Researchers at the University of Utrecht have identified a molecule that could play a key role in controlling how stupid headlines develop in scientific press releases.
Neurobiologists are trying to understand how titles that are at first sensible differentiate into specialised pieces of text that are sensationalist and which can be classified into two groups, by being scientifically misleading or jibberish. Researchers in the College of Science Sciences at Utrecht, led by Professor H.G.P. Strabismus, have identified a molecule called methyl-methanol as being the ‘signal’ which can induce the production of these headlines.
The Strabismus laboratory studies a simple system, the Press Officer, which processes complex scientific results and reduces them to their bare essentials, which are then presented to the public. In earlier research they showed that methyl-methanol induces the introduction of errors into these presentations. Now they have identified a more specialised role for the molecule, specifically targetting the headlines.
The new research will be published in the journal Nature, once the brown envelope has arrived.
“Our work presents the opportunity to fully understand how POs learned to utterly mangle explanations of science. The actual work was looking at cellular differentiation in prokaryotes” said Professor Strabismus.
“These findings are also remarkable because methyl-methanol was previously found to affect celebrities, causign them to lose motility and transform into large sticky messes, known as headline fodder. The fact that an individual like a Press Officer, which is very far removed from celebrity, uses the same mechanism is very interesting and suggests that the processes which cause cock-ups may have very deep evolutionary origins.”
The work has been funded by the Unwellcome Trust and CAMRA.
(hat tip: a BBSRC press officer for the inspiration)