The New York Times features a story on the Chinese astronaut's launch aboard the Shenzhou 5 (which means "Divine Vessel") and a report that centenarians "have larger than average cholesterol-carrying molecules," which keep their arteries clear and healthy.7
On the radio, an ad for DuPont celebrates that "The fundamental understanding of life is something that didn't exist 15 years ago."8 I websurf, starting with MSN, where a banner ad tells me Pletal is my "claudication solution"9-whatever that means. Just a click away, WebMD reports "recommendations for breast cancer screening" from a panel of experts at the Cleveland Clinic: All women should have an annual mammogram starting at age 40.10
Just as I'm about to turn off the radio, Don Imus shoots a skeptical arrow at the Chinese astronaut: "How do we know those lying bastards got the guy up in the air?"
7. Centenarians: Well reported. The science behind this story was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, which, of course, doesn't guarantee its truth but does mean it has been peer-reviewed: vetted. The Times covered the study's method (comparing centenarians and their children to a control group of 60- and 70-year-olds); pointed out the unknowns, such as genetic links and the effect on "good cholesterol"; and cautioned against overemphasizing the significance of the findings.
8. Fundamental understanding of life: Puffed up. This corporate-identity ad, promoting DuPont and the New York Stock Exchange, vaguely suggests that genetics has profoundly deepened our understanding of life. Which of course it has. But the ring of finality here is meaningless. The life process is far from decoded.
9. Claudication: Oversold. The prescription drug Pletal can alleviate the limping and pain old people get from arterial disease (i.e., claudication). However, Pletal does not work for everyone, and, as a potential patient learns on the company's Web site, it can kill patients with congestive heart failure. "Your claudication solution" is what happens when complex therapies are reduced to slogans; it implies the drug will help everyone who needs it. No drug works for everyone.
10. Mammogram: Incomplete and potentially dangerous. Hypothetically, if all women got annual mammograms starting at age 20, we would catch even more breast cancers early. Doctors don't recommend doing so because we'd get too many false positives-resulting in a rash of unnecessary biopsies and worry, even lumpectomies. The critical public health question is, When does the risk of cancer outweigh the harm of false positives? While many doctors agree with the age-40 recommendation, others think 40 is still too young and that 50 is the right average age. The most important guidelines, they say, are a woman's family medical history and her personal tolerance for risk.
The breast cancer screening advice I clicked through to is a good example of how media-even careful media -simplify complex issues in order to give advice. Wait! I'm not allowed to call it advice because the site's legal disclaimer states that WebMD "does not provide medical advice." Whether or not "recommendations" and "advice" are synonyms is a moot point: In this case,
the gray was rendered in black and white. Concerning whether women should have annual mammograms starting at age 40 or (as some experts believe) at age 50, the WebMD site acknowledges that "not all medical institutions and advocacy groups agree," but then comes down firmly on the age-40 standard. Further clicking does not easily reveal the full degree to which this
recommendation remains controversial.
Oddly, the Imus joke about the Chinese astronaut embodied the sort of attitude Americans could profit from in a world of promiscuous science claims. His "How do we know?" is a demand for fundamental evidence. (To answer the question: The Chinese launch and return were well documented, although some of the video was delayed by the Chinese government until it knew the taikonaut was safe on the ground.)