Science Borealis

Science Borealis
Science Borealis

Friday, 5 July 2013

Misleading titles - real science, false impression

Science breakthroughs are exciting. They change our lives, they hold the promise for a better world.
Sometimes the explanation is straight forward, and can be easily understood by most people, even if they don't have any related background.

But sometimes, in the process of trying to convey breakthrough research to the ordinary person, editors (or bloggers, or twitters, or facebookers or .....) pick up on a concept they know about (even partially) and use that as the "catch", the title that will make people want to read the article/watch the video.

The problem?

Creating a false notion in people's perception. Misleading them to think something which is (scientifically speaking) is not true.

Today's example (and there are examples like this one popping out too often than one would like to admit):

"Doctors Take A Long Shot And Inject HIV Into Dying Girl. The Reason Why Will Amaze You."

But the real science is more subtle than that, as carefully outlined by Cancer Research UK:

Their most important message to the public is:
"To be absolutely clear, the doctors in the video did NOT inject HIV – nor a “deadly disease” – into a child."

The reason for the misleading title is pinned to the fact that:
"According to the video ... the virus used in these experiments was originally derived from HIV, ... However, the virus has undergone significant genetic tinkering, meaning that it is no longer harmful ... And it’s arguable whether it should even be referred to as HIV at all, given how much it has been altered."

What really happened was that the HIV was used to alter the patient's own immune cells, to allow them to "infect" the rest of the body's immune cells with a new genetic trait (the one that kills the cancer cells).

Perhaps one can be forgiving, saying "but you admit that they used HIV, so what's all the fuss?"
The problem is that with such a title, people get the impression that HIV was the cure, where is fact, it was simply a "tool" to reprogram the body's immune cells.

Would you believe me if I told you I painted my house with Acetone? you would think this is odd.
But if I used Acetone as a paint thinner, and painted my house with the "modified" paint, you would naturally say that claiming I painted my house with Acetone is misleading. Yes, Acetone was part of the paint, but saying I painted with Acetone gives you the wrong impression.
Exactly like the story of the HIV and cancer cure. 

Words are powerful.
Use them wisely.

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