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7Nov 2013

New body part discovered? Yes, in 1879.

New body part discovered? Yes, in 1879.

It was startling news, but an easy story to write: Scientists have discovered a new body part! Amazing, isn't it, that something could have eluded us since the time of Hippocrates?

Well, it would be amazing, except for one little detail, a detail so trivial I'm embarrassed to bring it up: It isn't true.

But, hey, it's an unusually warm Thursday in New York, I'm feeling good about life, so let's give the journalists who bungled this story a break.

Why? Because in order to discover that the story wasn't true, they would have had to dig down all the way to the very first line of the study's abstract, which says, "In 1879, the French surgeon Segond described the existence of a 'pearly, resistant, fibrous band' at the anterolateral aspect of the human knee..."

That's the body part in question, as journalists who even glanced at the abstract would have known. The darn thing was discovered 134 years ago.

USA Today's story, headlined, "New body part discovered," reports that the new study confirmed the existence of the thing, called the anterolateral ligament, or ALL. The story then says that in Segond had "speculated" about the ligament, when the abstract clearly says that he "described" it. (Please excuse the annoying overuse of italics, but it's hard to write normally when you're grinding your teeth.)

Gizmodo's story: "It may sound impossible but scientists have discovered a new body part."

Vanity Fair: "Newly Discovered Body Part Means New Sections of WebMD to Memorize!" Funny, right?

TIME: "Your Knee Bone's Connected to Your...What? Scientists Discover New Body Part." This story has the virtue of consistency. Unlike some of the others, it's wrong all the way through. Congrats, people! Segond, TIME writes, "theorized" that the knee might have another ligament.

FoxNews.com: "Surgeons Discover New Ligament in Human Knee." The story reports that the study's authors "looked into a theory made by a French surgeon in 1879, which claimed that an unknown ligament existed on the anterior of the human knee." Well, what was it--a theory, or a claim? Prospectors can theorize about the location of gold deposits, but that falls far short of staking a claim.

MsnNow.com: "Doctors find totally new, undiscovered part of the human body." MsnNow also reports that the Anatomical Society found this discovery "very refreshing."

I'll spare you any further examples, but here's the catch: This study was published online on Aug 1, 2013. Why the sudden pickup now?

Apparently because the University of Leuven in Belgium, where the study's authors work, put out a press release this week. The release sadly lacks TIME's sparkling consistency. Its headline reports that surgeons described the ligament, which is--gasp!--correct. (The release still wrongly calls it a "new" ligament, as Ed Yong pointed out to me.) But the release's author can't help but go further in the text. The French surgeon "postulated" the existence of the ligament, it says. Wrong again; he described it.

That release was picked up by ScienceDaily, a press-release aggregator that masquerades as a news site, and which mangled the news further. "New ligament discovered in the human knee," the headline reports. "Two knee surgeons at University Hospitals Leuven have discovered a previously unknown ligament in the human knee..." the story begins. ScienceDaily parrots the release's "postulated." And just for fun, ScienceDaily describes the new study as something "that could signal a breakthrough" in treatment of ACL injuries in the knee.

Only a single ray of hope penetrated my day, which had started out hopeful and turned so depressingly dark. The website io9 ("We come from the future") got it right. "No," its headline read, "science has not discovered a new body part." The stories, it writes with admirable clarity, are "all crap." It even links to the original French paper, where, if you're so inclined, you can read about des ligaments dans le genou.

Moi, I'm heading to yoga; I don't know how else to unclench my jaw.

-Paul Raeburn

 

Comments

Charlie,

I'd hoped it would be clear that I was being facetious when I said we should give reporters a break, but judging from your comment, it wasn't.

The gag was supposed to be that the very first line of the abstract said the ligament had been described earlier, which meant that even the most cursory and slipshod reporting should have uncovered the error.

As you point out (more or less), any reporter who blows one like this should never be allowed anywhere near a human body part again.

Paul - Wonderful post. You are too generous however, describing your amiability via a plea, "Let's give the journalists who bungled this story a break." If a reporter is to consider himself or herself a journalist, they don't rely on press releases for the whole packet of facts that is needed and put all their energy into rewriting the angle the press release seems to offer.

    io9 merits a B for reporting (anybody whose editor gives them even a smidgen of time for actual reporting should have figured this out). It gets an A-plus for well-expressed scorn for the churnalistic competition.

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