Science warp at the BBC
Science is brilliant. I love the fact that a scientist doesn’t give empty opinions, but bases them on factual evidence that he or she always supplies along with his or her opinion. Also, that if someone else gives an opinion that the scientist knows to be false, the scientist will explain why it’s false and offer up the evidence to support their view. When this is combined with a desire to educate and inform, such as often occurs on the BBC, the results can be hugely praiseworthy.
Something though seems to have gone horribly wrong with the BBC’s balanced reporting of scientific information this week. Their most popular video article concerns ‘the five second rule’ for food dropped on the floor. In it, Sophie Van Brugen, with the help of Dr Ronald Cutler, sets out to discover if the following rule is true, that ‘if you pick up food dropped on the floor within five seconds of it falling, you’ll be safe’. It’s a popular idea, as illustrated above from the wikipedia - ‘five second rule’ entry.
To test the idea, she and the doctor dropped some food on the floor, pizza, bread and a slice of apple, then picked it up, stuck in a petri dish and saw what grew in it in the next 24 hours. Lo and behold, a day later, the dishes all had bacteria growing in them. Dr Cutler said, ‘I wouldn’t eat this, would you?” and Sophie agreed that she wouldn’t. They then explained to the mum in the video article that the five-second rule isn’t scientific and she should throw the food away.
It sounds very thoughtful and intelligent, doesn’t it? The only slight problem is, it’s about as helpful a portrayal of micro-organisms and health as a fifties ‘B’ movie entitled ‘Invasion of the Micro-organism Monsters!’
First off, what do they think cheese is? Most cheeses are milk, altered, at least partly, by bacteria!
For some reason, Dr Ronald Cutler didn’t mention this. Also, he didn’t actually say what bacteria grew in the petri dish. Was it Acidophilus? Could we chuck it in a pint of milk and knock up some lovely, creamy yoghurt? Perhaps a fungus grew there too, like penicillin, or maybe yeast? Could we smear it on an infection and kill off pathogens, or instead, brew up a pint or maybe a loaf of bread? He didn’t say. All he said was ‘I wouldn’t eat this.’ No, really, Dr Cutler? I’m surprised. I was under the impression that many biochemists snack on the contents of their petri dishes on a regular basis, possibly in their lunch hours as it saves on sandwich spread.
What would have been good for Dr Cutler to mention was that our good health is dependent on bacteria. If you got rid of the bacteria in your body, you’d die immediately. The important issue of bacteria and health is therefore not that there are bacteria - they have to be present or you’d be dead! - but WHAT bacteria. If I told you that you had E-coli in your gut, you might panic at the thought, but EVERYONE has E-coli in their gut; it’s perfectly healthy to have it. The problem arises when you have the wrong type of E-coli in your gut, that’s when you can get food poisoning, something Dr Cutler, I think, would have done very well to add when contributing to the article.
With that in mind, how might the article have gone if it had been more illuminating about bacteria and health? Here’s a possible script:
“Hi, BBC journalist,”
“Hi, Concerned Mother.”
“I’ve heard that if you pick dropped food off the floor in less than five seconds, it’ll be okay. Is that true?”
“Well, Concerned Mother, it’s an interesting idea you have there but, in fact, it’s a complete load of bollocks and betrays a total lack of understanding of food hygiene. Certainly, if a piece of food had dropped on your floor and your kitchen was infested with mice and cockroaches that are prone to scamper across your linoleum and urinate all over your darling’s impetuously dropped morsels of lunch during a delay period of six to ten seconds since spotting the item, I’d say yes, throw it away, but in many other scenarios - for example, if you’d washed the floor recently with soap, your house wasn’t infested with vermin and you hadn’t dragged an animal carcass across your kitchen since that bout of cleaning - I’d say the risks would be low.”
“But, BBC Journalist, I’ve heard that if you take those dropped food morsels and incubate them in a petri dish, they’ll produce bacteria in 24 hours. It sounds awful!’
“Well, yes, they would.”
“But then again, they would if you hadn’t dropped them on the floor. In fact, they would have if you’d obtained them from your local supermarket while wearing a biohazard suit, placed them immediately in a sealed container, set to minus sixty degrees storage, akin to a short stay in Antarctica, then stored them in a UN-sanctioned plague-proof chamber before serving them to your offspring with sterilised surgeon’s equipment; it wouldn’t make a fig-leaf’s worth of difference. Cheese can’t be cheese without bacteria, neither can butter. You want bacteria-free apples? Vaporise them in a fusion reactor.”
“But I don’t want to eat bacteria!”
“My dear, the bacteria in and on your body outnumber your own cells.”
“Oh dear, Concerned Mother seems to have run off, screaming. Never mind. Next, viewers, the weather…”
It seems Luke Blackall in the Independent newspaper doesn’t know much about bacteria either, in his response to the BBC article.
He ended his article with the comment: “While the evidence is unlikely to phase the old-matronly types who are fond of bleating lines such as “a little bit of dirt is good for you”, it could make those who pick up food thrown from children’s plates to the floor and give it back to them think twice about doing so. And it should also disavow people of the notion that bacteria somehow respect superstition.”
Interestingly enough, dirt has been scientifically shown to benefit the immune system, as it contains some excellent bacteria, although I would personally avoid silage. Quality bit of bleating.