Monday, June 4, 2012

Man Regrows Finger Using Pixie Dust

In 2008, an apparently astonishing science story appeared on news programmes around the world. Lee Spievak of Cincinnati, Ohio, lost the end of the middle finger of his right hand when it was sliced off by the propeller of a model aeroplane. Over a four week period his finger regrew. The 'miraculous' regrowth was attributed to the use of a powder developed by the biotech firm Acell, which Mr. Spievak has dubbed 'pixie dust'. This is how BBC News reported it:

The story received considerable criticism. On his bad science blog, Dr. Ben Goldacre pointed out that on the pictures broadcast by the BBC, Mr. Spievak's nail bed appears to be intact and, although the injury seems quite severe, it is by no means unusual for spontaneous healing to occur in cases like this. He quotes Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, UK: “It looked to have been an ordinary fingertip injury with quite unremarkable healing. This is junk science.”

The graphics used to explain the healing process in the story appear to be misleading as they show virtually a whole finger regrowing, rather than the tip. Furthermore, it later transpired that the accident occurred in 2005, three years before, and Mr. Spievak's brother is, in fact, the founder of Acell (which did of course gain considerable positive publicity). No proper (double-blind) medical tests had been carried out at the time to determine the efficacy of the 'pixie dust' and there was no evidence it played any part in the healing process.

Ben Goldacre maintains that this is a prime case of a false science story being misreported by being assigned not to health or science correspondents (who would have been expected to recognise its flaws) but to non-specialist, generalist journalists. This is one of his great bug-bears and something you could argue is a major barrier to the public understanding of science.

To its credit, the BBC took some steps to retract the story, and allowed Goldacre to give an interview on its flagship radio news broadcast, The Today Programme:

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