Archive for category Churnalism
Journalism is hard, guys! All that “interviewing” and “researching” and “fact checking” takes time and effort. It’s much easier if you can just nick someone’s article, rearrange the words and stick a misleading headline on it!
This week’s New Scientist has an article called “Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness” by Kayt Sukel. It’s pretty interesting – it’s about a couple of studies where women masturbated or had sex inside an fMRI machine (a type of MRI which shows which parts of the brain are active at any time), which imaged the activity in their brains to try to work out what happens in at orgasm. Interestingly, the two studies found completely opposite results. One group, led by Barry Komisaruk, found that one area of the brain – known as the prefrontal cortex or PFC – became extremely active at orgasm. Another group, led by Janniko Georgiadis, found a drop in PFC activity, and in particular, they found that the part of the PFC known as the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC shut down completely.
The article discusses a couple of possible reasons for this – Georgiadis suggests that since the PFC shuts down because the brain “loses control” at orgasm and enters an altered state of conciousness, while Komisaruk suggests that the PFC lights up because brain is investing heavily in controlling fantasy and pleasure. Since their experiments were slightly different, it’s of course possible that they’re both right – in Georgiadis’s experiments, the women had their partner with them in the fMRI machine, while in Komisaruk’s experiments, the women masturbated, and it’s possible that the two lead to very different patterns of brain activity (if the PFC plays a role in fantasy and imagination, it makes sense that it would be more active during masturbation).
At the end of the article, Komisaruk suggests that perhaps “anorgasmia” (the inability to have orgasms) might be treatable by having women “teach” their brains to have the right patterns of activity (one person New Scientist quotes, Kenneth Casey, compares this idea to the placebo effect – using the power of the mind to change the effect things have on the body), but since these are very early days, it’s certainly not a solid proposal. We don’t know which way round cause and effect are in this case anyway; perhaps changing the activity of the PFC causes orgasms, or perhaps orgasms change the behaviour of the PFC, and as Georgiadis notes:
I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect
Anyway, all very interesting, but quite vague, being more theoretical than practical at the moment. Unless you’re the Daily Mail, that is!
Yes, for the Mail, these aren’t tentative – and confusing – first steps towards understanding the mental pathways that lead to orgasm, this is NEW HOPE FOR WOMEN WHO CAN’T CLIMAX. And also an excuse to show a model in her underwear miming either an orgasm or a sideways migrane. But mostly the NEW HOPE thing.
Interestingly, the Daily Mail ignores Komisaruk’s work completely – although he gets quoted at the bottom of the article, nowhere does the Mail mention his contradictory findings, presumably because that would mean that things are a tiny bit complicated and science can never be complicated!* This makes it a lot easier to pass the musings about a “cure for anorgasmia” as cold hard scientific fact, of course… but they’re not, they are just musings.
For some reason though – presumably because it’s the picture New Scientist used – they use a picture from Komisaruk’s experiment showing Sukel‘s brain, even though it shows exactly the opposite to what the Mail claims (the area in the image labeled “A” is the prefrontal cortext, and instead of being shut down it’s lit up like a Christmas tree). Not only is Daily Mail Reporter misrepresenting New Scientist‘s article, it’s doing a terrible job of it.
It’s not quite as terrible as “New theory could be “greatest discovery since chemotherapy”” or “Ten easy ways to beat cancer“, but it’s still a classic example of the press taking preliminary findings and twisting them into into “NEW HOPE” where hope may not (yet) be warranted.
* It’s also possible that the Daily Mail didn’t want to mention the possibility that people (even *gasp* women) might masturbate, but perhaps that theory’s a bit too Daily Mail Island (NSFW).
It’s one of the oldest clichés in the book. You go to a party, get completely hammered, and wake up in bed with a dodgy PR firm.
Today’s ill-advised hookup is a threesome between The Express, The Mirror and a non-alcoholic drinks company called Sweet Lady Beverages, who claim that “the average Briton will spend five years of their life with a hangover“.
