The birth of a bad meme

Jul 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My wife, who has been blogging for about a year, told me that this was a phase that a lot of newbie bloggers go through. That is the somewhat pathological obsession that I was quickly developing for checking my blog stats. I'd been blogging for a few weeks, promoting through the usual channels, when I started getting a wee bit of traffic. It was quite rewarding to know that people out there were somehow making it to the site, even if many weren't actually reading. Never having experienced the sensation of distributing my writing publicly, let alone to a potentially unlimited and worldwide audience, I'd developed quite an addiction to checking my numbers.

One morning, shortly after putting up a post, my stats when through the roof. I didn't think the post was anything special but it was generating tons of traffic. A quick check of the stats revealed why. Mark Morford, a columnist for the SF Gate (the online home of the San Fransisco Chronicle) had written about my summary of the study in his weekly online column and linked to my site. Over the course of the next several hours, this link brought in about 1500 visitors (approximately 1450 more than I was getting per day at the time).

I was pretty happy for the readership; that is, until I went to Morford's column and read his summary of my summary. So, what had I written about? I'd dashed off a summary of a Danish meta study that was attempting to establish mortality rates for drugs such as heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, marijuana and ecstasy. Here's what I wrote about the ecstasy findings (If you would like to read the full article, go here.):

"6. Ecstasy (MDMA) users did not show increased mortality rates. (However, it’s possible that a low number of deaths from MDMA contribute to low statistical power)."

And later, in the closing paragraph:

"Conclusions that can be drawn from this report? ... Ecstasy is unlikely to kill you on its own, but that’s not to say it won’t do some long-term damage if abused..."

I think it was a reasonably accurate, if extremely simplified, version of the findings.
Here's how Morford wrote it up:

"In loosely related news -- assuming you like to view the world that way and really, why wouldn't you -- the other universally acclaimed wonderdrug known as ecstasy (MDMA) has been proven once again to have no real side effects, doesn't make you want to kill yourself and doesn't increase mortality rates overall, especially if used in relative moderation and not like some panicky teen raver or Burning Man first-timer who has no clue what he's doing and shouldn't be left alone in Drunken Barbie Camp with all those glow sticks, fake fur and baggies of little magic pills.

Sadly, a new Danish study shows that pot users suffer a mortality rate about five times higher than the norm (your mileage, and possible explanations, may vary). Cocaine and meth, six times. Heroin and related injectables are, as you might expect, off the charts. But ecstasy, well, it just keeps being proven to be not so bad in the slightest, and actually might, just might be one of the most remarkably safe, effective, enlightening drugs ever invented. Good thing it's still illegal."

HUH? I'd even provided a link to page outlining the negative consequences of taking the drug! What an interesting interpretation. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that things were taken out of context and the message twisted. That's par for the course on the internet. I suppose what really got me, though, was the possibility that some percentage of Morford's readership was provided, inadvertently by me, with scientific justification to go out that night and do ecstasy or at least encouraged to believe it's not a harmful drug when, in fact, it is quite harmful both in the short and long term.

Worse yet, is that when I initially went to the SF Gate to read Morford's piece, for some reason, I couldn't locate it. I read through a couple of his old columns (some of which cited scientific findings accurately and fairly, albeit in a very casual style) and dropped him an email thanking him for the link and praising his writing, without actually reading his summary of my post. Admittedly, I was a little drunk on the heavy influx of blog traffic and assumed it was probably just a simple sentence or two. It wasn't until later that I found it and realized that my science journalism cherry had been popped and then some.

Obviously, this is but a tiny drop in the ocean of (mis)information transmitted daily over the interwebs. Yet, its a reminder to be extra careful of how one presents scientific findings and to keep an eye our for how others might be (ab)using these writings to support their own agendas.

I'd be curious to hear others' stories of f'ed up reinterpretations of their writings...

3 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Well, the other way to look at it is that scientific findings are almost ALWAYS a double-edged sword where interpretation depends on taking sides. The good scientist tries to choose sides based on a meaningful synthesis of the available data. Journalists are driven by their agenda of the moment and/or sensationalism. All the "careful" writing in the world isn't going to stop their tendencies.

    Our goal as bloggers, I think, is to get our (the scientists') view on the data AND how to approach new findings in general out there. Preferably as high on the Google search list as possible. That is the most we should expect....

    Welcome to Scientopia, dude!

  • Nothing can be more obfuscatable than the treatment of psychiatric conditions using drugs that are rumoured to be psychomimetic!

    It goes a little something like:

    1. Autism is madness (fallacy 1)
    2. Cannabis causes madness (fallacy 2)
    3. Autism plus cannabis is double mad, which is like mass murderer mad.
    4. We can't even cope with all the mad people and sane drug abusers we have already, how are we supposed to cope with autistic people running around whacked out of their heads on pot etc...

    A smart society would immediately cease all criminal sanctions against anyone who attempts to self medicate where their doctors have failed.

  • davidjohnson says:

    thx for the welcome drugmonkey!...I hear ya... but I still think some care can be taken not to "leave fat pitches over the plate," so to speak. You know, maybe to leave less room for misinterpretation, strong qualifiers when necessary, etc...

    But, yeah, it's probably not worth losing too much sleep over.