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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 9th December 2011 

Last Saturday, I berated the Daily Mail for printing a story about ricin, the poison derived from Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, that, by my reckoning, contained four lies. I said at the time that the use of an American spelling suggested that the Mail had lifted a paragraph from a press release but I couldn’t confirm that as I hadn’t seen the press release.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Today, I did find the press release from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) and it seems I was wrong to say the Daily Mail lifted one paragraph from the press release; it paraphrased huge chunks of the release without making any critical assessment of what it said.

It is a sad part of modern life that science has become a very competitive business. Future financing for individual scientists and the organisations that employ them can be determined by how successful the scientist or organisation can be shown to be.

It’s no longer enough to get a scientific paper published in a peer reviewed journal. That journal must deliver a high ‘impact factor’ and the holy grail is to get coverage of your work in the mainstream media.

This is not a criticism of the scientists involved but rather of the press offices at their institutions who see their role as hyping new publications to get them the greatest coverage. The release from the IMBA, which you can find here in pdf format is one of the worst I’ve seen for presenting work as being about something that it is not because that is the way to get the attention of the mainstream.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Without repeating much of what I wrote before, I’ll give a few direct quotes from the press release so you can see what I mean. The release is headlined ‘How the bioweapon ricin kills’ just to make sure it stands out from all the press releases passing across the average journalist’s inbox. Then, in the first two paragraphs it says;

‘A key protein that controls how the deadly plant poison and bioweapon ricin kills’

In an ideal world, I’d like them not to have said ‘deadly’ or ‘kills’ but in any world calling ricin a ‘bioweapon’ is just plain wrong.

‘Al Quaida, a terror organization, was reported to be producing bombs’

As I’ve said, many times, it was reported that there were suspicions that it was trying to collect castor beans and, after that, everything else in the August story was speculation. Incidentally, we can now see where the Mail’s confusion about the name of the terror organisation came from; it has lifted the ‘Al Quaida’ from the IMBA release and no-one seems to have read the finished story before publishing it.

‘Since the First World War, ricin has had a gruesome reputation as a bioweapon.’

The Mail took this sentence and simply re-produced it in full when it could have easily searched its own archives to find that ricin has no such reputation.

As is typical of this sort of press release, after the first two paragraphs it gets on with reporting what the new paper is actually about and what the work hopes to achieve. It does say that the protein that has been discovered has been shown to be essential for ‘the deadly effect’ and the Mail reproduced that as ‘for ricin to kill’ because, of course ‘killing’ is more active and emotive than something being ‘deadly’.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Whose fault is it that this sort of thing happens every day with scientific information? The press offices of universities and other scientific organisations are not able to pay to get the highest quality PR specialists so we shouldn’t, perhaps, expect any better from them.

The press, especially these days, has shown itself increasingly willing to let PR organisations do its work for it. The Mail’s story was credited to a ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ so, I assume, it never crossed the desk of the science correspondent who just might, if I give the benefit of an enormous doubt, have recognised the hype in the press release and looked at the paper itself to see what it was really about.

The scientists themselves should, of course, pay more attention to what the press office is doing because this is not a new problem and even the most focussed of scientists must be aware of the number of times it has been necessary for others to disown the organisation’s press releases when challenged on what their work was about. But, it seems likely that scientists are themselves vulnerable to lies and accept it when told that the promotion of their work is essential for their future funding.

I’m far from being the only one writing about the harm being done to science by distorting the truth to get stories into the popular press but there is no sign of the practice ending. In the meantime, it is left to the individual reader to look for signs that a story is a ‘copy and paste’ from a press release and to apply common sense to what is read.

In the case of ricin, that is simply a case of asking one question; if ricin is so easy to produce, so easy to use and capable of causing thousands of deaths in the hands of terrorists, why do local authorities plant Ricinus communis every year in municipal flower beds throughout the land?