The art of crafting headlines

Today's Google alert for genetics provides over 30 headlines from online services and newspapers around the world trying to get people to read an article about Kaiser--the big insurance company--and its plans to build a monster DNA database from genetic material donated by 2 million people in Northern California.

As often happens, the headlines vary from the plain facts to the extraordinary promises we often see in the field of genetics:

"Kaiser launches genetics study" is the simple title in, the Washington Post, Business Week, Houston Chronicle and others.

"Decades long study to probe a range of diseases" states WIFE-TV in Indiana, BruneiDirect in New York, and the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

Some sources are more direct in how the study impacts people: "Kaiser asks patients to donate DNA" from Therapeutics Daily tells people that--if they are not patients with Kaiser insurance--they will not be asked to donate DNA.

And then we have the sensational: "Kaiser takes on huge study to help cure killer diseases" from KCBS in California, "Kaiser hopes to unravel some of the biggest medical mysteries" from The Money Times in India, and "New Kaiser Permanente research aims to reveal genetic and environmental causes deadly and disabling diseases" from

So, which would you read, if any? And, would you believe 50,000 people or 2 million--both of which appear in news articles.

As a geneticist, I'm thrilled that such work is progressing and will not take money from genetic research funded by NIH or other publicy funded organizations. If I were an optimist, I would imagine all kinds of new and important information about the links between genetics and the environment. The landmark Framingham heart study has added greatly to our knowledge on heart conditions--including the extraordinary idea that women and men are treated differenly when they have a heart condition.

But, as many of you know, I tend to be a pessimist. I look at the "what-ifs" and the potentially detrimental implications of work of this type, such as:

Discrimination against people with "bad" genes or "bad" habits--in insurance and on the job and possibly elsewhere

The release of genetic information from tens of thousands when someone has their laptop stolen with subject data

The remarkable conclusion that genes and the environment interact in determining our health--at the cost of possibly higher insurance premiums across the country

Enough, enough. Such studies are inevitable and your DNA profile will soon be as private as your fingerprint before long. Someone's going to do the DNA studies; it might as well be a company that also holds lots of medical information.  Can you remember how important the 10-year census is to your life? Well, it will go on no matter what you and your POSLQ wish.

As you read about the Kaiser plan--and I hope you do--form your own opinions. And then, post them as comments to this blog. While you're at it, do you live in Northern California or have any relatives that do? Or have you ever been treated in a Kaiser facility? Hmmmm, maybe you're more involved than you thought.

Marie Godfrey, PhD


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