When Science Stories Go Crazy: "Desperate Addicts Inject Others’ Blood"!

THEY BLINDED US WITH SCIENCEIt is very easy to write a bad science story. It is tantalizingly easy.¹ Often that is because writing a nuanced story requires a level of scientific explanation that will far exceed a reader’s patience and a newspaper’s wordcount. It’s also easy because reporters let those folks who are stuck churning out releases for journals and universities do the hard work. There are whole sites devoted to these releases and they are superb. There are unintentionally hilarious headlines (“Double-teaming a whole-genome hunt”) and more quantum-physics-related superlatives than you can shake a stick at. They are also full of puns (“Engineering could give reconstructive surgery a facelift”), so there’s that too. It’s the job of the press release writer to suck the reporter in-and it’s the job of the reporter to be mildly entertained by the puns (and impressed by the ability of the writer to summarize an excessively complex story) and then factcheck it, gather some reaction quotes and send it off to the boss. Problem is, it’s tricky.

Press releases are misleading-you all know that. Studies are half-baked, or preliminary, or contradictory. Findings are not quite so pat when you start looking at the numbers involved.

What newspaper wants a story titled: “An Alkaloid, That Happens To Also Be In Wine, And Also In Some Less Interesting Substances, Has Been Found To Slow Tumors in Mice When Injected In Extremely-High Dosages? No one wants that story. I almost died of boredom just writing that sentence. We want “Wine Cures Cancer” or, at least, a nice coverline like “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”

And then there’s the cruel mistress of needing to get it out before xyz.com does and none of the paper’s 50 gazillion authors will get back to you (why are researchers so hard to get on the phone!) and, oh god, alexa.com! So yes, the job of the science writer can be awful.

But sometimes you get something worse than a bad science story. Sometimes you get a terrible, blood-curdlingly wrong science story, a whirling vortex pulling matter in and spewing blackness out.

Gosh, do I hate these.

SARS was a golden era of bad science. Research puts Sars mortality rate at 20%! And: Can SARS Be Stopped? Experts Differ, but Fear a Third-World Epidemic!

How do you like this one? “Pets at risk as bird flu kills cat“! Yes: one cat. “How to tell if your cat is infected“! That was because scientists infected some cats with bird flu to see how they’d react. Don’t worry, they didn’t lay their hands on your cat.

HIV provides an incredible opportunity for bad science stories. We’d all like to pretend that the “new” “killer” HIV strain media panic of 2005 never happened-but it did.

And those stories go on. Today, there’s this, in the Times: Desperate Addicts Inject Others’ Blood. Alarming, right?

There are some simple elisions performed in the name of nice-sounding-copy. “Desperate heroin users in a few African cities have begun engaging in a practice that is so dangerous it is almost unthinkable…” has a nicer ring than: “A handful of desperate heroin users in one city and one semi-autonomous region in Tanzania were recorded five years ago, and then three years ago, engaging in a practice that is so dangerous it is almost unthinkable…” Don’t get me wrong! I appreciate language, and wanting to write beautiful sentences. I really do. At some point, however, the desire to convey information with some impact to readers becomes tabloid and incorrect.

That also raises a question. If this is really such a shocking deal, why wasn’t it covered it in 2005 when it could possibly be said that “begun” might have applied (as in, had begun to be noticed by researchers)?

Then there’s a lack of respect for the readers’ ability to discern the holes. With this headline atop it, it’s a deliciously scandalous article; down low, they can do what they like.

Lets just say, as a newly made up rule-of-life, that if you have to say more than twice in a story shorter than one thousand words that “it isn’t common,” you can’t pretend said subject is a the Big Problem of the day. Since this story was written prior to my made-up rule, we’ll let it slide. But, even without the rule, it is simply not cool to take such lengths to imply otherwise.

This article quotes two small studies done in two cities; each study worked with fewer than 200 people. “About 9 percent of the 200 drug-injectors interviewed practiced” injecting each other with blood. Here’s a point for admitting the pool was 200 people, which will now be deducted because-18 people, seriously?

Meanwhile, the main study that our trusty reporter is relying on–isn’t associated with any numbers, which makes me wary. That study is, as it turns out, more focused on the demographics of these “flashblooders” (studying what percent were abused as children or young drug users) and doesn’t mention a ratio of flashblooders to heroin users (at least, not in the abstract, which is all I, unwilling to shell out $52 to buy the paper, have access to).

And then: two successive paragraphs starting with “there have been reports [related to flashblooding]” ending with “not confirmed by medical researchers.”

The expert quote and kicker of the story is thanks to a “horrified” blood bank president-elect who has never heard of the idea.

Most of the story, at least the bulk of the story which is backed up by facts and figures (how dull), is actually not at all about flashblood but about the rates of HIV/AIDS among heroin users. Unmentioned: are “flashblooders” people who always or regularly share needles already… making this a somewhat nonstory? Personally, I think “Increasing use of heroin in parts of Africa has the potential to magnify the AIDS epidemic” might stand on its own as a story.

What really tears me up about this type of article is that in the 24 hours or so between when the article was posted and now, the number #flashblood tweets jumped from two to about 80. Meanwhile, maybe you’ve already seen the link on peoples’ Facebook pages and, since this appears in this today’s paper, the other dailies will latch on, CNN will do a take, the evening news might try and localize it, and on, and on.

Meanwhile, in Dar es Salaam and in Zanzibar (also, not to put too fine a point on it, but maybe in Baltimore and Panama City and London!) drug users will still be contracting HIV through shared needles and sex workers through unprotected sex. Maybe this article will inspire some much needed funding. Probably not. To be honest, I suspect that by focusing on such a tiny-but-sensational vector of disease transmission, this kind of article puts Africans and drug users in a box labeled “cannot be helped.”

Anyway, remind me to tell you about the Cambodian cholera brouhaha of February 2010 someday. Happy flashbloodin’ y’all.

¹ And it is just plain tantalizing to run a bad science story because you can run them under fantastic headlines which will be picked up by myriad websites sending person after person to yours and they click and click and click on those related stories links and on those ads running alongside and. Excuse me. I seem to have soiled myself.

Abby Seiff is perhaps too easily angered.

Photo by James Vaughan from Flickr.