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Innerbrat
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How can a joke make you sick? 
6th-Nov-2007 07:42 pm
witch, disapproval
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 glaring 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.
Opinions 
6th-Nov-2007 07:52 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear! I'm sorry that the difference between viruses and bacteria is still as misunderstood as the importance of jokes to human extelligence, but I'm glad there are eloquent (and angry) people such as you to say them.
6th-Nov-2007 07:55 pm (UTC)
This reminds me how much I hate "I learned it through osmosis!" jokes.
6th-Nov-2007 08:17 pm (UTC)
Way to go. Is there anyway to contact the newspaper to request that they make a correction or appology or something? Because you are right.
6th-Nov-2007 09:45 pm (UTC)
Response of It's just a joke is predicted from the scientifically illiterate junior staff that would open it pretty much guaranteed :-(
6th-Nov-2007 10:07 pm (UTC)
:(
6th-Nov-2007 08:22 pm (UTC)
The problem with outlawing evolution is that bacteria are notorious for ignoring the law, and evolve anyway. :)

More seriously, MRSA has been spreading rather effectively in the high schools of the Northeast US, but I don't think that any of the news reports on the matter have bothered to explain just what the MR really means.
7th-Nov-2007 02:57 pm (UTC)
A gentleman in my area just died last week of a MRSA infection.

As a health-care worker, it astounds me how many people don't wash their hands or use the antiseptic foam that's available in every exam room. The last hospital I worked for actually had a tracking program that tracked the occurrences of MRSA versus the amount of antiseptic foam used...when the usage of the foam went up, MRSA cases decreased dramatically.
6th-Nov-2007 08:41 pm (UTC)
I was just talking with someone the other day about how we're pretty sure that no newspapers or magazines actually use PROOFREADERS anymore. It seems like they just throw the articles through spell-check and hope for the best. Another thing to "thank" computers for.
6th-Nov-2007 08:47 pm (UTC)
*cheerleads*
6th-Nov-2007 09:41 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear.

One thing I loathe is going into public restrooms and seeing antibacterial soap in the dispensers. Which all of them have, of course -- usually proudly labeled as such. And I work on a college campus, so they're everywhere there.
6th-Nov-2007 10:13 pm (UTC)
You didn't spot the cartoon of the parents freaking at their kid being apponited condom monitor in the Metro then?
6th-Nov-2007 10:23 pm (UTC)
*APPLAUDS YOU*
6th-Nov-2007 11:01 pm (UTC)
Now I feel kinda bad for having antibacterial dish soap and antimicrobial Febreeze. It's not stuff I use every day, of course, and it's for the rat stuff. (People stuff gets regular soap. And most of the rest of the house just gets Pet Odor Remover Febreeze, but the rats like to shove things out of the cage, including rat raisins.)

Granted, I know it's no good against virii, and I know better than to rush the rats to the vet for any minor little thing-- because they do get serious respiratory infections and if one of my girls comes down with a bad case of mycoplasmosis, I really really want that bactrim to work.

... Yes. The rats see a doctor more often than I do. The closest I get to antibiotics is antibiotic ointment for cuts.
(Deleted comment)
7th-Nov-2007 10:51 am (UTC)
I don't use antibacterial soaps whenever I can get away with it not because it might select for resistance (though I'm not sure and you actually might know better) but because they are non-selective and detrimental to the devolopment of a healthy immune system in people living in the house.
(Deleted comment)
6th-Nov-2007 11:19 pm (UTC)
Here from friends-of-friends, applauding you loudly. Maybe you could write to their letters page? Grrr! This has made me cross now.
6th-Nov-2007 11:42 pm (UTC)
I didn't read today's Londonpaper due to randomly getting London Lite. It's fairly irrelevant anyway, as I always skip to the Sudoku regardless...
7th-Nov-2007 12:19 am (UTC)
Actually, how it should have read is:

What did one bacterium say to the other?
"Stay away,! I've got penicillin!"



*pedants about*
(Deleted comment)
7th-Nov-2007 03:37 pm (UTC)
And there was me correcting it to "Stay away, I've got Acyclovir!".
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