Could an ear defect wrought by a spike in placental blood pressure during childbirth explain some or even most cases of sudden infant death? Writer Andrea Pitzer has a profile of the idea and the man behind it in Tuesday’s USA Today. It raises a few issues for doctors. More important for this site, it illustrates the perplexities of writing about maverick but not nutty research on topics that can have deep impact on people’s lives.
The piece is clearly written. It says nothing reckless. However, as a clinical medicine story readers may expect, as is usually the case, that it is also a consumer health story. That is, mainstream news you can use if you or someone close to you encounters the same ailment. This one is different; it is specifically about research that has not yet carried the day and, one assumes, probably won’t. Few new ideas pay off and most don’t make news until they do. Thus we have here a profile of scientific inquiry as it usually goes. Its a rare counter to media’s natural tendency to pay attention almost exclusively to big dramatic successes and failures while largely ignoring the trudge in the middle where most science happens. Tales like this will never be common, but they are important. The writer presumably has some enthusiasm for the idea, but she doesn’t oversell it.
One more thing. The story calls the new idea a theory. Hmm. Sure, colloquially. Maybe even the doc called it that. Sorry to flirt with pedantry, but words matter. Reporters ought to have some respect for their various meanings, and this seems to be no genuine theory. It’s a hypothesis, a speculation, a notion, an idea, a scientifically-informed guess, it’s a lot of legitimate things but it’s not formally a theory. From the looks of things, it hasn’t been deeply tested, shown to make good predictions, or had its assumptions pumped by so much fresh data that big crowds of scientists accept it.