Sunday, November 30, 2008

Juliet Macur Buys Snake Oil Story, And Then Sells It To Page One.

Today's page one story on a new genetics test -- one that supposedly helps parents of young children determine their athletic potential -- turns out to be little more than a free advertisement for a company that doesn't even begin business until Monday morning, and whose product probably doesn't even work.

Under the guise of doing a story on genetics testing, reporter Juliet Macur falls prey to the promise of a new product not even yet available on the market, let alone used by anyone in her story: a $149 test that promises to predict a child's "natural athletic strengths." Most of Macur's 1700-word story focuses on the new product from a company called Atlas Sports Genetics, which as it turns out is nothing more than a flashy website. Even the scientific basis for the test -- a gene called ACTN3 -- has been discredited by doctors at respected academic instituions.

But those facts only surface after Macur's page-one piece jumps to page 34. In the six paragraphs that make it onto page one, no mention is made of any doubts about the test's efficacy, except an acknowledgement by "Atlas executives" that "their test has limitations."

Even after the jump, Macur's story only devotes only a few hundred words to the major misgivings expressed by scientists about ACTN3 testing, and then returns to devote most of her attention to the test itself, taking it seriously enough to interview a sports ethicist about the implications for sports-crazed parents, and to let Atlas executives go on at length about the test's potential.

But a close reading of Macur's reporting casts doubt on the entire enterprise, and raises questions about the story's very existence.

After mentioning that "some experts say ACTN3 testing is in its infancy and virtually useless," Macur goes on to quote two doctors -- one at the University of California, San Diego, the other at the University of Maryland -- doubting the possibility that the test would indicate any real sports potential. One of them called it "an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil." The other, while acknowledging the test's potential to be popular, said flatly: “The idea that it will be one or two genes that are contributing to the Michael Phelpses or the Usain Bolts of the world I think is shortsighted because it’s much more complex than that."

Macur's reporting on the studies that first linked ACTN3 and athletic performance also makes clear the dubious nature of Atlas's enterprise. Despite a 2003 study that identified the connection, Macur notes that the performance a successful Olympic long jumper -- who had no copies of the genetic variant identified in the test -- suggests that environment, training and nutrition may play as significant a role as genetics in predicting athletic achievement.

Even Carl Foster, a co-author of the original study who directs the human performance laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, acknowledges that no one yet understands the connection between genetics and athletic skill. He even offers what he considers a better test than the one sold by Atlas. "Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest," he tells Macur.

Given all the caveats laced through the latter parts of Macur's story, what can explain her willingness -- and that of the Times -- to give such prominent play to a product that has yet to be used by, or be tested on anyone? How could the Times have so completely been hoodwinked into hawking a new business enterprise, about which scientists seem dubious at best?

Clearly, the catchy concept of the Atlas product prompted Macur and her editors to put aside their skepticism and to allow Atlas a massive public-relations windfall, in the form of a page-one Sunday Times takeout. But in the end, The Times has succumbed to the temptation of a clever marketing scheme, and a story unworthy of such a prominent showcase.

UPDATE: A reader emails us to note an odd aspect of the Macur article we overlooked. In Macur's summary of the testing on the ACTN3 gene, she reports that the research was conducted only on white athletes:

The ACTN3 study looked at 429 elite white athletes, including 50 Olympians, and found that 50 percent of the 107 sprint athletes had two copies of the R variant.

Our reader observes: "Two possible explanations, both cynical, are that they figured all the black athletes would have the genes anyway, and that a test based on white athletes would sell a lot better to the target audience, yuppie parents. Why else mention the racial component?"

Why, indeed. It's yet another curious aspect to a story that raises more questions than it answers.

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