An obscure academic publishes a strange paper in a no-name journal. Scholars uniformly repudiate it as worthless. Some speculate that the author is mentally ill. But in the meantime the theory attracts huge attention online, and even makes it into some mainstream news outlets, lauded as a potentially earth-shaking discovery.
How does this happen?
University public relations departments.
The academic in question is biochemist Erik Andrulis, and the paper is called “Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life.” It was published in the premiere issue of a minor new journal called Life last week, and if that had been all the exposure it received, it likely would have sunk without a trace.
But Andrulis is an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University, and six days ago the CWRU public relations department issued a press release declaring that the paper presented a “revolutionary … transdisciplinary theory” with the potential to “catalyze a veritable renaissance.” Andrulis, they said, “resolv[es] long-standing paradoxes and puzzles in chemistry and biology, … unifies quantum and celestial mechanics,” and “confirms the proposed existence of eight laws of nature.”
In actuality, Andrulis has done none of those things. Respected biologist and science writer PZ Myers, for instance, describes the paper as “unreadable, incoherent, bizarre, and completely lacking in evidence or mathematical support.”
But a university press release is a university press release, and most people who read them have none of Myers’ ability to tell good science from bad, so the CWRU announcement was quickly picked up by various sites. Indeed, a number of science news aggregators simply stripped the original attributions, slapped on their own bylines, and published the press release itself as news.
As the extent of the paper’s problems became known, CWRU pulled the press release from their site, and a growing number of Life editors tendered their resignations, but by then the paper was out in the world.
In this particular case, the flaws of the original paper were so extreme and so obvious that the story didn’t make it too far before the backlash began. Today, much of the discussion around Andrulis consists of debates as to whether he has committed a hoax or is suffering from mental illness. (PZ Myers tends toward the second explanation, describing the event as “a developing personal tragedy” and expressing the hope that Andrulis “gets the care he clearly needs.”)
But most bad research isn’t anywhere near this bad, and so most press-release-driven journalism never gets properly debunked. I’ve written a bunch of posts about bad academic research on students, and in almost every instance my attention was drawn to the shoddy work by breathless media coverage of somebody’s overheated press release.