News Outlets and Social Media Might Be Stretching Scientific Truth
What’s more dangerous than outright pseudoscience? The exaggeration of scientific truth by otherwise reliable sources, probably. Oftentimes, these outlets don’t intend to mislead their followers, but rather can be a little bit too eager to share the latest ‘scientific’ news. But hey, you know what they say – something about roads paved with good intentions…
Take a look at the picture and statement above, that claims that hydrogen sulfide (H2S) could ‘help prevent mitochondrial damage, lowing (sic) the risk for cancer, stroke, heart attacks, and more.’ I first stumbled across this while browsing Instagram, and it was posted by an account that almost exclusively shared science facts.
First off, it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that H2S could lower the risk of the listed diseases given that the gas is pretty toxic even at low concentrations, and the grammatical error didn’t help its cause. And because the source wasn’t listed on the picture or in the comments, I decided to scour the internet for the aforementioned ‘study’.
It didn’t take too long for me to find that it wasn’t just going viral on social media, but similarly reported on ‘trustworthy’ news outlets too:
CNET and TIME – to name just a couple of news outlets – gobbled this juicy piece of information up and posted almost identical articles detailing the health benefits of smelling farts. (Update: TIME has since amended their article to highlight this error – kudos to them! We all make mistakes.)
A quick search brought me to the University of Exeter’s Research News website, and the article in which the study’s results were first sourced from. It turns out that their researchers had synthesized a compound that could deliver small amounts of H2S to mitochondria in cells, protecting them from damage; since H2S is a known reducing agent (a.k.a antioxidant) this conclusion wasn’t too far-fetched. They had then gone on to use this molecule in models of certain diseases and showed that it could protect the mitochondria in cells from oxidative stress.
Here’s where the public went all aboard the fantasy wagon express. Science correspondents from news outlets were probably a little too keen to jump the gun and declare H2S a miracle gas – breathing it in could prevent the onset of cancer, stroke, heart attacks, arthritis and a bunch of other diseases. Even your pet dog would probably sit up and take notice!
It turns out that their studies had only gone as far as in vitro models and in mice (which is really exciting in itself) but not a single study or trial on humans. Thankfully the editors at the University of Exeter website caught on and included a footnote at the end of their news article debunking the claims that other news websites had conjured up.
But has the damage already been done? Once something goes viral, it becomes extremely difficult to retract a story as it would have been shared many times.
So for those who share and communicate science, think about the people who visit your site, your page, your account and who trust the information that you provide. Most of us (myself included) first chance upon new discoveries not through a University’s ‘research news’ page but from popular sources with higher exposure. There are simply too many scientific journals and papers to scour through.
For readers and viewers of your favorite news outlets and social media platforms, treat everything with a healthy dose of logical and rational thinking. If something doesn’t seem to sit right, check its source, confirm the facts – be skeptical.