerns,” it concluded. Dr. Henry Chambers, one of the report’s authors and a professor of medicine at the university, said he was surprised by how the report had been spun.

“I think we were looking at this from a scientific point of view and not projecting any political impact,” he said. “We were focusing on the data. You want to make sure it’s as right as possible and written up in a form that reviewers would understand what you’re trying to say, and do it in a clear manner so it’s not subject to misinterpretation. Which is what happened later, it appears.”

What is interesting about this is the acknowledgment by Dr. Chambers that they did not think outside their own discipline when writing their report or releasing the study. While that limited view and hyper-focus was a common and accepted part of a pre-internet academic community, which relied on published journals to transmit information - guaranteeing that at least the media would have to wait to attempt to stir up sensationalist claims. These days of electronic media, however, lead to a situation of electronic publication of paper results, which is how the UCSF MRSA USA300 report was made public. With that comes instant reporting, instant response, and the emphasis moves away from accuracy and towards sensationalism, an effort to attract the viewer eye. How do you compete with that?

The answer, it seems, is simple. You play the same game. Instead of ignoring the potentials of the internet for rapid information dissemination, for instant response, you do what Dr. William H. Parker, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine did. You fight fire with fire, create your own email messages with accurate information you encourage people to forward on, and make sure when you release your research results to the public, you consider both your academic peers and the lay people who will see the research. This might mean writing a "dumbed down" or accessible version of your report for release to general media outlets - but isn't that preferable to having your research misinterpreted and misreported?


Jennifer Bard said...

This study is being reported widely on Christian radio stations.

Anonymous said...

Pity the damage is already done. Not to make an obvious point, but the people who latched onto that study as proof of homosexuality as a public health risk are pretty much only interested in scientific studies that confirm what they already think, so no amount of apologies will really change that. The charge - gays spread flesh-eating bacteria - will sink into the repertoire of the focus on the family crowd along with a dozen other half-truths and outright lies, like the figure that the life expectancy of homosexuals is only 39 years, and it will stay there for years. No amount of debunking will dislodge it from that little corner of the public sphere.

Which is both depressing and not depressing. It's depressing for the expected reasons - ideology, lack of respect for evidence, bigotry, etc etc - but hey, what's one more half-truth to add to the pile? It's not like it's likely to alarm many people who're not alarmed or convert anyone who's not converted. At least I hope not.

Anonymous said...

What also might help is an understanding that science is a praxis, and is hardly hermetically sealed from civil and political discourse. There's no such thing as "pure science" abstracted from the social, cultural, and political context in which it is inevitably embedded.

The more scientists understand that their practices are inherently socialized, gendered, and politicized, the less likely a PI like Dr. Chambers will be surprised in the future.