Raging against abominable science writing.

*This was edited on 27 July.

I love science. I love parasites and parasitology. I sometimes love cycling (I have a love/hate relationship with the bike) and I do love watching the Tour de France coverage, but I hate bad science writing. Journalists who do not check their facts about sciency-related things really grind my gears (ooh, a bad cycling pun!).

I found an article on the cycling website Velonews, regarding Chris Froome, of Team Sky. If I’d been drinking a coffee when reading this article, I’d have ended up spitting it all over my computer. Froome reportedly has schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia in the UK and some other places. That’s not the shocking bit though. There were some glaring errors in biology and epidemiology that I will explain:

Let’s get one thing clear. The pathogen that causes schistosomiasis is a trematode (several species of genus Schistosoma), and not a virus as mentioned three(!) times in the article. A trematode may also be called a fluke, and it is, most definitely, a metazoan parasite. While it does have a complicated life cycle (see below), including very small, possibly microscopic, larval stages in snails, the snails themselves are not microscopic. While we’re on the topic – the larvae do not “transform” into worms. There are no Optimus Prime schistosomes.

Life cycle of Schistosoma spp. (from CDC)

Also, the disease is not “obscure”, as mentioned in the piece. I think that the roughly 290 million people infected globally with schistosomiasis might have something to say about the disease being referred to as ‘obscure’ (ref: Mathers et al. 2007 PLoS NTD doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000114). Schistosomiasis is a serious disease. While it doesn’t kill as many people as malaria, as a chronic infection, it causes long-term health effects in sufferers including anaemia, malnutrition, and can affect organs such as the spleen, liver and bladder (depending on the species infecting). It is a neglected tropical disease, exacerbated by poverty in many cases, and should not be trivialised. Chris Froome can afford treatment for the disease, but millions of others are not so lucky to be in the same financial position.

It’s probable that only parasitologists have gotten upset about this (there are several incredulous tweets about it on my twitter feed). Parasitologists tend to be quite sensitive to these kinds of errors and levels of ignorance. It’s par for the course a lot of the time, when you work on something as disgusting as a parasite (yes, someone once said that to me). But discussing parasites is no excuse for sloppy writing. This is yet another example of journalists not checking their facts before writing. It’s not difficult. Even a quick look at Wikipedia would have been helpful in this instance.

Post-script: After writing this, I went back to the article to check it again. All references to ‘virus’ have been edited out. Hooray!


4 thoughts on “Raging against abominable science writing.

  1. Blimmin’ ‘eck! I’m a parasitologist and my eyes popped out of my head when I read the article about schisto. I was about to point out the scientibollix there, but I see that you’ve already done that.
    Since starting my science blog I’ve gained a little bit of sympathy for journalists. They have to generate copy so fast, on topics about which they often know so little. But that’s really not a good enough excuse! Articles like the one you’ve reviewed are dangerous because they belittle the way schisto ruins so many people’s lives. Me, I link to wiser words than mine unless I’ve something to say.

    • Hi Argylesock,
      I too would prefer to link to wiser words, and normally would not go in with all guns blazing, but I found that piece too much to ignore – particularly the bit about schisto being ‘obscure’. I understand that not everyone’s a parasitologist, but as you point out, schistosomiasis is a huge health issue for so many people. More should be done to educate people about it, and change its status from a neglected tropical disease to a very-well-known tropical disease. As I mentioned at the bottom, the piece had been edited later after I published my post. But I don’t think that the throwaway/highly editable aspects of the internet should make shoddy writing OK. I don’t plan to link my next few posts to such highly public topics like the Tour de France – I’m a bit overwhelmed by the traffic my post generated!

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