Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

Why Did It Take Five Weeks For The New York Times To Correct Its Alzheimer’s Test Assertion?

I have a lot of catching up to do after being in Europe for just 4 days. But I can’t let this one go by without comment. In fact, this issue was one of the first ones raised by German journalists I met with in Dortmund this week. Don’t think people around the world don’t notice the good AND the bad in American health/medical/science journalism — especially by The New York Times.

The Times took a long time (five weeks) to comment on what critics — including me, Paul Raeburn, Charlie Petit and many other journalists (including Times’ ombudsman Arthur Brisbane) — wrote about Gina Kolata’s August 10 piece on a “100% accurate” Alzheimer’s test. But [on September 16th] the paper published a correction.

It read in full:

“An article on Aug. 10 about spinal fluid tests in Alzheimer’s research left the incorrect impression that the test can predict the disease with 100 percent accuracy in all patients. (That impression was reinforced by the headline.) In fact, the test was found to be as much as 100 percent accurate in identifying a signature level of abnormal proteins in patients with memory loss who went on to develop Alzheimer’s — not in identifying patients who “are on their way” to developing the disease.

The article also misinterpreted an element of the researchers’ findings. Among a group of patients who had memory loss and developed Alzheimer’s within five years, every one had protein levels associated with the disease five years before; it was not the case that “every one of those patients with the proteins developed Alzheimer’s within five years.”

And the article misstated the source from which the finding of 100 percent accuracy was drawn. It came from a separate set of patients that the researchers examined to validate the protein signature they had identified in an initial group. (In the initial group, as the article noted, nearly every person with Alzheimer’s had the signature protein levels.)”

Raeburn writes that this isn’t good enough:

“The reporting was in error, the story was in error, and The Times should say so. Enough of this talk of “narrower claims” and “incorrect impressions.” The headline on Brisbane’s post was “The Trouble With Absolutes.” It should have been, “Times Errs on Alzheimer’s Story.”

The Times is the best paper in the country, maybe the world, although I don’t read enough languages to know. Why, then, does this correction read as if it were written by a student hiding under his desk, afraid of a rap on the knuckles?”

The Alliance for Human Research Protection broadened its criticism beyond this single story to an entire series by The Times:

“…a series of articles by Gina Kolata (many on the front page) of The New York Times, under the heading The Vanishing Mind, purport to examine worldwide struggle to find answers about Alzheimer’s disease. However, the articles were written as if the Times was in the business of promoting dubious commercial screens and tests and hype about unproven therapies.

The series has been a disservice to the public–and particularly to families struggling with the care of a loved one suffering from this devastating disease–or cluster of diseases–no one knows for sure, as there is no fail-safe test to confirm the presence of Alzheimer’s.”

For the record, we are not playing Monday-morning quarterback five weeks after the fact. Shortly after the story was first published, we published our review of the story on An excerpt:

“The story’s suggestion that the spinal fluid analysis used in the study is 100 percent accurate is, in fact, inaccurate. (The “can be 100% accurate” phrase is misleading and unhelpful.) The specificity of the test – about 1/3 of those who tested positive had no evidence of Alzheimer’s – is a big issue.”

Why did it take five weeks for The Times’ correction? What will The Times do to improve its editing and approval process? We will continue to watch and report.

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

You may also like these posts

    None Found

Read comments »

Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »