Thursday, May 08, 2008

dude, pull my finger

Here's a perfect illustration of the abysmal quality of science journalism, as well as the more general tendency of journalists to cannibalise each others' work to occasionally ridiculous effect: the story that's been all over various news sources this week about the bloke who miraculously grew back a finger after having it sprinkled with some magic dust (aka "extra-cellular matrix").

Those of a naturally healthy sceptical bent would have reacted first with fascination and secondly with various questions, such as: a) how much finger did he lose in the first place? b) is this sort of recovery unprecedented? c) how do we know it was the "magic dust" that did the trick? The answers given in the articles vary a bit but can be summarised as being, respectively: a) ooh, lots b) ooh, yes, I expect so c) well, it's magic, isn't it? The lack of anything resembling detail in any of the stories, and the fact that the original incident seems to have happened way back in 2005, would lead you to smell a big fat sweaty nicotine-stained journalistic rat at that point.

Needless to say it turns out that the truth is somewhat more mundane, in that the actual answers are: a) the whole finger-tip, essentially, but not all of the nail and little or no bone b) not at all c) we don't, in fact it seems highly unlikely that it was.

Bad Science has some more detail, including some amusing backtracking by the news sources when it became clear we weren't about to be able to lop the odd limb off during a bit of careless gardening, sprinkle some magic pixie dust on the gushing stump and have it spontaneously regenerate chameleon stylee. Here's the BBC's effort.

The only morsel of actual interest in all of this is the revelation that doctors have discovered that it's better, in situations like this, to leave the stump alone as much as possible for it to heal, rather than do what they used to do, which was to apply a skin graft over the exposed stump. It turns out that this inhibits the regrowth of the dermal and epidermal layers (presumably by "confusing" them in some way) and results in the wound healing less well and invisibly than just leaving it to sort itself out. That's an actual science story, right there.


The Black Rabbit said...

Well its not quite in the same league but I've recently been on the receiving end of "bad science journalism".
I recently had one of my jumping spider photographs used in an online news/media thingamajig, who were running an article first broken by the BBC about these tiny spiders and UV light.
I won't bore you with the details (cheers, thanks) but its safe to say they (both the pretty bad nowpublic thing AND the BBC) made a complete hash-up of explaining quite key points in bite-sized digestible nuggets for non-scientists.
You can read the article here...
(and see my photographs they used).

It might be interesting (well, for me anyhoo) to see how a publication like New Scientist would have reported something actually quite interesting (if you are interested in the mating routines of certain arachnids - cough cough.... I am).
Aw well.

"Science" journalism is always going to be difficult, but not impossible.

That said, science in its truest form does seem to be under the influence at the moment, not only from lazy hacks, but also devious politicians.

Facts is facts and proper HARD science needs to get a grip again.

Prof. McIntosh said...

Dude, let me grow an even more impressive monkey part! Check out my new cult of pursuing oral pleasure as a way to cure violence and stop the Iraq war. Power to magic dust.