A little common sense could go a long way for a journalist

Recently circulated newspaper claims that the common Bed Bug may be able to cure AIDs are false and plainly ridiculous.

In a stunning and systemic display of poor science reporting, on September 2nd The Independent ran a brief article making these spurious claims. Within just hours, other newspapers around the world were running the same flawed story.

Over the last three weeks there has been a storm of news reporting on the international resurgence of the once-common human bed bug. That this should be considered news is baffling in itself, since pest controllers and entomologists have noted this insectan insurrection for a decade. The general circulation of inaccuracy and misinformation on bed bugs is impressive (see entomologist Richard Naylor’s excellent blog for more details), but the recent AIDs ‘story’ surely tops the lot.

The paper trail leading to this story is convoluted enough that it would be difficult for it to have not missed the mark so very widely, providing what ought to be a textbook example to would-be science reporters in how to not research a story.

The Independent’s article was based on a blog,  which despite it’s title was largely concerned with the problem of bed bug pesticide resistance. The HIV story therein was in turn based upon a recent New York Times article, which referred to a study carried out in 1986. A twenty-four year old study is hardly news.

Even ignoring that the route to the story is worryingly convoluted, it is concerning that such a story can be published when ten seconds’ thought demolishes the scientific basis of the article. AIDs is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and cannot survive long outside of a human host. It is therefore intuitively obvious that it should not survive inside an insect such as the Bed Bug, just as it cannot survive in biros, lampshades or clothes hangers. It was because of this that the 1986 study found that they do not transmit HIV, however this doesn’t mean that Bed Bugs have found a successful way of combating the disease. HIV is as relevant to Bed Bugs as are bath towels to the orbit of Jupiter.

By the same logic employed by The Independent’s article, one could claim that tea cups, lampshades and the Turin Shroud are potential cures for AIDs. Obviously, they are not.

The fact that a respectable newspaper, reputed to pride itself on it’s accuracy, has published a sensationalist article with a clear lack of any recourse to research literature is in itself a worrying indictment of scientific journalism. That it has done so in such patently daft fashion is both hilarious and dangerous for public faith in and understanding of science.

 

This is a guest blog written by Adam Dobson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sheffield researching the evolutionary basis of pathogen resistance in insects.