There’s an annoying tendency among bloggers to jump on a news headline and quickly dash off a misleading post without getting the whole story (or even more than a headline’s worth). For high-traffic sites like BoingBoing and Slashdot, it seems a bit irresponsible, especially when these misinformed posts incite sprees of hate-mail and the like. (Phil Gyford recently started an interesting discussion about this sort of thing on his blog.)
This is nothing new — I’m sure it’s very difficult for even the best science reporters to simplify a story without misrepresenting it — but bloggers seem especially adept at it (the misrepresenting part). An example: This recent CTV story does an okay job of reporting about a scientific study looking at how much dirt and germs collect on computer keyboards in hospital environments.
BoingBoing and Slashdot jumped on this with their typical depth of analysis… From Slashdot:
Techguy666 writes "Gee, this is a suprise [sic]. Researchers have found that keyboards harbor bacteria and super-germs.
This is particularly interesting this time because this research noted
that there is a lot of computer use in hospitals and they’re finding it
really difficult to sterilize them."
Most subsequent discussion or posts were either product mentions for washable vinyl keyboards or ideas for how those dumb scientists could have got it right. For example:
They could put a plastic cover over the keyboard, with molds for each
of hte [sic] keys, and spray/wipe that plastic cover with bleach every now
I quote that statement because if its writer had taken a minute or two to read further, he’d know that the researchers did use keyboard covers. Look at, for example, the news article that you can find at the website of the hospital that did the study. Below are some excerpts, with emphasis added:
Harmful bacteria can linger on computer keyboards
in hospitals, making it easy for the germs to spread to patients, a new
… The researchers put each bacterium on
keyboards and keyboard covers to see how long they survived. They also
typed on the keyboards to see if the bacteria could be transferred to
Noskin’s team found that VRE and MRSA could survive up to 24 hours
after being placed on keyboards or keyboard covers. However, PSAE could
survive only up to one hour on the keyboard and five minutes on the
… Noskin doesn’t think it’s realistic to make
computer keyboards sterile. "We live in an era of bacteria, and they
are all over our environment," he said.
Tierno agrees that hand washing is most important, but he also thinks that keyboards should be disinfected after each use.
It seems to me, still without claiming that I fully understand this story, that the point is not at all about whether the keyboards are washable or made out of the latest space-age rubber. They were trying to determine how long bacteria survived on a keyboard or keyboard cover, and the rates at which they were then transmitted to people’s hands.
So, my point about blogging is that it’s not that hard to be semi-responsible and get your facts at least half-way straight before you blast your knee-jerk reactions over the blogosphere. Even a bit of common sense should tell you that doctors have probably heard about washable keyboards and keyboard covers before. Do you think they just plug in any old Dorito-and-Coke-encrusted keyboard that’s lying around, like you do? I think it’s safe to assume that hospitals are pretty smart about how to keep things clean. (Though I’m breathless in anticipation of Wikipedia’s entry on hospital sanitation.)
Getting back to the actual study, I think it points to some interesting questions about how technology gets adopted in hospital environments in contrast to others. Medical professionals are possibly among the most slow and careful to thoroughly test technology because there’s so much at stake. I wonder if there are side benefits to that, meaning that the slower adoption could filter out the more faddish or hastily designed tools.