5 Science Stories The Media Screwed Up Hilariously
Sometimes you'll see a piece of incredible scientific or medical news that's so crazy and so unbelievable, you'll SWEAR it's not real. But then you click the story and you STILL can't believe it. "There's just no way," you say to yourself. But lo and behold, you poor cynical reader, you're too afraid to open your eyes and see the light of tru- op, never mind, you were right. The thing you swore was bullshit was bullshit. So how did everyone fall for it?
From journalists totally misrepresenting scientific stories to make them sound cooler to good old-fashioned failures to read the research correctly, here are five recent science stories the internet really bungled, even by internet standards.
You Can Survive Without Food! Wait, Nope, All Of Human History Was Right
In 2017, a story went viral about a couple that claimed they didn't need to eat food because they lived off "the energy of the Universe." This might immediately sound implausible to you, because you're one of those crazy jaded skeptics who isn't a tabloid editor cranking out 40,000 of these stories per millisecond with no regard for how eyeballs get on them, but THERE'S THE EVIDENCE RIGHT THERE IN PRINT, ya ingrate. These human beings didn't need to eat or drink because the Universe gave them "cosmic nourishment."
The story ran in the British tabloid The Sun, then spread to The New York Post and outward into the gossipsphere, with dozens of sites straight up taking these peoples' word at face value. After all, it's more fun to print the story, make people mad, cash in on hate-clicks, then quietly retract it than it is to do the many, many hours of exhaustive research it surely would've taken to disprove their claim. Who's telling the truth? Every organism that's ever lived since the beginning of time, or these two randos? As with any story, we gotta hear both sides.
Turns out the couple was lying. Snopes printed an almost-immediate refutation, and The New York Post then printed two retractions to their earlier story after a full news cycle of eating up those sweet, sweet clicks (not that they needed to eat). The couple amended their story to say that they "do eat solid foods on a regular basis, just not as much as the next guy." So that's pretty much the same thing. "We've transcended the need for food and water" and "We do eat and drink, but probably less than some people" -- same difference. And definitely just as newsworthy. Who knew people ate different amounts?? Get them one of those long-ass Economist profiles.
The couple also identified as "Breatharians," which sounds like some race from a '60s Star Trek episode that's a heavy-handed metaphor for pollution. But really it means "people who absorb their energy from the Universe." And also eat and drink totally normally and all of this is nothing.
An Astronaut Came Back From Space With MUTATED DNA!!!
Astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year on the International Space Station. When he returned, he underwent some tests, and doctors compared his body to that of his twin brother ... with TERRIFYING RESULTS. While Kelly was in space, 7 percent of his DNA ... CHANGED.
HOLY SHIT HE'S PART SPACE MONSTER! Quarantine him before the 7 percent chunk of his body made up of glowing translucent spores explodes and turns everyone in the Pentagon into half-human, half-eel hybrids that quickly wipe out the planet!
Well, that's not exactly what happened. Which you probably know, 'cause you almost certainly would've heard something about the world now being ruled by space eels. Things drop out of the news cycle at record speeds these days, but that might've stuck for at least a few hours.
The mistake here stemmed from an admittedly confusing press release from NASA which noted that 7 percent of Kelly's genes displayed long-term changes after the stay in space, which quickly got interpreted as "The dude's DNA changed!" with the underlying implication that hanging out in space will turn us all into the Fantastic Four. But what they meant, as NASA clarified in a follow-up addendum, was that Kelly's gene expression changed by about 7 percent, meaning his body interacted with its environment differently in terms of how his cells processed oxygen and carbon dioxide, reacted to inflammation, and so forth. All of these are expected side effects of staying in space for a year, and not unlike bodily changes people undergo in high altitudes or other extreme environments.
So sorry, space stations will not turn you half Thing. But on the plus side, we didn't have to tearfully kill this guy upon his return to save the human race from spore extinction, so we'll call it a wash.
Sushi Can Give You WORMS If You're This One Guy In Portugal
Sushi might get you sick. It's raw fish. Raw anything might contain parasites. Any food might contain parasites. All types of food make people sick for different reasons all the time, and we all know that.
... OR DO WE???
Yes we do.
... BUT CAN WE STILL FLY INTO A PANIC WHEN ONE RANDOM GUY IN PORTUGAL CONSUMES A TINY PARASITIC WORM?
What truly happened was that a case study in The British Medical Journal described how a man in Portugal ate sushi that contained a parasitic nematode of the Anisakis genus and came down with the disease anisakiasis, an admittedly gross-sounding condition in which the parasites cause abdominal pain and vomiting. The visceral grossness of this scenario allowed headlines to run wild with warnings that YOUR SUSHI MIGHT CONTAIN PARASITES, HERE'S A PHOTO OF SUSHI, NOW PLEASE SHARE THIS ON THE WALL OF YOUR OTHER FRIEND WHO ALSO LIKES SUSHI.
