Research Exercise

Popular Media Piece:

A Stinky Compound May Protect Against Cell Damage, Study Finds by Laura Stampler

Note: The article was revised and corrected after the magazine was criticized for incorrectly interpreting the information. However, original quotes and information can be found in this article, which picks apart Stampler’s original piece: “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer”.

Primary Source:

“The synthesis and functional evaluation of a mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor, (10-oxo-10-(4-(3-thioxo-3H-1,2-dithiol-5-yl)phenoxy)decyl) triphenylphosphonium bromide (AP39)”!divAbstract

The media piece revolves around an experiment conducted at the University of Exeter. The article explains to the reader that the findings of this experiment demonstrate that the smell of human flatulence and rotten eggs may be useful in repairing cells that were damaged from diseases such as cancer. Stampler reports that the experiment concluded that the exposure of cells to hydrogen sulfide gas prevents their mitochondria from being damaged.

Do you think the popular piece accurately reflects the scientific finding?

The original article was revised and corrected after the author was criticized for her misinterpretation of the experiment. This original article can no longer be found. The original article was called “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer”, but this title was changed when the article was revised. There are many bloggers and writers, however, that have written pieces criticizing the original article. The original piece was wildly inaccurate.The author exaggerated certain aspects of the research that seemed promising in order to make her article more “media friendly” by offering shocking information to the public. The article went viral immediately after it came out as it basically stated that “smelling farts” could cure cancer.

How are these two different?

As mentioned earlier, Stampler exaggerated certain aspects of the experiment in order to make it more shocking and appealing to the audience. For example, the author had stated that “although the stinky gas can be noxious in large doses, the researchers seem to think that a whiff here and there has the power to reduce risks of cancer, strokes, heart attacks, arthritis and dementia by preserving mitochondria”. This was not at all the result of the experiment. In truth, the experiment simply stated that hydrogen sulfide seems to have a strengthening effect on our mitochondria. There was no mention of cancer or implication that this discovery was in any way a cure for cancer. 

Where is the aspects exaggerated or misrepresented?

According to the primary source, hydrogen sulfide is naturally produced by the body in high quantities and is part of a compound called AP39 which may help strengthen mitochondria. The mitochondria is known for helping to fight certain diseases, however nowhere in the article does it say that these findings prove that hydrogen sulfide could be responsible for preventing diseases such as cancer. This is where the exaggeration comes in. Firstly, the author found her first opportunity to shock and attract with the title : Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer. It is made clear in the article that the cells would have to be exposed to small quantities of hydrogen sulfide NOT farts. Furthermore, the author stated that the experiment proves that hydrogen sulfide is able to cure certain diseases (that were not mentioned in the experiment), when the purpose of the experiment was merely to get an idea of how much of the compound should be used in order to actually be useful in dealing with disease. This is a very big difference!

How would you improve the popular media piece?

The media piece was improved by the author herself, and I believe that this revised piece is much more accurate. If it had been up to me, I would definitely have changed the title. The original was misleading and a complete misinterpretation of information. Furthermore, I would make sure that I am only stating what is absolutely true according to the research. I would take out any over-the-top assertions regarding the healing qualities of hydrogen sulfide on patients with cancer or other such diseases. I would state that the scientists researched the effect of cellular exposure to hydrogen sulfide and found out that the compound strengthens mitochondria. I would say that this research has the potential of becoming very useful in the medical field as researchers continue to look at the amounts of hydrogen sulfide needed in order to prevent certain diseases or aid in treatment.



4 responses to “Research Exercise”

  1. Madiha Shafquat says:

    It’s interesting that the author chose to include cancer as part of her original title, mainly because ‘curing cancer’ is a popular topic with the public. The criticism the original article faced just goes to show that making a finding newsworthy is done at the risk of misrepresenting the data.

  2. Carlos Aizenman says:

    This is a great example! I kept laughing when reading the quotes from the original article. Great job!

  3. Swathi Srinivasan says:

    This is a great example of how mentioned earlier, some articles most likely are written for in terms of entertaining, or newsworthiness; not to accurately represent data.

  4. Kathrin Eberhardt says:

    Even though I had to laugh, if you think about it, it’s sad how journalists can use such a topic to fool people. Great example!

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