Before we look at the article itself, a quick sanity check. Life expectancy in the UK is roughly 80 years, and it’s unlikely people are going to experience hangovers before the age of about 15 or so. So, at maximum, that gives the average Brit about 65 drinking years. If the Express‘s statistics are true, we spend 8% of our adult lives hung over – we would spend more time hungover than we would eating. It’s amazing anyone gets anything done.
The article goes on to say that:
“[Britons] will suffer the ill effects for a whole day – usually a Sunday – at least once a week between the ages of 21 and 38.“
Bear in mind that this an average. According to Sweet Lady Beverages, the average person is hung over every week until the age of 40, and those hangovers last all day. That sounds a tiny bit excessive. After all, one – much more scientific – study found that having even just one hangover per month over an extended period is linked to a major increase (around 2.36 times) in heart attack risk.* And yet somehow, we’re not dropping like flies.
As far as I can tell – there’s no information about this survey available on the web outside these two articles – Sweet Lady Beverages simply asked visitors to its site to answer some questions about hangovers. There’s no published methodology; in other words, they don’t say what questions were asked or what precautions they made to make sure they had a fair sample.
For instance, they could have asked
It would certainly explain the odd results they got.
The Sweet Lady Beverage company is quoted by the Express as saying
The message we can take from this is simple – by reducing our alcohol intake we can reduce the amount of time feeling wretched.
Oddly on-message for a company selling alcohol-free drinks, wouldn’t you say?
* I can’t find many good scientific studies of hangovers. A lot of them are rather hamstrung by the fact that surveys usually take place in university, and therefore involve university students – not very representative of the drinking habits of the wider population! Nevertheless, this paper suggests that only 15% of the population have more than hangover per month.
Edit: The Daily Mail has now picked up the story too.
The road I live on has a railway running across the end of it. Every day, hundreds of tons of metal speeds along the line just a hundred metres or so from my house. Yet I don’t live in fear of waking up one morning and finding a train’s crashed into my house, because of course the trains are restricted to the railway tracks.
Space is much the same. Asteroids are whizzing around over our heads every day, but they follow precisely defined orbits through the sky. An asteroid passing close to the Earth is no more a “near miss” than a train passing my house without hitting it is a “lucky escape”.
It’s a simple enough idea, you’d think, and yet…
Thankfully, the 50m long rock that could have destroyed a small country went barely noticed as it passed earth at a distance of some 2,085,321 miles.
Yes, the asteroid 2011 GP59 could have destroyed a small country. If it was two million miles closer.
Once again, this article has been taken from the Australian news site news.com.au, who seem to have a thing for scaremongering stories about space; they also started the rumour that Betelgeuese would go supernova in 2012 and gave credence to the shameful “supermoon” story. At least the Mail‘s headline is less awful than news.com.au’s, who’ve gone with “Scientists find asteroid with potential power of 15 atomic bombs. Heading this way. Tonight.” which surely has to rival shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre in terms of unethical scaremongering stupidity.
Incidentally, the claim that it’s “as powerful as 15 atomic bombs” doesn’t come from any scientific authority. It comes from the news.com.au journalist – who doesn’t appear to be a science journalist at all, but a technology journalist – digging up an old New Scientist article about an asteroid that exploded with the energy of three nuclear bombs (three of the very small Hiroshima bombs, I should point out, not a modern nuclear bomb), and then scaling it up. This is a stupid calculation for a number of reasons:
- You can’t just say “this asteroid is 10 metres long, this asteroid is 50 metres long, therefore it’s 5 times bigger”. It’s the volume which is important – the length times the width times the height. Assuming the asteroid is 5 times bigger in each direction, then it’s 5 x 5 x 5 times bigger, which is 125 times the size. If the journalist hadn’t cocked up his maths, he could have made this asteroid sound EVEN SCARIER. Except…
- The amount of energy an asteroid has depends on its speed. A fast moving asteroid carries far more energy than a slow moving one, and a small increase in speed causes a much larger increase in energy.** The gravitational pull of the Earth as the asteroid approaches plays a large role in determining its speed, so the energy it would have would depend on the route it took to Earth. Since this asteroid is not heading for Earth, it’s meaningless to ask how much energy it would have if it hit Earth.
