What's wrong with science journalism in the U.K.?
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
For a few hours last week, I'd planned to write a column about the "five-second rule." Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in England had released a study showing that some foods (ham, cookies) were safer to eat than others (dried fruit, pasta) after being left on the floor to collect germs. The Huffington Post picked up the story, as did Gizmodo and Good Morning America and the TODAY Show. But the research—if that's even the right word to use here—was rotten from the start.
The first warning sign was the subject matter: The five-second rule has been tested, explained, and at least partially debunked over and over again, for at least as long as I've been a journalist. Most notably in a 2006 study by Paul Dawson of Clemson University, who published his findings (that germs can hop right onto a slice of bologna) in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Microbiology, but also the following year by a couple of undergraduates at Connecticut College, and then once more by a seventh-grade science-fair project in 2008, and did I mention the 9-year-old in Kentucky? "A lot of bacteria grew on the cheese," explained little Courtney Mims to a science correspondent for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
More damning was the story's overseas origin. The five-second study arrived in the American press by way of the Daily Mail, which explained in its own coverage that the work had been funded by a manufacturer of cleaning products, and then advised readers to replace their mop heads every three months so as to "minimize risk" from dangerous bacteria. When I contacted Manchester Metropolitan University for more details, I learned that the "researchers" and "scientists" described in media reports amounted to one person—a lab tech named Kathy Lees, who did not respond to my inquiries.
Let's not single out the Mancunians, though: Industry-funded science fluff litters the whole of the British Isles. Also in the past few weeks, the U.K. press fawned over a comely chip-shop girl from Kent who was found by a national television network to possess a scientifically validated, perfect face, while the British version of HuffPo reported on a mathematical formula for the "perfect sandwich"—produced by a University of Warwick physicist in collaboration with a major bread manufacturer. Spurious mathematical formulae concocted at the behest of PR firms compose their own journalism beat in England: In recent years, we've seen the perfect boiled egg, the perfect day, the perfect breasts, and many more examples of scientists getting paid to turn life into algebra. As a naive magazine intern, I once took an assignment to write up one of these characteristically English equations—a means of calculating the perfect horror movie, in that case. The team of mathematicians behind the research turned out to be a couple of recent grads from King's College London, who'd watched some movies and gotten drunk on vodka on behalf of Sky Broadcasting. "We only spent a couple of hours doing it," one of them told me, "and didn't put all that much thought into whether it works or how accurate it is."
I'm not the first to notice this trend—see Ben Goldacre's excellent "Bad Science" column in the Guardian, for example—but it has started to worry me. A great garbage patch of science journalism has been forming across the Atlantic, and bits of flotsam are washing up on our shores. What makes the Brits so susceptible to these ginned-up studies and publicity stunts? And what happens when their faux research starts drifting across the Internet?