Earlier this month, the Slate science writer Dan Engber noticed a story circulating in the British media regarding the so-called "five second rule" - the idea that if dropped food is only on the floor for a few seconds, bacteria don't have a chance to swarm it.
Wait, he thought, hasn't that whole idea been discredited? But then he noticed that the new study was funded by a cleaning products company. That fact - and the fact that the industry-subsidized work was getting such attention - led Engber to have a higher-calling kind of moment. Surely U.S. journalists wouldn't have fallen for such company propaganda, he thought? What was wrong with British science writers? And would it rub off on their more noble brethren in the U.S.?
"A great garbage patch of has been forming across the Atlantic, and bits of flotsam are washing up on our shores," Engber wrote. "What makes the Brits so susceptible to these ginned up studies and publicity stunts? And what happens when their faux research starts drifting across the internet?"
His story, titled "Dodgy Boffins: What's Wrong with Science Journalism in the UK?" is worth reading because he's such a good writer and because he has so much fun exploring the question. But it's also worth reading because underneath the lighthearted approach (when he uses the term "garbage patch" above, he links to a story about floating garbage in the oceans) is a very real look at the troubling ways that journalism works today.
And his conclusion will leave you wondering less about British science journalists after all and more about science writers on this side of the Atlantic. As it turns out, that noble brethren concept doesn't really hold up as well as we U.S. journalists might have hoped.
--- Deborah Blum