When inaccurate science stories go viral and spiral out of control

    Listen
    (Shutterstock Image: http://shutr.bz/1KKnxKG)

    (Shutterstock Image: http://shutr.bz/1KKnxKG)

    As you were scrolling through your Facebook and Twitter feeds last week, did you notice an unusual amount of stories about beards being as dirty as toilets? Well, you’re not alone. The story was shared, retweeted, favorited and talked about numerous times before being shot down and debunked by scientists and researchers.

    It got us thinking about all of the inaccurate science stories that go viral with a catchy, but misleading, headline, so we asked regular Pulse contributor and Science News writer Bethany Brookshire to tell us about how to best handle all of this hype in the scientific world.

    She started off by telling us about this most recent case.

    “It was a small news station in Albuquerque,” she said. “News stations have a long and glorious history of sending people out to swab various surfaces for science to find bacteria on them. So they apparently sent one of their reporters out with a microbiologist, swabbed a few beards and ‘oh my goodness there is bacteria in your facial hair and some of it is similar to the bacteria that is found in your gastrointestinal tract.'”

    It quickly escalated from that to “hey, there’s poop in your beard” and “your beard is as dirty as a toilet.”

    “It was an amazing hype cycle,” she said. “It was the combination of beards, which is something that is popular right now and something that everyone has an opinion on… and bacteria, which is scary, and bacteria found in feces, which is even scarier.”

    In this case, “it turns out that there are bacteria in beards that are also found in our guts, which means they are found in fecal matter,” she said. “But if you’re worried about that, just don’t swab your phone.”

    Brookshire said there are a couple of studies that have investigated what causes hype and, ultimately, what leads reports to go viral.

    “The things that go viral are the things that are emotionally salient,” she said, “things that everyone has an opinion on and things that people want to be right about.”

    To combat this type of widespread hype, Brookshire suggests news consumers do their research.

    “Certainly see what reputable science reporting sites are saying about the study,” she said. “If they aren’t covering it, that’s one thing. If they are covering it and have a lot of outside commenters, other scientists saying ‘I don’t know about this study,’ that’s a red flag.

    She also suggests checking out the new website, Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific retractions and explains why they were retracted. But keep in mind that the retraction process is a long and complicated one so it may take years before certain studies are officially debunked. 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.