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Parker-Pope's New York Times article describing He et al.'s research is scientific journalism at its finest. It is accurate, informative, and clear to the general public. Parker-Pope translates the scientific findings, methodology, and implications into common language in as clear and concise a fashion possible without compromising accuracy.
For instance, she states accurately that the individuals carrying the mutation get by on only 6 hours of sleep. Other sources, however, have exaggerated the scientific findings of the study, implying the individuals with this mutation get by on four hours of sleep, rather than the six hours of sleep reported by He et al (Park, 2011). While catchy headlines like Park's CNN Health article "Superhuman or super sleepy: Short sleepers function on four hours" may enthrall readers with the thought of genetic superhumans thriving off of four hours of sleep, it is simply not accurate (Park, 2011). While the CNN Health article does not misquote the findings of He et al.'s study, it strongly implies an inaccurate interpretation of the scientific results. In stark contrast to Park's CNN Health article, Parker-Pope's New York Times article does not overstate or even imply an exaggeration of the scientific findings.
Parker-Pope clearly and accurately notes the limitations of the study and the methods employed by the researchers, both of which are details that may appear less enticing to the general reader. However, these inclusions are commendable. Both the limitations and methods place the scientific method employed within the reader's understanding. Rather than appearing as a source of facts, the finding appears as the outcome of a process, and one that is to be challenged by and compared to other findings on the merits of that process. She further emphasizes the methodology behind these findings in a subtle way by describing the research in a story-like manner, which suggests the logic behind each step in the process.
Perhaps most importantly, she did not exaggerate the implications of the scientific findings. Overstating the implications of research is easy to do as a science journalist, out of one's own misinterpretation of the findings or pressure to make the research appear exciting to readers. Instead, Parker-Pope referred either directly or indirectly to the implications stated in the original article or to interviews with authors or experts.
However, it is worth noting that Parker-Pope does not mention one important caveat mentioned in He et al.'s paper - it is unclear whether the mutant phenotype of short sleeping has any adverse effects. Although none were apparent in mice, it is impossible to determine if the phenotype has negative effects in humans given the small sample size available to the authors. As He et al. point out, it cannot be determined if the mutant human phenotype results in more efficient sleep, less need for sleep, or an inability to get the sleep one's body needs.
The Short Sleeper Gene & Mutation
Public Media Portrayal
The Short Sleeper Home Page
Charles Ford's Home Page
He, Y., Jones, C. R., Fujiki, N., Xu, Y., Guo, B., Holder, J. L., Rossner, M. J., Nishino, S., and Fu, Y. 2009. The Transcriptional Repressor DEC2 Regulates Sleep Length in Mammals. Science. 325: 866-870.
Park, M. 12 March, 2011. Superhuman or super sleepy: Short sleepers function on four hours. CNN Health. http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/12/short.sleepers.daylight/index.html. 29 January, 2012.
Parker-Pope, T. 13 August, 2009. Mutation Tied to Need for Less Sleep Is Discovered. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/14/health/research/14sleep.html. 29 January, 2012.
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