- It also depends what the asteroid is made of. Most asteroids are made of dust and ice, and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere. A few – maybe one per year – explode high up in the atmosphere. And a very, very few – mostly large metallic asteroids that don’t burn as well – hit the ground. Again, we don’t know what this asteroid is made of.
- THE ASTEROID IS TWO MILLION MILES AWAY AND WILL NOT HIT EARTH AT ANY TIME IN THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE.
At any rate, there are literally thousands of asteroids this big – or indeed much bigger – rattling around near-Earth space, and there must be thousands more we haven’t detected yet. It’s worth being sensibly worried about the risk of currently undiscovered asteroid hitting us, but getting worked up about an asteroid that we know can’t hit us is just stupid.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dig a train-proof bunker in my garden.
* Psst, Daily Mail Reporter. “Earth” has a capital “e”.
** In fact, energy is proportional to speed squared – if you double your speed, your energy goes up fourfold.
Let’s suppose you were putting together the most stereotypical Daily Mail health story (that wasn’t about cancer). What would you include?
Well, obviously first of all, you need your patients. They should be someone Mail readers can sympathise with – white, straight, middle-class, happy and utterly conventional.
When Charlotte Davies met her future husband there was an instant attraction […]
The university administrator met [accountant] Dean three years ago in a bar in Colchester, Essex, and the pair quickly became inseparable.
Secondly, we need a disease. That can either be something rare and terrible – a unique form of cancer, for instance, or a disease like meningitis that often affects the young – or it can be something everyday, like sore joints or high blood pressure… or eczema.
Unfortunately for her, there was also an instant reaction – on her skin. Within weeks of meeting her soulmate, her eyelids erupted with eczema and her eyes had swelled to the size of golf balls.
Third, doctors have to be baffled. If your patient just stumbled to the GP and got a diagnosis, that’s no good. They have to have to been bounced from hospital to hospital until some maverick doctor (who may be played by Hugh Laurie) works out what the true problem was. Better yet, medical science should fail all together, and “alternative medicine” has to provide the “answers”.
Doctors struggled to explain the sudden reaction and it was a homeopath who eventually diagnosed the cause…
Fourth, you need a hook. Something that makes this case of eczema different from the millions of others out there.
… as love.
‘He told me that it was common for eczema to be effected by emotions, but typically due to stress, trauma or unhappiness. This was the first time they had ever heard of someone being allergic to love’, she said.
‘I felt like my body was putting Dean to the test, because even though my heart told me he was The One, it was as if my body wanted to see if he really was a good as he seemed.
‘If he loved me after my eyes had turned into a bright red tomatoes literally within days of meeting him, then I’d know his love was true.’
Fifth, you need a moral. Something to appeal to the Daily Mail‘s sensibilities. One common one is the story of the mother who goes against medical advice to abort a foetus, and is then lucky enough to bring it to term safely – women who aren’t so lucky don’t seem to make the papers in quite the same way, of course. In this case, the moral is…
She said: ‘In December we got married and the eczema started to get a lot better. Perhaps my hormones calmed down and I just felt more relaxed once we were married, but it certainly seems to have cured me.’
The headline goes even further: “Allergic to love: Meeting my soulmate brought me out in itchy eczema… until he proposed”.* You heard it here first – living in sin causes eczema!
Oh, and sixth, you need to blatantly plug a product, of course!
Charlotte tried a concoction of steroids, creams, and alternative medicines, to no avail. Eventually she chanced upon Skin Shop’s Dry Eye Gel, a product she describes as ‘miraculous’ at treating the symptoms. […]
Dry Eye Gel costs £8.99 for 30ml and is available from [ADDRESS REDACTED]
Incidentally, the Dry Eye Gel website promotes their product “As seen in the Daily Mail“, while every photo in the article – including the couples wedding pictures – are credited to “Eastnews Press Agency”, a PR photography company which claims on its site that “We know exactly the style of images National and Regional newspapers demand. With this knowledge we can give you and your clients the best opportunity to gain maximum press exposure. We can offer everything from straight forward picture coverage to an all-in-one package. This would include a full “news write through” of press releases and picture distribution service direct to National and Regional Press.”
