Conspiracy theories have always been bad, but are they getting worse—more pervasive, more outlandish, more polarizing? I recently heard the authors of the new book “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy” interviewed on John Lovett’s podcast. One enabler of the “new conspiracism,” according to the authors, is the decline of editorial function. In a classic newspaper sense, editorial function refers to the role of editors and other content moderators who decide what to publish, considering the cost of printing every inch of column space. Not every story idea turns into an article, not every word in an article makes it to print. Editorial function puts friction in the system between idea generation by the writer and consumption by the reader. Of course, not all aspects of editorial function vanish when content moves from in print to online: media outlets can still fact check, revise, and refine the articles that get posted. However, the relative ease of generating and distributing content online means that more than just traditional media outlets get involved (case in point: this blog).
Genetics has also had a decline in ‘editorial function’
Listening to this podcast, I was reminded of a parallel decline in editorial function in the world of genomics. Like media content, generating and consuming genetic information has also become cheaper and easier, enabling the growth of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing and a decrease in friction to obtain one’s own genetic information. The wheel is further greased by online third-party interpretation tools, which are easier to set up compared to a DTC company and thus more plentiful and even less regulated.
The idea of “gatekeeping” (is it needed, who/what should do it) is prominent in debates about DTC testing (e.g., Genetic gatekeepers: regulating direct-to-consumer genomic services in an era of participatory medicine, Gatekeepers or intermediaries? The role of clinicians in commercial genomic testing). There’s an (often celebrated) lack of gatekeeping in DTC testing: as the name implies, a consumer can order the test and receive results directly, with no physician or other intermediary involved—unfiltered. Many genetics health care providers decry the lack of oversight in such testing, essentially the removal of editorial function that would review, curate, and more selectively pass on information to the consumer or patient.
Gatekeepers: pros and cons
I am honestly torn when it comes to the dilemma of gatekeeping personal genetic information. The empirical observation that the cat is already out of the bag does not solve the normative question of whether it is the right way to go about things. One the one hand, people have a right to information about themselves. On the other, when the information is incomplete or dubious, should they not be protected from that?
How to weight up the pros and cons of editorial function/gatekeeping? For example,
- Con: sometimes the gatekeepers are in the wrong, https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/florida-fired-its-coronavirus-data-scientist-now-shes-publishing-the-statistics-on-her-own/
- Pro: Phil the body builder is the Advisory Board for the third-party genetic interpretation tool, NutraHacker, https://www.nutrahacker.com/advisory_board.html
So it comes down to the editor, the gate, the content behind the gate, the ability of the consumer/user to evaluate, and the costs and benefits of having vs. removing the friction between generating and consuming information.