Science and Health News Reporting – The Case of the Regenerating Finger

Last week it was widely reported that an Ohio man, Lee Spievak, had regrown the end of his finger that had been chopped off in an accident. Reporters informed us, for example:

A man who sliced off the end of his finger in an accident has re-grown the digit thanks to pioneering regenerative medicine.

But this was not the real story. The true and amazing tale, rather, is of how the mainstream news media utterly failed to properly report this story. This is not an isolated incident, but a commonplace example of a broken system, and one that is getting worse. But first, let’s see how this reporting went wrong.

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame has done is usual excellent job of filling in the missing pieces. He writes:

Reconstructing the media frenzy, it all seems to have kicked off – this time around – with BBC New York correspondent Matthew Price doing a very credulous set of interviews that went live on the BBC site on Wednesday at 3pm.

Following these interviews a multitude of news outlets reported the story as it was spoon-fed to them, without doing any further research, without asking the basic journalistic questions, such as, “is this story really true as it is being told?” Rather, they seem to have followed the typical lazy journalist approach (by which I mean the approach of lazy journalists, with no disrespect to those who are doing actual quality journalism). They accepted the story at face value – that of an amazing scientific health breakthrough – and then plugged in appropriately “gee whiz” quotes from scientists, showed pictures that were designed to fit the story, and provided helpful animation to demonstrate what a regenerating finger would look like. The only problem is that the story is utter fiction, and the details the journalists plugged in were out of context and therefore completely misleading.

In the end, news reporting on this story served to confuse and misinform the public. They then left it to actual scientists to clean up their mess.

Here are the actual details of the story. Lee Spievak injured his finger, but the pictures clearly show that only the tip of his finger was cut. Although the angle of the photo shown by the media is highly misleading, because it makes it maximally difficult to see how much of the finger is missing, you can see that all three finger segments are still present and therefore the injury was to the very tip of the finger only. These kinds of injuries are common and often heal completely, without any special intervention. In the video interview, Spievak claims that his finger was chopped off below the last segment, taking with it the entire nail bed. But the pictures clearly show this is not the case – and yet this discrepancy did not trigger the slightest skepticism in the professional journalists reporting the story.

Next we are told that the “pioneering regenerative medicine,” whimsically referred to as “pixie dust” is a powder prepared from the extracellular matrix harvested from the inside of pig bladders. This all sounds sufficiently technical to dazzle the public, and apparently the reporters (more on this below). A quick conversation with almost any biologist or medical doctor could have informed the reporters that there is nothing special about extracellular matrix, and there is no reason to believe that it should have special regenerative powers. We are informed that the “pixie dust” was provided by Lee Spievak’s brother, Alan Spievak, who owns a biotech company that makes the pixie dust. Apparently, the fact that this news story would promote Spievak’s biotech company was not enough to trigger any journalistic skepticism.

Further – the injury and alleged regeneration took place over two years ago, in 2005. This is, in fact, the third time this same story has made the rounds in the media – so Spievak’s biotech company is getting a great deal of mileage out of this one tale. The entire affair reminds me of the Raelians, who in 2002 used the media to gullibly report their claim that they cloned a human, all to gain millions of dollars worth of free publicity.

Next, the news reporters put this non-story into the most sensational context they could. They relied upon Dr. Badylack, who is the chief science adviser for Acell, Spievak’s biotech company, for some objective commentary:

Dr Badylak said: “I think that within ten years that we will have strategies that will re-grow the bones, and promote the growth of functional tissue around those bones. And that is a major step towards eventually doing the entire limb.”

There are many scientists working on regenerative medicine. In fact the US military has recently committed to such research. We may make significant progress in the next 1-2 decades. But none of this has anything to do with the case of Lee Spievak. Speaking about regenerating entire limbs is a gross misrepresentation of its meaning. This was a case of completely normal healing – not regeneration, and there is no reason to think from the information available that Acell’s magic “pixie dust” has any useful properties.

To make matters worse, the BBC created animation showing more than half of a finger being regenerated – strongly implying that this is a reasonable representation of what happened to Spievak. Visual images like this have a huge impact on the impact a story makes and how people remember it.

So what went wrong with this story? Goldacre argues that the press failed because Matthew Price is a general reporter – not a science or health reporter. He therefore did not have the specific knowledge or experience to see that this story was bogus. The story then spread through other general reporters and editors, not health and science news desks. I agree that this is a major factor. It is further true that many newspapers and other news outlets, feeling the crunch of declining readership, are eliminating their science reporters and turning over their beats to general all-purpose journalists. Therefore, we should expect, if anything, more abysmal science reporting in the future from mainstream journalists and newspapers. Meanwhile, health and science news is becoming more complex, so the need for specialists is increasing.

But I don’t think this was the entire problem. One does not need specialized knowledge to crack this case. Basic generic journalistic curiosity and due diligence should have been enough. The story is old and is being recycled. What has happened to this “breakthrough” technology since? What do other experts – not on the payroll of the biotech company that stands to benefit from this story – have to say about this case and this technology? Why do the pictures provided seem to contradict the story that we are being told by Spievak and the Acell expert? Is this story really true?

Basic journalism.

On my podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, we interviewed Christopher Hitchens about the state of journalism today.  He had a great deal of criticism for his fellow journalist, and lamented that all too often reporters fail to ask the most basic questions about the story on which they are reporting. So this appears to be a generic problem within journalism – not unique to science reporting.

My sense is that this is simply a problem of mediocrity. Most people, by definition, are mediocre, or average, at what they do. So, by extension, most journalists are probably mediocre too. But the state of modern science and medicine is extremely complex – beyond the ability of the average journalist to do justice. Therefore, as is my experience, most reporting on complex science and health stories get significant details wrong, fail to put the story in an informative context, and tend to equate the authority of individuals with the authority of the scientific community or a strong consensus. These problems are exacerbated by controversial topics, or ones that involve fraud or deception.

To be fair, there are many excellent science news reporters out there, but they seem to be outnumbered by the mediocre masses.

To end on a positive note, I think there is another trend that has the potential to largely remedy the problem of poor science reporting. The internet has provided a medium for scientists with an inclination for teaching to bypass traditional media and go straight to the public, with blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, and whatever comes next. There is now an army of scientists who are truly experts who, in there spare time, can explain to the public the real story behind mainstream media misreporting, and who can put such information into a helpful and insightful context. The public has casual and free access to more and higher quality information than ever before.

I suspect this is largely why readers of traditional media are slowly dying off while younger consumers are increasingly going to the internet for their news and information.

If you are reading this blog, I suspect you might agree.

Posted in: Science and the Media

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