In the U.S., only 60 total cases of anisakiasis have been reported, and while there's probably some under-reporting, sushi isn't the only way to contract the disease. Raw anchovies account for more cases. Yes, sushi could make you sick, but there's no new sushi poisoning "scare." Sushi isn't becoming more likely to contain pukeworms. No trend of any kind is occurring here. The story is that all foods can make you sick, including raw fish (obviously), and here's a really disgusting rare disease that happened to a guy. BAD NEWS FOR ALL SUSHI LOVERS*.
*A guy in Portugal and only that guy in Portugal
Scientists Discovered Two New Organs! Or They Called Stuff "Organs" So It Seemed Like A Bigger Deal
There we all were in 2017, walking around twiddling our thumbs and whistling, SOOOOOOO daaaaamn confident that we knew about all the organs in the human body. "Scientists found all the organs," we'd say out loud, at parties and stuff.
Then 2018 came, and BANG:
Medical science went 5,000 years (or whenever real medical science started -- like, 1981?) and just plum missed a couple of organs. Did we forget to look behind the liver or something? There's all kinds of shit floating around in there, so it's totally understandable that decades of surgeons overlooked a bunch of stuff. We find weird objects in couch cushions all the time. "A fully intact Salsa Verde Dorito? Do they even make those anymore?" Exactly like that, but for large functional human organs.
Well, the story wasn't quite as simple as "Scientists found two new organs and were like HEY!" For one, the two discoveries -- the "mesentery," a fold of membrane that attaches the intestine to the abdominal wall, and the "interstitium," a fluid-filled membrane that surrounds the lungs, digestive tracts, and arteries -- aren't actually "organs." At least, not as widely recognized by the medical community. And they weren't "discovered." In both cases, individual scientists lobbied to reclassify already-documented body parts as organs based on their belief that the distinction more accurately described their functions.
So why call them organs? Answer: So we care more. Seriously. Dr. Paul Neumann (SIC, Celebrity Edition), an anatomy professor, argued, "they're trying to elevate the importance of what they're saying by saying, 'This is an organ.' As if being an organ conveys some kind of importance to something. You don't have to be an organ to be important."
Whether or not the mesentery and interstitium do end up being reclassified as organs, this still wasn't some case of doctors flat-out not seeing some huge body part for millennia and then suddenly going "Holy shit! There's a lungs 2!" But on the plus side, at least we got some fuel for one of those broadly motivational Facebook memes out of it:
Chocolate Is Diet Food! Wait, Correction: Nutrition News Is Junk
Here it is. The dietary breakthrough we've all been waiting for. Chocolate -- delicious, decadent, guilt-inducing, you-fat-making chocolate -- can in fact help you LOSE weight. Amazing! ALMOST TOO AMAZING FOR ANY HUMAN TO BELIEVE, WOULDN'T YOU SAY???
A bunch of news outlets couldn't resist taking the bait. We've all been wrong about chocolate our whole lives! Too good to be true?? Uh, yeah, it obviously is. Even if you weren't catching on to the direction all these list entries were taking, you probably could've guessed that even at the time.
This wasn't your run-of-the-mill "press jumping the gun" story, though. John Bohannon, a diet scientist and writer, deliberately conducted this experiment to show how easy it is to widely disseminate bad diet science across mainstream news outlets. The experiment was completely real. Sixteen subjects were split into two groups, and the group that ate a bar of chocolate per day did demonstrate a greater rate of weight loss. He published the findings with that irresistible hook -- "SCIENCE says eating chocolate helps you LOSE WEIGHT" -- knowing that sites are so forever desperate for new diet content that they'd lap it up. And indeed, the story was all over the place as fast as sites could download stock photos of happy women holding vague unbranded chocolate bars.
The problem Bohannon exploited, however, was that while this experiment did take place in a literal sense, it didn't really "prove" anything. Only 16 subjects were involved, there were tons of outside variables that could've affected people's weight loss, and the results are almost entirely random, unrepeatable, and not based in any actual biological science other than this small random correlation. But sites are usually all too willing to read a nutrition study's press release and take the science at face value, especially when the hook (chocolate is healthy now!) is too irresistible. And if your site doesn't post this article, you lose out on clicks to ones that do, even if they eventually look stupid for having published it. First rule of internet is ABC: Always Be Click-getting, even if the story is obviously flawed as hell. (The letter C is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that abbreviation.)
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For more, check out 5 BS Science Myths Your Entire View Of The World Rests On and 6 Reasons You Can't Trust Science Anymore.
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