The amazing disappearing reappearing finger

May 3rd, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, ITV, miracles, sun, telegraph, times | 16 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday May 3 2008

Traditionally on May Day the fool plays at pratfalls and buffoonery around local morris dancers, brandishing his fool’s bauble, an inflated pig’s bladder on a stick, with which he bewitches and controls the crowds. To the uninitiated it looks like chaos, but for his own safety the fool must know the dances as well as anyone, so that his weaving tomfoolery meshes perfectly with the intricate pattern of kicks, handkerchief waving, and stickbashing.

In the newspapers on May Day, meanwhile, journalists were earnestly reporting the news that pig’s bladder extract had been used by scientists in a major breakthrough allowing one man to magically regrow a finger. “‘Pixie dust’ helps man grow new finger,” squealed the Telegraph’s headline. “‘Pixie dust’ makes man’s severed finger regrow,” said the Times. “Made from dried pig’s bladder,” they explained, this magic powder “kick-starts the body’s healing process”.

Now firstly, if you look at the pictures accompanying this column, you will see from the “before” image that there is no missing finger, so we might naively intuit that there is no “missing finger grows back” story to be written. In fact, from the grainy images and scant descriptions available – despite blanket news media coverage, including television interviews – it seems this bloke lost about 3/8 of an inch of skin and flesh from the tip of his finger, and the nail bed is intact.


[Photograph: Lee Spievack/Al Behrman/AP]

Make no mistake: I’d be whingeing a lot if it happened to me, but injured fingers do heal, sometimes badly, often nicely, just like gouges and scrapes on the rest of your body. “Nerves, tissue, blood vessel, skin” regrew, said the BBC. Yes. Up and down the country as we speak. Here are some more examples. The body is an amazing thing. If your experience of rollerskating injuries is not enough, Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, saw the before-and-after pictures, and says: “It looked to have been an ordinary fingertip injury with quite unremarkable healing. This is junk science.”

Where did this miraculous story come from? Dr Badylak is the scientist quoted in all of these stories. He told me: “This story came to the media not through us, but rather through the patient. I would just as soon it had not gone out until we complete our pilot study.” That is unfortunate. I asked how this patient was recruited, what consent was obtained, how safety was assessed, whether this work has been published, and whether it will be published. He did not answer. Fair enough. He agrees that scepticism is understandable. I’m grateful.

The patient is Lee Spievack. He was given the powder by Acell, a large and longstanding biotech firm founded by Alan Spievack. He is Lee Spievack’s big brother. Dr Badylak is Acell’s chief scientific adviser, and he can be seen bravely making the best of all this unwelcome media attention by showing TV cameras around his labs and giving lengthy interviews, both now and in February 2008, when this story made the US news, and also, interestingly, in February of 2007, when it made the news for the first time, in exactly the same form, with exactly the same characters, and many identical quotes, verbatim, in the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and more. The injury itself, meanwhile, apparently happened (and healed) way back in 2005.

Reconstructing the media frenzy, it all seems to have kicked off – this time around – with BBC New York correspondent Matthew Price doing a very credulous set of interviews that went live on the BBC site on Wednesday at 3pm.

He nods endlessly and says “that’s astonishing” when the company founder’s little brother tells him that the tip of his finger healed. In the computer animation used by the BBC [1m10s into this video, I really recommend you watch it], a finger miraculously grows back more than half its length, at least two joints worth (stills on the left). At 11:30pm that same day the Press Association put out a story, but the newspapers must have had it sooner for the next day’s papers, so I guess they lifted it from the BBC, too. By May Day 3:30pm the story was on Fox news (their morning), and by 11:30pm it hit ABC Australia. All used the same quotes in different permutations. And that’s how news works.

Meanwhile, Dr Badylak now tells me that the entire nail bed was missing. This contradicts various previous news reports and apparently the pictures. He also says half the distal bone was missing. Confused? You should be. I’ve asked him for more pictures. I guess that just goes to show that the media is a confusing and inappropriate place to communicate new and unpublished epoch-making scientific breakthroughs (from 2005).

