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Thursday, May 01, 2008 

The magic of pixie dust churnalism.

One of the first things you ought to learn if you have even the slightest inclination towards becoming a journalist is that if a story seems too good to be true, it usually is. In the current media climate, there are two challenges to this general rule of thumb: churnalism and the pressures of time, and secondly, if the story is even vaguely scientific. Throw a science story towards a load of humanities graduates, and watch as they leave all their credulity at the door.

In this case both come into play. Is it really possible that a man could have regrew over half an inch (some reports say over an inch) of his finger using something non-ironically called "pixie dust"? Did no one twig that this was PR guff when the man's brother was the one who suggested that he not get a skin graft and instead use dried pig's bladder and collagen conveniently manufactured by his own company? Who cares, it's a great story!

This wasn't just the tabloids falling for it. Almost everyone did: the BBC (who seem to have started the ball rolling), the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian, who have now replaced their article with one rather more sceptical. All of the articles also share another trait of churnalism: none bothered to actually check the story with someone who might know rather more about the powers of healing than the hack themselves until the Grauniad spoke to Professor Simon Kay. It also might have had something to do with the Grauniad's own Bad Science columnist, Ben Goldacre, who posted on his own site around 2 hours before the Guardian's rewrite with his own notes on why Lee Spievack's claims were garbage. Dr Aust in the comments adds some even more pertinent information:

Yes, I smell a marketing gambit.

Dr Alan R Spievack MD (who someone further up the thread indicated was the patient’s brother) is a co-author of several papers with Dr Badylak (e.g. here). Spievack’s address is listed on the papers as a company called Acellhere, have anything on the market for humans just yet… but one suspects they are, erm, keen to drum up positive PR and investors to help them move their portfolio forward. Dr Badylak’s name appears frequently in the company’s listing of preclinical proof-if-principle work, so he seems to be their main academic connection. who make extracellular matrix products as scaffolds for tissue re-growth. They don’t, according to their website

As ever, the credulousness and lazy lack of fact-checking of multiple “churnalists” is at the botton of this. Plus the “eeew!” factor - it reminds me of those grisly photo-stories mags like Nuts occasionally run on “the man whose knob had to be sewn back on - full shocking pictures inside”

Seems this story is also rather old - it appeared in Esquire last September, complete with the photos.

I wonder what triggered the world-wide wave of media interest now? There is an interesting study to be written somewhere on how these “copycat” science story-waves get started and propagate across the media-sphere.

As already noted, you'd expect something like this from the cretins at the Daily Mail that give space to snake-oil salesman of all varieties, from those who advocate the use of magnetics to homoeopaths and everything in-between. There's something seriously wrong with both journalism and the journalists themselves that such blatant fantasy is able to fill the pages without anyone in the office calling bullshit.

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