I've generally managed to get to the point where I don't expect the following things from any of the free newspapers I read on the tube:
- factual accuracy
- commitment to journalistic integrity
- basic grasp of English
But today, for the first time ever, I actually got my pen out and corrected
something in The London Paper. I was getting it out anyway for the Sudoku, which is the only reason I pick up the papers anyway, but this grated and offended me, and I couldn't let it be.
It was the following 'joke' on the puzzles page:
What did one virus say to the other?
Stay away, I've got penicillin
If you didn't automatically reach for the red pen yourself, I'm very disappointed in you.
Here, for the record, is what it should have said
What did one
virus bacterium say to the other?
Stay away, I've got penicillin
I'm vaguely aware that I'm supposed to accept that it's just a joke, and let it go, but it's not just
a joke, dammit. Jokes are important
. Nursery rhymes are important, cartoons are important. They're vital cultural memes. They are what the public remembers even if they forget everything they learned at school about Sir Alexander Fleming and mouldy bread and agar dishes. The question-and-punchline joke is a vital part of how we communicate knowledge and information. About current affairs, about politics, and about science. Kids remember them. Kids repeat them ad infinitum
. They're remembered.
I haven't got time to get into here about how important I think it is for writers of popular fiction to make sure they're not disseminating falsehoods into the collective consciousness. (I'm
looking at you
, Tim "the human genome project invaded your private life" Kring!). One liners are an order of magnitude
more effective than that. You don't need to have been round the cartoon museum
to realise how important short bursts of humour are in influencing public knowledge. The only thing I really think I learned from GCSE history was that humour's been used as a propaganda device forever
So this is why I'm angry that a well read public newspaper can be so careless as to propagate such a dangerous lie: that penicillin is effective against viruses. Penicillin is an antibiotic (well, a group of antibiotics), which means it works against bacteria
. If you have a virus, you need an anti-viral. The last thing the population needs is to have the idea that penicillin is some magic cure-all, particularly not against viruses. It's bad enough that every idiot in the world is using antibacterial soap and detergent, as if the immune system doesn't need a work out as much as the brain and muscles.
Overuse of antibiotics is a serious problem. Possibly not in certain states in the US where evolution is outlawed, but in the rest of the world if antibiotics are prescribed (or demanded) for everything from the flu upwards, the bacteria they're actually
affect start evolving a pesky problem we the science geeks of the world like to call antibiotic resistance
. We get little things like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureous
, or as the syllable-deficient 'journalists' of the world like to call them, "Superbugs". The more you use antibiotics, the less effective they get.
The more you convince people that antibacterial agents solve everything from dirty fingernails to bad culinary hygiene to a bad case of the flu, the more people are going to demand them in every product and drug they get. Because people, unfortunately, are actually stupid enough to believe what they read in the papers.
If the whole country is wiped out by an anti-biotic resistant super bacterium in the next ten years, I'm placing the blame firmly on The London Paper.