I think one of the biggest struggles a science writer faces is how to accurately describe the promise of new research. If we start promising that a preliminary experiment is going to lead to a cure for cancer, we are treating our readers cruelly–especially the readers who have cancer. On the other hand, scoffing at everything is not a sensible alternative, because sometimes preliminary experiments really do lead to great advances. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that bacteria can slice up virus DNA to avoid getting sick. That discovery led, some 30 years later, to biotechnology–to an industry that enabled, among other things, bacteria to produce human insulin.
This challenge was very much on my mind as I recently read two books, which I review in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal. One is on gene therapy–a treatment that inspired wild expectations in the 1990s, then crashed, and now is coming back. The other is epigenetics, which seems to me to be in the early stages of the hype cycle. You can read the essay in full here.