4 Science Stories The Media Managed To Totally Screw Up
It sometimes feels like the world is changing at a pace faster than we can keep up with. It's important to remember, however, that a lot of these "changes" are just scientists and/or journalists being a tad ... lax with the truth. So slow your roll on panicking over or celebrating certain supposed scientific breakthroughs you read about in the news. For instance ...
No, DNA Analysis Didn't Reveal Jack The Ripper
One of history's most enduring mysteries concerns the identity of Jack the Ripper, the infamous serial killer who murdered five women in London in 1888. Who was he? Why did he do these horrible things? Was he even a "he"? And if not, what does she think about the glass ceiling that's keeping female serial killers from reaching the same awful heights as their male colleagues?
Thanks to the wonders of modern forensic analysis, it seems we might finally have the answer to at least one of these questions. As reported by USA Today, CBS News, and The Sun, a silk shawl belonging to the Ripper's fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes, was found to be saturated in DNA belonging to Aaron Kosminski, a 23-year-old barber who at the time both lived in the area and was one of the police's top suspects. That's right! It took us over 130 years, but we've finally narrowed the suspect pool down to ... the guy who a lot of people thought it was from the beginning.
Except it's probably worth pointing out the myriad problems with this study. The biggest being that the science used doesn't actually "prove" anything. The biochemists who conducted the study took the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) present in a supposed "semen" stain on the shawl, and matched this with a mtDNA sample provided by a relative of Kosminski. But as Science points out, mtDNA isn't a reliable means of narrowing down a field of suspects. That's because the same mtDNA sequence can be passed down through countless generations, meaning that mtDNA isn't a unique marker in the same way that "normal" DNA is.
Kosminski didn't pass his mtDNA signature to his descendants, because mtDNA can only be passed through a maternal line -- meaning that Kosminski got his mtDNA from his mom, who got it from her mom, who got it from her mom. The best thing that this analysis can say is that Mr. Ripper descended from someone on this long, long line. The "semen" could've com- uh, originated from Kosminski ... or from any of his countless distant relatives who might've also been wandering the streets of Whitechapel.
And then there's the shawl itself. Unlike normal forensic evidence, which is kept sealed away in order to prevent the murdercules(?) from escaping, this item has been hot potato-ing throughout the serial killer enthusiast community for decades, picking up all sorts of contamination. Hell, we don't even know if the thing is real, because after Eddowes' body was found, her clothing and belongings were destroyed. It's been suggested that this shawl only survived because a police officer stole it from the scene, but there's no evidence to prove that -- and if there was, there's no evidence to prove that this is that shawl, and not some rando's "private time" rag.
No, We Still Haven't Figured Out The Voynich Manuscript
Back in 2008, we wrote about the Voynich Manuscript, a centuries-old book written in a code that remains undecipherable. As you'd expect, people regularly step forward claiming that they've solved it. (Including us!) But if the media is to be believed, a university researcher from the UK by the name of Gerard Cheshire might have finally cracked the cipher.
Chesire says that in order to translate the text, he had to painstakingly decipher it letter by letter -- which revealed that the manuscript was not only written in a never-before-seen language, but also that it is a "compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing, and astrological readings concerning the matters of the female mind." On one hand, it's a little disheartening to know that all this time, we were eagerly awaiting the medieval equivalent of Gwenyth Paltrow's memoirs. On the other hand, it's hard to be too disheartened, considering that much like Gwenyth Paltrow, this translation is talking out of its butt.
According to Lisa Fagin Davis of the Medieval Academy of America, the method of translation that Cheshire used has been tried before and probably doesn't work, while his claims of having discovered an entirely new language in its pages are "circular, self-fulfilling nonsense," which we believe is the academic way of saying "Aw hell no."
The drubbing that Cheshire got from Davis (among other scroll buffs) was so severe that the university that promoted his research wound up retracting the story.
No, IBM Didn't "Reverse Time"
Didn't you hear? IBM recently reversed time using a superpowered quantum computer! You probably did hear about it, but forgot about it thanks to all the time travel.
Though as it turns out, time travel is still as distant a possibility as journalists not losing their minds whenever they see exciting-sounding science words.
Despite what the quantum leap over the facts courtesy of Discover and The Independent would have you believe, IBM didn't "reverse time" in the "go back and win billions using a sports almanac" type way. Rather, they did it in a "we can make computer processes go backward" type way, like a boomerang video on Instagram. So less like the Doctor, and more like an underpaid Doctor Who social media intern.
Related: Stupid PR Stunts That Backfired Hard
No, Your Phone Isn't Making You Grow Horns
For every new form of pop culture that takes hold among the kids, an equal and opposite freakout happens among adults worried about how this new thing is converting said kids to Devil worship. Rock & Roll? Satanism. Dungeons & Dragons? Satanism. Pokemon? Satanism. Harry Potter? Satanism. Monster Energy drinks? Satanism. (Actually, that last one might have a point ...)
In June 2019, however, our hubris came back to bite us in the butt when a study revealed that smartphone usage among young people has been conclusively linked to them growing horns in the backs of their skulls, like reverse Satans.
In 2018, two health science researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast reported that there was a uptick in the number of 18-to-30-year-olds with small bone spurs at the base of their skulls. Between this and the results of a similar study from 2016, the duo felt confident enough to call out the cause of this newfound epidemic: "handheld contemporary technologies such as smartphones and tablets."
This might sound scary, but don't worry. As many scientists immediately noticed, the duo placed the blame on smartphones without actually studying the subjects' smartphone usage in any way, shape, or form. It therefore also didn't control for other activities that require people to spend a lot of time looking down, such as reading, writing, or pooping.
And here are other problems with these studies -- mainly how their results can't be applied to the wider population. For instance, the study from 2016 had a sample size of only 218 people, which is nowhere near enough to reflect the variances of the general population. As for the 2018 study, its sample of 1,200 might've been larger, but it consisted entirely of chiropractic patients -- which brought up conflict of interest questions since one of the researchers is also a practicing chiropractor.
Moreover, describing these growths as "horns" is laughable. Sure, they're made of the same material as horns (keratin), but so are a lot of things in our bodies, like our toenails, hair, and skin. We'd love to blame the media for this classic headline-enlivening boob, but we can't, because the term was popularized in the context of this story by (dun dun dunnn) one of the researchers who wrote the study. He later defended his use of the term, saying that it's "not unusual to use descriptive terms in anatomy." Which you'll recognize as the default excuse used by every shady dude on Tinder.