Friday, 20 April 2012

Mind the gaff: Metro reports science April Fool as fact

The media covering stories based on pseudoscience or dodgy statistics is one thing, but reporting news of a science innovation which is actually an April Fool is quite another.

Yet this is what happened today when I opened up my copy of the Metro and read a piece on advances in 3D printing. Technology that prints in 3D is indeed a reality, creating objects ranging from chocolates to planes. But what 3D printing cannot currently do is fully-formed live animals.

But that is what the Metro writer says is happening right now, claiming that a company is apparently offering to 3D-print creatures on demand:
“The technology is even being used in the genetic engineering of animals, with one company offering to create bespoke pets.”
What makes it so ludicrous is that this actually comes from an April Fool that the Economist ran in its science section.

Admittedly it is a very well written April Fool, and I’m sure it could convince some people who don't have a grasp of what is happening in science. Clearly it’s fooled the Metro writer, who also didn’t spot any of the clues that this was a joke, such as the name of the head of the fictional company Gene Duplication Corporation, Paolo Fril, which is an anagram for April Fool. Or that the article says the company is also known colloquially as GeneDupe (as in you’ve been duped – geddit?). Or that the made-up company’s next project is to custom-print boyfriends or girlfriends for those unlucky in love, and that customers will “probably have to wait until April 1st of next year” to get their hands on one. No alarm bells ringing yet?

The only source the Metro writer could have found for the entirely-fictional 3D printing designer pets story is the Economist. Certainly any search for the GeneDupe company would have led them up a blind alley.

A lot has been written about a lack of science understanding in the media, leading to pseudoscience stories sneaking their way into the news. But for a newspaper to report an April Fool, an incredible story the Economist has dreamt up, as though it is fact to all its readers is surely a new low. Pity all the people reading the story who have now set their sights on ordering that designer pooch – they could be waiting some time.

Update (April 22, 2012): Metro has now removed the paragraph mentioning 3D-printed pets from the online version of the article, but below is a photo of the offending page where you can find it in the third column.

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