But we can console ourselves with the thought that one lucky company has had plenty of international media exposure. On three separate occasions. Over two years.

ยท Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

And another thing:

There are three features that are very striking about this story.

Firstly, with few exceptions this was a story initiated – and followed – not by health or science correspondents (who I now know were all telling their newsdesks that this story was nonsense) but by non-specialist, generalist journalists. As I have shown previously, this is a recurring theme in all of the media’s most serious science hoaxes of the past decade.

BBC New York correspondent Matthew Price in particular wets himself with excitement at the fact that he is reporting on a new medical breakthrough on a scale with IVF. Any decent science or health correspondent would have known it was duff. He and all of the other journalists covering the story used terms like “Extra Cellular Matrix” as if this is only to be found in pig’s bladder, when in fact extra-cellular matrix can be found around all the cells in all the bodies of all of the people reading this article.

Secondly, many papers used the image below, in which the distal phalanx is foreshortened, so it was hard to assess the extent of the damage.

finger-foreshortened.jpg

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Lastly, I have asked Dr Badylak for more photographs of the injury, and various other details, but he has not replied. As I have argued on many previous occasions, it’s all very well to go straight to the media with your breakthrough scientific findings in advance of publication, but it makes a very unsatisfactory place to report on original science [er, from 2005], and so you do have an obligation to clarify the technical details when approached. I have no doubt there is a grain of reality to these dramatic claims, and it’s perfectly possible that their product represents a small valid step in an exciting new field.

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On a personal note.

I don’t usually solicit diggs, reddit clicks, del.icio.us tags, or boingboings, but stories like this really piss me off, so if you wanted to pimp, it might be fun to see the debunking get as much coverage as the original bogusity.

You can hear me giving this story some chat, and making a plea for more specialist science correspondents in the media, on the Today Programme this morning

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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16 Responses



  1. Filias Cupio said,

    May 3, 2008 at 1:32 am

    I just heard an interview with you on New Zealand National Radio, about the fish oil “trials.” This was a pleasant surprise.

  2. mjs said,

    May 3, 2008 at 4:42 am

    2005 was a good year for severed fingers, i guess. even hoaxed ones.

    *
    one link. $291.50 USD for a box of 12 bottles, 20g collagen stuff each. heh. dunno what’s all *really* in that, but there you go.

    a patent filed in 1989 for a mixture of collagen types in particulate form. if you scroll down, you’ll see that collagen laminate for wound healing has been around since 1974.

    *
    a bit of conjecture on my part here, but it seems sort of sad to cut one’s finger up to make news to sell a product that was invented by someone else almost 20 years ago.

    *
    imo, Dr. Aust wins the previous Bad Science blog post thread for the links to last year’s Esquire story.

  3. gimpyblog said,

    May 3, 2008 at 8:29 am

    I notice The Guardian aren’t allowing comments on your article today, a sense of shame at their credulity perhaps?

    Anyway, I don’t know if anybody has commented on this before but doesn’t the healed finger carry a fairly visible scar and it looks ever so slightly shorter and narrower at the tip. One of my own index fingers has a similarly scarred tip after I stuck it in a saucepan of boiling toffee as a child.

  4. hairnet said,

    May 3, 2008 at 10:15 am

    woodchopper, maybe, except the bank holiday isnt until monday the fifth in england/wales…

    I wonder if the BBC will ever be run by non-idiots again?

  5. db_c said,

    May 4, 2008 at 10:58 am

    hmm. not only have the times pulled the original article from their website, they’ve published another one which opens by slagging off the bbc for falling for it, while completely failing to mention that the times did as well.

