Praiseworthy Wrongness: Genes in Space

Given my ongoing dedication to critiquing bad headlines/stories, I’ve decided to start making a regular-ish feature of people who get things wrong then work to make them right. Since none of us can ever be 100% perfect, I think a big part of cutting down on errors and fake news is going to be lauding those who are willing to walk back on what they say if they discover they made an error. I started this last month with an example of someone who realized she had asserted she was seeing gender bias in her emails when she wasn’t. Even though no one had access to the data but her, she came clean that her kneejerk reaction had been wrong, and posted a full analysis of what happened. I think that’s awesome.

Two days ago, I saw a similar issue arise with Live Science, who had published a story stating that after one year in space astronaut Scott Kelly had experienced significant changes (around 7%) to his genetic code. The finding was notable since Kelly is one half of an identical twin, so it seemed there was a solid control group.

The problem? The story got two really key words wrong, and it changed the meaning of the findings. The original article reported that 7% of Kelly’s genetic code had changed, but the 7% number actually referred to gene expression. The 7% was also a subset of changes….basically out of all the genes that changed their expression in response to space flight, 7% of those changes persisted after he came back to earth. This is still an extremely interesting finding, but nowhere near as dramatic as finding out that twins were no longer twins after space flight, or that Kelly wasn’t really human any more.

While the error was regrettable, I really appreciated what Live Science did next. Not only did they update the original story (with notice that they had done so), they also published a follow up under the headline “We Were Totally Wrong About that Scott Kelly Space Genes Story” explaining further how they erred. They also Tweeted out the retraction with this request:

This was a nice way of addressing a chronic problem in internet writing: controversial headlines tend to travel faster than their retractions. By specifically noting this problem, Live Science reminds us all that they can only do so much in the correction process. Fundamentally, people have to share the correction at the same rate they shared the original story for it to make a difference. While ultimately the original error was their fault, it will take more than just Live Science to spread the correct information.

In the new age of social media, I think it’s good for us all to take a look at how we can fix things. Praising and sharing retractions is a tiny step, but I think it’s an important one. Good on Live Science for doing what they could, then encouraging social media users to take the next step.