Come to think of it, it sure was convenient for everyone involved that a woman decided to tell a national newspaper about her relatively minor skin condition, wasn’t it?
(Thanks to Tabloid Watch for pointing out the Dry Eye Gel website)
* There’s a joke about loveless marriage in there somewhere, but I’m not cruel enough to make it.
Devastating asteroid impacts are thankfully incredibly rare, with millions of years between impacts. One thing that’s not rare is the killer asteroid scare story.
Today’s Mail claims ‘Doomsday’ asteroid could slam into the Earth on April 13, 2036… but don’t worry, we’ll have seven years’ warning, ominously following that with “Warning comes days after another asteroid shot over the Pacific just 3,400 miles above the Earth’s surface”
First of all, the asteroid that shot “just” 3,400 miles over the Pacific? That was Asteroid 2011 CQ1, and it was about the size of a washing machine. That’s not dangerous. At all. According to NASA, “there is likely to be nearly a billion objects of this size and larger in near-Earth space and one would expect one to strike Earth’s atmosphere every few weeks on average“. Far from being dangerously close, this asteroid was unusual in that it didn’t quite hit us – if it had, it would have burnt up harmlessly in the atmosphere and no-one bar a few astronomers would have noticed.
Anyway, the “”doomsday” asteroid” in question is Apophis, a name you’ll probably recognise from previous media frenzies in 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2005. Nothing has changed since then; in fact, the odds of collision are gradually getting longer (its position on the danger scale has dropped from 4 – a 1% chance of dangerous impact – to zero). We’ve got a fairly good idea of what the asteroid’s path looks like, but there’s a tiny bit of uncertainty we’ve still not cleared up and it’s possible that it might be on a path that will eventually hit Earth. Luckily for us, the odds that it’s on that path are just 1-in-250,000 (your odds of being killed by Apophis are roughly the same as the odds of being killed by rats or cave-in, apparently). We’re talking lottery odds here.
For a more detailed analysis, there’s a great post at Bad Astronomy – Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger!
As Nick Ross used to say, don’t have nightmares.
Only nine per cent of those surveyed had ever sent a letter – and most of those were over 50 – while more than two-thirds prefer to say “I love you” by text.
An additional 24 per cent would rather send an email to express their feelings, while 14 per cent said they would post a message on their lover’s Facebook wall.
In further shocking news, very few couples surveyed courted via telegraph, and fewer still stood on hilltops furiously waving sweet nothings in semaphore. The Express quotes relationship expert Jo Barnett saying this shows that “[people] want an instant relationship with instant physical contact, they feel they’ve not got enough time to romance their partner” rather than the more immediately obvious conclusion that people are just sending fewer letters in general.
If the love letter is dead, then it seems male chivalry is also on its last legs as just four per cent of men said they would send flowers to their partner’s place of work. Only five per cent stand up when their partner stands from the dinner table, while only 12 per cent have booked a surprise weekend away.
This is the same rubbish that comes out every few months; pearl-clutching panic about how “chivalry is dead” (a phrase which appears 49 times on The Mail‘s site, incidentally) when it would be more accurate to say “society’s norms about how men should treat women are (slowly) changing to be less infantilising” (a less snappy headline, I’ll admit). After all, I’m pretty sure if I stood every time my girlfriend left the table, she wouldn’t find that chivalrous but instead rather creepy.
Anyway, I’m sure there was a perfectly valid, academic reason this survey was done, right?
The study was to mark the DVD release of romantic comedy Going the Distance.
Going the Distance is released on Blu-ray Triple Play and DVD today, from Warner Home Video.
