To Believe or Not to Believe
Popular Science Writing
Brill's Content, October 1998: 105ff.
Flawed Science at the Times
by Sheryl Fragin
Sidebar: The Mouse that Roared
Gina Kolata's front-page story on a potential cancer cure caused a frenzy this spring--but the news was old and a cure far away.
by Abigail Pogrebin
On May 3, cancer patients across the country woke up to a seeming miracle. The New York Times, not known for jumping to hasty conclusions or overblown pronouncements, was trumpeting on its front page (and above the fold) that a promising cancer cure was within reach, from the lab of Boston scientist Dr. Judah Folkman. The reporter was Gina Kolata, the Times's noted science writer of 11 years. It was tremendous news except for one problem: It wasn't news. Folkman's research had been reported by another Times science writer six months earlier, to no hoopla and with much less prominence.
Kolata did get the science right. Folkman had been working for more than 30 years to prove his hunch that two proteins, angiostatin and endostatin, can eradicate cancer in mice by cutting off a tumor's blood supply, without drug resistance or side effects. And Kolata made it clear that the drugs had been successful thus far only in rodents. But that caveat was lost amid the article's optimism and its placement.
The story's splashy play in the Sunday Times sent the world's media into apoplexy. It was picked up by virtually every U.S. news outlet and reverberated abroad under headlines like "Cancer Cure." Cancer patients flooded hospital lines begging to be part of the drug trials. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's president, Dr. Paul Marks, recalls the fever. "We had to increase the number of personnel taking the calls because we felt we had to deal with their anxiety," he says of the hopeful patients. "My sense was that it was not a responsible article. It definitely wasn't news. Not to the scientific community."
That didn't stop the drug maker's stock price from exploding. Shares in EntreMed Inc., a small pharmaceutical company that funds Folkman's research and owns the license to market any treatment he develops, rose 308 percent the next day, surging from $12 to $51, with 23 million shares traded.
Almost as quickly as the frenzy began, so did the backpedaling. Kolata's subjects publicly disputed the quotes she had used in her story. Nobel Prize winner Dr. James Watson, codiscoverer of the DNA double helix, had offered the article's showstopper: "Judah [Folkman] is going to cure cancer in two years." The hitch? Watson maintains he never said it. "When I read her article, I was horrified, because it said something I didn't believe," says Watson. The Times published his letter to that effect. "My recollection of the conversation, however, is quite different," wrote Watson, who says he chatted with Kolata at a "lighthearted" dinner party six weeks before her article appeared. He says she did not take notes or call him afterward to confirm his comment. Watson adds that after his letter appeared, he heard from many colleagues claiming they had been similarly misquoted by her.
Kolata, who would only answer questions in writing, says "I don't wish to be in the position of quarreling with a respected source and authority. As I've said before, I am confident in the accuracy of my story, and I'm glad we were able to let Dr. Watson further explain his view in a letter to the editor."
Dr. Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute, had been quoted by Kolata as calling Folkman's drugs "the single most exciting thing on the horizon. I am putting nothing on higher priority than getting this into clinical trials." Four days later, the NCI issued a press release clarifying that "this research is by no means the only promising research currently under way. There is no one 'top priority' of the NCI." The institute also contested the story's news value: "Was there new information in the news article? No."
Even Folkman was perplexed by the frenzy. "I'm puzzled by the response, because this is five months old," he told The New Yorker. And he stressed that the drugs he is developing are years away from being tested in humans.
As cancer experts and science reporters questioned why an old story was suddenly front-page news, the Times stood by its placement. "I don't think there was any question that the story was a page-one story," says science editor Cornelia Dean. She says the article was never intended to focus on Folkman's research, which she concedes had been covered earlier by reporter Nicholas Wade. It was, explains Dean, an article about the growing excitement over Folkman's research: "Gina was at a science meeting on another subject, and she started hearing a buzz among scientists about Judah Folkman and his work.... Her story was about the burst of optimism and enthusiasm as they learned about this work."
Dean points out that Times editors actually held the story for a week precisely because they feared the significance of the research would be overblown. "We were trying very hard to make sure that while these results are very exciting they are results in mice, not people," says Dean. "We held the story because we thought maybe we have not done this adequately.... The fact that there was such hoopla over it shows that on some level we did not succeed."
"I have to say, the reaction to the story was startling," Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld told The New York Observer. "Were we to do it over again, I think we still would have put it on the front page. But the caveats which were in the story probably would have been more forceful and marshaled higher."
Kolata agrees. "If we could have foreseen the reaction the story received from Wall Street and the media," she writes, "we would have underscored [the caveats] even further. In the future, we will work doubly hard to keep people from finding inappropriate meanings between the lines."
And what about the cancer patients who found those "inappropriate meanings" and became convinced Folkman was a messiah? Dean says the Times's power to inspire false hope cannot sway its news judgment. "Somebody said to me, 'Cancer patients can't take this; they're not strong enough emotionally to take this news.' If we start putting into the calculation 'Are the readers strong enough emotionally?' I think that's a dangerous path to travel down.... There were people who said, 'You should never have run that story.' I disagree."