Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Plague of Inaccurate Articles

I have to admit, I am partially in love and partially disgusted with the internet. On one hand, it's rad to have answers to almost any question right at your fingertips at any moment in time. But how do you know that those answers are correct? Half of the time I spend reading articles, I find myself thinking "who wrote this stuff anyway?"

Everyone I know is constantly worried about where to get the most accurate source of news about politics, social justice issues, business matters, etc., and I commend them for that. But I also want you to know that such an idea completely pertains to science as well.

I'd like to provide you with an example based on an article that was published this evening by NPR. Ok, I admit, I'm an avid listener to NPR, and I follow them on twitter so I don't have to sort through all the repetitive and mundane articles that come up on google news. But sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they are horribly wrong.

The article is called "Surprise in Your Sewage: Lots of Exotic Viruses", by Richard Knox. According to NPR's bio page, Richard Knox is totally adorable and has a wicked mustache. After reading the article in question, you'll also notice that he ironically won awards in 1995 for articles covering medical errors. Let's talk about your scientific errors, Richard.

The article starts out on an accurate note. Richard bluntly states that, well, being a scientist is harder than any job you've ever had. As someone who has worked a number of strange jobs (autopsy review assistant, event planner, health educator on a college campus, checker at whole foods,  bra slinger at victoria's secret... yea, I was 18, get over it), the time I've spent looking at human poop under a microscope, literally spending 24 hours straight in lab, or falling asleep while reading scientific paper after scientific paper only to wake up with highlighter ink all over my face has been truly hard. I think back to all the dangerous and toxic chemicals I've had to pour into tiny tubes, all the calculations that I had to check 6 times to make sure I didn't accidentally cause an explosion, or all the tubes of moisturizer I've had to purchase for my rough, over-ethanol'd hands, and I know that I love being a scientist.

After that distinction, the article falls apart quickly.

Fault #1: Inaccurate terms coined for viruses.
This is one of my biggest pet-peeves. It's one thing to convert scientific research articles into layman's news articles, but don't use words like "bugs" or "germs". It's wrong.

Richard doesn't stop there, though. He brings in the famous "microbes" term, which is invalid for this article to begin with. Sure, "microbe" is short for microorganism, meaning an organism that is of microscopic size, but it's a term that's typically reserved for bacteria.

 Also, the term "microbe" suggests that the organism is living, whether single-celled or otherwise. No one has determined whether viruses are "living". To say so, one way or another, is inaccurate.

Fault #2: Know your diseases, buddy.

Firstly, what is a "monkey microbe"? Is it a bacterium with a prehensile tail? There is something disturbing about the insinuated phylogeny of that term.

Anyway, Ebola is one of my favorite viruses. I love it. It's deadly and gross, and the amount of information known about it is relatively minimal. So minimal, in fact, that scientists have yet to identify the model system for it. There has been a lot of research done to try to identify monkeys as the model system, yet they have been unsuccessful. While the disease is seen in monkeys, its not necessarily the origin. Another target species is bats. So, to say that Ebola is a "monkey microbe" is wrong.

Once again, I understand the need to dilute such scientific language, but challenge your readers. Say its a "zoonotic virus" instead of "that jumps to humans when given the opportunity". I mean, come on. This isn't FOX news, now.

I have a hard time crediting articles that make such basic mistakes. I'm glad that Richard links to credible websites for further information, but we know that most people are going to stick to whatever is on the page right in front of them.

If you follow me on twitter, you may remember reading about a similar issue I had with an article for DemocracyNOW! that said that someone had been "cured of AIDS". This is wrong, and it just goes to show that the little details can have profound effects on the rest of your article's efficacy.

Want to get accurate information about science news? Here are some sites that I highly recommend:
Science News

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