I bet The Telegraph‘s science desk leapt for joy when they realised they could have a run a story with the headline “Men should concentrate on playing with their children and leave the care to women“.
Trouble is, the actual study didn’t say that. Instead, it showed that parents* whose roles overlap tend to be more competitive, and sometimes that competitiveness can undermine the support given to the child. For couples who can avoid letting that rivalry get the better of them, there’s no reason both parents can’t share caregiving duties.
Incidentally, the paper doesn’t seem to mention couples where the men did the majority of the caregiving and women just focused on playing; since there’d be no competition in these couples, there’d be none of the undermining behaviour seen in the study.
The Telegraph‘s article seems to quote heavily from this Science Daily article, though curiously they forget to neglect to quote the author’s conclusions:
Overall, [study leader Sarah] Schoppe-Sullivan said the results show that each couple has to decide for themselves which way works best when it comes to taking care of their children.
“There is more than one path to an effective co-parenting relationship,” she said.
“Effective co-parenting is not necessarily synonymous with equally sharing caregiving duties.”
In other words, this study isn’t saying “men are bad parents”, it’s saying “every couple is different”. There’s a big difference between the two.
* All the parents in the study were in couples, most were married, all lived in Midwest America, and they all had 4-year-old children; hardly a definitive sample of all parents anyway. I don’t have access to the paper, unfortunately, so I don’t know where all the parents involved were the birth parents of the children, whether any of the children were adopted, whether any of the couples were same-sex, etc.
Sunday has always been a slow day for newspapers, hence the venerable old tradition of the Sunday document leak. The newspapers find a few fairly uninteresting reports, blow them out of all proportion, and voilà! Instant front page (picture via @JonathanHaynes).
Today’s Mail on Sunday exclusive, which took the joint efforts of both Jonathan Petre and Chris Hastings to write, can be summed up by its over-long headline:
Gays on hovercraft? Chinese fishermen? How mad!
The gist of the article is simple enough: the Mail claims that because of the Equality Act 2010, the government has wasted taxpayers money on “bizarre reports” – supposedly to the tune of £30 million. But how “mad” are these reports, anyway? Let’s go through each of the documents the Mail calls “bizarre” and see.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) paid £100,000 to consultants who produced a report investigating how efforts to boost Britain’s coastal fish stocks would affect minority communities including the Chinese, homosexuals and Welsh speakers.
That refers to this document: Draft UK Marine Policy Statement: Equalities Impact Assessment Screening report. The only time Chinese people, gay people and Welsh speakers are mentioned is once in a piece of boilerplate listing various groups that live in Britain (and yes, that includes white people and men) and asking whether any of them might be affected, with the answer of course being “No”. According to the Mail, “the assessment was a ‘small part’ of the total work by Hyder Consulting, for which it was paid £111,477,” though that doesn’t stop them insinuating that every single penny of that hundred grand was spend ticking one checklist.
The Department for Transport issued a study this month looking at harassment and discrimination on ships and hovercraft. The report covered a range of groups, including transsexuals.
So it’s ships and hovercraft? Why are you just focusing on hovercraft then, Mail on Sunday? Oh wait, it’s because hovercraft are inherently silly, which means homophobic or transphobic abuse on board them is also silly!
The study itself mostly seems to be dealing with clarifying whether the Equality Act should apply to all British flagged vessels, whether it should apply to all vessels in British waters, that sort of thing. A bit of space is also dedicated to making sure disabled people have access to ships – as you can imagine, ships are often not very wheelchair friendly. Transgender people are only mentioned once, in some standard boilerplate, which, again, is just saying “We foresee no special problems for transgender people using ships, no further action is necessary.”
Officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport [carried] out a so-called ‘equality impact assessment’ to ensure minority groups are able to take a full part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations next summer.
This seems to be based on a piece that the Mail got caught plagiarising from a blog last month (the report itself is not out yet). Not sure why that’s meant to be bizarre. After all, The Mail‘s always going on about how immigrants should integrate with British society more. You’d think they’d love the idea!
