Slate writer Daniel Engber set out to debunk the idea of the 5-second rule -- the myth that if you drop food on the floor and pick it up quickly, it’s still clean enough to eat. Engber's quest led him onto a bigger story, about a wellspring of scientific misinformation that's flowing into American papers from Britain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Recently, Slate columnist Daniel Engber set out to debunk the idea of the five-second rule. A subject of Talmudic debate among clumsy kindergartners, the five-second rule holds that if you drop food on the floor and pick it up quickly, it’s still clean enough to eat. That’s not true but on the path to debunking the five-second rule, he stumbled onto a bigger story, a veritable wellspring of scientific misinformation. As for the five-second rule, he says solving that one was a snap.
DANIEL ENGBER: It took me fewer than five seconds to realize –
-that this was not even a real science story. I mean, this was something that was being presented on The Huffington Post and Gizmodo and a few other blogs in the U.S., and they referred back to a Daily Mail story, which said that this was a study that had been done at Manchester Metropolitan University. And when I have tried to get in touch with Manchester Metropolitan, they told me that this was just done by a lab tech there and no professors had been involved. And the lab tech didn’t want to talk to me, so I, I sort of struck out pretty quickly.
BOB GARFIELD: So okay, so within five seconds you had debunked the five-second rule, but in pursuing this you noticed a kind of – a trend, let’s say.
DANIEL ENGBER: Yeah, so I mean this wasn’t just a bad science story, of which there are plenty in newspapers all around in the world. This one fit into a pattern of stories that I’ve seen coming out of Britain.
BOB GARFIELD: What other examples did you come up with?
DANIEL ENGBER: So the five-second rule study made me think of something I covered as an intern at the Chronicle of Higher Education in the early 2000s, which was a study done by a high school student of the five-second rule. And then once I got to the Daily Mail and saw this original story, it reminded me of something else I had covered as an intern, which was a story from the British press about a formula for the perfect horror movie. And I just made one or two phone calls and discovered it was just a bunch of undergraduates who’d gotten drunk one night and come up with some meaningless numbers.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Okay, but you got to hand it to British journalists, who are perhaps less rigorous than their American counterparts in passing along scientific results or junk science results, and that is they’re upfront about the junkiness of it, no?
DANIEL ENGBER: Oh yeah, these articles are completely upfront. I mean, both studies, the horror movie formula, the five-second rule study, both of these were sponsored by companies that had a real interest in, in getting newspapers and people talking about their products. So the five-second rule comes from a company called Vileda - maybe I shouldn’t say that on the air and, and give them the benefit – and the Daily Mail was obliging in saying, this study by, you know, this woman who turned out to be a lab tech at Manchester Metropolitan, was sponsored by this cleaning company, and a representative of this cleaning company points out that you should change your mop pad once a month.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there any evidence that these bogus junk science stories, such as the one that was planted by the, the mop company about the five-second rule, was actually corrupt, that it was an ad camouflaged as news?
DANIEL ENGBER: I don’t know of any evidence that they pay the newspapers, although it is transactional. I mean, the Daily Mail gets a, a story that people want to read and it’s entertaining. I mean, British journalists will tell you this is just entertainment. Even the journalists themselves know it’s fake, and, you know, they’re just having a laugh. Don’t worry about it, don’t be so serious. That’s the problem with American journalists - they’re always so serious about journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it possible, Daniel, that the reason there’s a different standard in the UK for what constitutes sufficient science for a science story is that the, the author and the reader both understand that this isn’t journalism at all but it’s just entertainment?
DANIEL ENGBER: Sure, yeah. I mean, that sounds absolutely right. And then you get to that – the second question of okay, well now what happens when these entertainment stories, these pseudo-science stories start, you know, drifting across the Atlantic, and what do people think in the American news culture when they read them?
BOB GARFIELD: Daniel, thank you so much.
DANIEL ENGBER: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Daniel Engber is a columnist for slate.com.