I've expressed the opinion here that science journalists bring a unique set of qualifications to their work, and that other journalists--and other authorities and experts--often cannot do the job as well as a science writer. A good example of the problem appeared in The New York Times over the weekend.
The Times piece was written by Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist; bioethicist; former White House adviser; the brother of Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; the brother of Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel--and an all-around smart guy. In September, he will join the University of Pennsylvania with "a slew of titles," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, including university professor, chair of a department, vice provost, and an appointment in the business school. Penn was apparently able to fill, I don't know, five or six positions just by hiring Emanuel. Smart guy.
But not smart enough, evidently, to turn in a good science story.
Give Emanuel credit for calling out attention to a serious problem--a critical shortage of generic cancer drugs. Not in Haiti, not in Botswana, but right here, in the debt-riddled U.S.A. "Right now cancer care is being rationed in the United States," Emanuel begins, a little awkwardly and abruptly. After a gratuitous swipe at Obama's critics (we "cannot blame this rationing on death panels or health care reform"), he gets to the lede: "Of the 34 generic cancer drugs on the market, as of this month, 14 were in short supply."
We get no source for that. Nor do we get any indication of what "short supply" means. Hospitals and doctors can't get them? City hospitals can but rural hospitals can't? They're available only with unacceptable delay?
And exactly which drugs are we talking about? Emanuel doesn't give us any examples. What kinds of cancer are most affected? Again, no help. "The sad fact is, there are plenty of newer brand-name cancer drugs that do not cure anyone, but just extend life for a few months, at costs of up to $90,000 per patient." Examples? I'm happy to believe that they don't cure anyone, but I'd rather see a little documentation of that, or an example, rather than take Emanuel's word for it.
Older drugs that cost as little as $3 a dose, he tells us, are forcing doctors to use drugs "at more than 100 times the cost." This is fuzzy math. Frankly, $300 a dose doesn't sound too bad to me. Isn't that what you pay for an aspirin in the hospital? How do we get from there to $90,000?
Emanuel then swerves into a discussion of how legislation that restricted increases in drug prices is responsible for the shortage, and suggests two possible solutions: Boost what Medicare pays for generic cancer drugs, or drop coverage altogether. He doesn't express a preference for one or the other, as far as I can tell--but this is an opinion piece, and he should. To further confuse matters, he says there is no problem in Europe, where the generics are only "slightly more expensive." How much more expensive?
I can't guarantee that any science writer you might find walking down the street could do a better job than this, but I'm betting most could--and I know dozens, maybe more, that I would bet on.
Science writers don't get "a slew of titles" at Penn, but they can do a darn good job--better than the many-titled Emanuel did this weekend. (And because I can rarely resist the opportunity to take a shot at the nation's best newspaper--where were the editors who could have helped him?)
- Paul Raeburn