This is like the old game of telephone. Communicate a message from person to person to person and watch how the original message disintegrates.
The message in question started as a basic research paper in the journal Medicinal Chemistry Communications – entitled:
The synthesis and functional evaluation of a mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor, (10-oxo-10-(4-(3-thioxo-3H-1,2-dithiol-5-yl)phenoxy)decyl)triphenylphosphonium bromide (AP39)
That journal is not quite on the regular reading lists of newsrooms around the globe. Ah, but that’s why universities issue news releases.
And, in what appears to be a news-release-driven story, that research at the University of Exeter in the UK is drawing attention around the globe – apparently because a university news release about the research stated:
“It may smell of flatulence and have a reputation for being highly toxic, but when used in the right tiny dosage, hydrogen sulfide is now being being found to offer potential health benefits in a range of issues, from diabetes to stroke, heart attacks and dementia.”
The news release said “The research is being conducted in several models of disease, and pre-clinical results are promising,” but didn’t explain what those models were. I’m going to bet that many of the journalists who wrote about this don’t even know that pre-clinical means this isn’t human research.
I was pleased to see a story on News.Mic set the record straight, “No, Smelling Farts Won’t Actually Prevent Cancer.” Excerpt:
In what could have been the most ridiculous scientific “discovery” of our generation, TIME and a number of other media outlets reported on Friday that a University of Exeter study had concluded that “smelling farts would actually prevent cancer, among other diseases.”
And they got it totally wrong.
“Although the stinky gas can be noxious in large doses, the researchers seem to think that a whiff here and there has the power to reduce risks of cancer, strokes, heart attacks, arthritis and dementia by preserving mitochondria,” TIME reported.
Within hours of publishing, the story went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes and shares. In other words, people were excited to smell farts and prevent cancer (weird, right?)
But there’s a problem: That’s not what the study actually says.
The last time we experienced such an odiferous assault of silly stories and headlines was when journalists grabbed a chance to put “balls” or “testicles” in their headlines.
Meantime, the assault on journalistic credibility…and the unwarranted assault on science by journalists who miscommunicate findings and then ridicule what they miscommunicate…continues.
And the public has just been provided another media-driven reason why they shouldn’t pay attention to any science news they hear.
But I also hope that the university and the researchers learn that what you put in a news release may leave you wide open for criticism. A researcher quote in the news release that may have led journalists astray:
Although hydrogen sulfide is well known as a pungent, foul-smelling gas in rotten eggs and flatulence, it is naturally produced in the body and could in fact be a healthcare hero with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases.
I added the emphasis. Still, it does not appear that ANY of the stories went beyond the news release. There was no evidence that any journalist actually tracked down the research papers or interviewed the researchers directly.
On the morning of July 14, 3 days after they originally posted their “ridiculous” piece, TIME.com changed their headline and published a correction, saying “An earlier version of this article incorrectly summarized the findings and implications of this study.”
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