  6. projektleiterin said,

    May 4, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Damn it, I’m not clicking on any posts anymore that mentions the word finger! If I was a more suspicious person I might believe that someone is posting the picture of the cut-off fingertip on purpose in order to shock people (I would, if I didn’t find it too gross, hehehe. :D)

  7. Tom P said,

    May 4, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    The other interesting thing about that Times article, apart from the brazen hypocrisy of slamming the BBC for the exact same thing that they did, is that they refer to Ben as being “Ben Goldacre of the BadScience website”. Nice that the site gets a plug, but can they really not bring themselves to admit that he does (most of) his journalistic work for a rival newspaper? I’ve noticed several papers doing this lately – it strikes me as rather odd. If they like what Ben’s doing, but don’t want to admit that the Guardian’s getting the jump on them, why don’t they just hire someone else with a clue about science to do the same job for them?

  8. drunkenoaf said,

    May 4, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    The depressing thing about the digs/ reddit/ boingboing sites are that everyone there has bought the story hook line and sinker. >3500 diggs, people amazed by the progress of medicine… And about 300 penis regrowth jokes. Ah, the digital frontier of tech types that know nothing of bad science and when they are being fed it. Not one digg for Ben’s article either.

  9. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 5, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    The bloke on [Today] also had to rack his brain to remember that Ben might be a [Guardian] contributor as well as hosting an independent web site – a site consisting mainly of the [Guardian] columns in blog form, plus witterspace for readers.

    At the early hour, I thought Ben sounded a bit like the prize-winning author whose name I’ve forgotten, recently featured as a an audio archive question on Radio 4′s [The Write Stuff], who seemed preoccupied and ended up confessing to [Today] that he had quite a hangover from celebrating! But just being crowbarred out of bed before seven-thirty would do the same to me!

  10. Mog said,

    May 6, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Damn – just when I thought medical science might be able to grow me a tail after all.

  11. TheGoodDoctor said,

    May 7, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    I just finished reading the April Scientific American, which has an article “Regrowing Human Limbs”. The authors start with “how do salamanders do it?”, move to mouse digit tip regeneration, and end with: “Our fingertips have an intrinsic ability to regenerate. Fostering regeneration in a fingertip amputation injury is apparently as simple as cleaning the wound and covering it with a simple dressing. If allowed to heal naturally, the fingertip restores its contour, fingerprint and sensation, and undergoes a varying degree of lengthening.”
    (SciAm, April 2008, p61)
    So doing almost nothing may allow regeneration, pigs bladder extract aside.

  12. warhelmet said,

    May 8, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Yup, agree with TheGoodDoctor. I read the article in SciAm as well and sort of understood it. But, from my own experience, a nasty slice of the finger tip – right to the bone – that looked as if it would cause a bit to drop off actually healed with no scarring at all. Not quite regeneration in the sense of the above, but the non-formation of scar tissue suggests regeneration. Looking at my fingers now, I can’t even work out which one it was – not that I can remember.

    It’s actually the business about scarring that is more important than the sensationalism about growing back missing bits.

  13. CDavis said,

    May 8, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    Just to see if it was instructive, I mocked up a picture of what the ‘Before’ image might look like if viewed from the same angle as the ‘After’ picture.

    It’s at www.cubicsecond.org/images/web/magicfinger.jpg

    A rather different, er, perspective…

    CD

  14. ACH said,

    May 15, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Where can I get the pixie dust? I nearly sliced the end off my finger at the weekend and am sporting a deep ragged wound, which I am sure will miraculously close up with a sprinkling of pixie dust.

    (Actually, it’s doing a fine job of healing with nothing more than the application of a triple layer of elastoplast – the blood soaked throught he first 2 layers)

  15. Waider said,

    June 17, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Trawling through the very large backlog of talks on TED, I find one Alan Russell exhibiting exactly the same finger regrowth clip as part of a collection of slides on regenerative medicine. I’ve found the TED talks in general to be informative, if occasionally on the wiggy side, but I had not expected to find out-and-out bad science therein…

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    February 11, 2010 at 8:28 am

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