Everyone knows the old Mark Twain quote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes“. Today we have a weirdly literal example of that.
A couple of days ago, the Australian news site news.com.au ran a story which claimed that the star Betelgeuse was going to go supernova in 2012, that its explosion would light up the sky, that it would burn so brightly that we’d have two suns, and that the explosion would tie in with the old 2012 Mayan prophecy BS.
Pretty quickly, astronomers like Phil Plait and Ian O’Neill wrote responses to the article, pointing out that while an exploding Betelgeuse would be spectacular, it would still be less bright than the moon (so no two suns), it would be too far away to have any effect on the planet, and we have no way of knowing whether Betelgeuse would explode tomorrow or in a million years.
Guess which line the British papers have gone for?
The Daily Mail runs with Earth ‘to get second sun’ as supernova turns night into day, complete with a still from Star Wars (because that’s a movie that had two suns in it!) while The Telegraph has ‘Second sun’ on its way. Both claim that “scientists” have predicted the 2012 supernova, but as far as I can tell, no-one’s done any such thing. The scientist quoted by news.com.au actually just made perfectly sensible comments about what supernovae are – the only connection to 2012 is randomly thrown in by the journalist who wrote the piece, Claire Connelly.
For a full debunking, either of the blogposts linked above is worth reading, as is news.com.au’s own apologetic follow-up, Betelgeuse ‘not likely to explode in 2012’.
Of course, it won’t be long before this story – devoid of context and rebuttals – gets pride of place on 2012 conspiracy sites, and then the whole vicious cycle will begin again.
Remember the arsenic-based bacteria that it turned out probably weren’t arsenic based at all? There’s echoes of that in today’s Daily Mail story: “Life on Earth DID begin in space, according to study of samples found on meteorites“.
“Life began in space” is a rather bold statement to make, and it doesn’t take long before the Mail back tracks:
A meteorite study has strengthened evidence that life on Earth began in space.
Many experts believe biological raw ingredients were carried to Earth in lumps of asteroid rock.
A key clue lies in the molecular structure of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and living organisms.
The molecules come in two mirror-image varieties, known as left and right-handed. But only left-handed amino acids are found in nature.
To be fair to The Mail, the rest of the article isn’t too bad – unsurprising really, since it’s basically just a shortened version of the NASA press release. But that headline!
Left and right-handedness here refers to something called chirality – a chiral molecule is one which, no matter how much you rotate it, cannot be superposed on its mirror image. Amino acids (shown in the picture above) are almost all chiral*, which leads to something rather interesting. You see, your body builds proteins by linking together long chains of amino acids to form very delicately folded structures. Because left-handed and right-handed amino acids are different shapes, you can’t simply swap one for the other without messing up the entire chain. Similarly, your digestive enzymes are very precisely shaped so that they can “grab onto” left-handed amino acids but not right-handed ones. As far as your body’s concerned, right-handed amino acids are more or less invisible.
Where this gets fascinating, though, is that all life on Earth uses left-handed amino acids to build proteins. Why evolution “picked” left-handed amino acids over right-handed isn’t certain. It could just have been that in the beginning both left-handed and right-handed amino acids existed, racing to form life, and the left-handed ones won. Or it could have that something called circularly polarised radiation either from the Sun or from distant dying stars destroyed some of the right-handed acids as soon as they formed, giving the left-handed acid a headstart.
NASA’s discovery – that meteors contain slightly more of the left-handed form of a specific amino acid than the right-handed form – suggests that the latter is true. But that’s all it suggests. It’s a shame; this a very interesting story on its own, and written up by anyone other than our anonymous friend Daily Mail Reporter it could have been fascinating to read and could have got readers a tiny bit more interested in science.
Instead, the Mail just nicks the press release, sticks a blatantly misleading headline on it and pumps it onto the internet in hurry to beat all the other newspapers. After all, a page hit is a page hit, regardless of whether the readers get through the whole thing or just scan three lines before releasing they’ve been misled.
* The one exception is the smallest amino acid, glycine, which is too simple to have a mirror image.