This is tremendously disappointing.
Not only did Scientific American pick up on the alarmist press release about cochineal from the Center For Science in the Public Interest, it actually added extra taxonomic errors and entomophobia, for good measure!

So, here’s the story so far:

1. CSPI writes an alarmist press release about cochineal, which suggests not only are there insects in your food, but dangerous insects!  They call for a ban, and as a bonus make a rather huge taxonomic error with a scarab beetle photo.

2. A New York Times writer picks up on the press release, and uses it in her NYT wellness blog.  And repeats the taxonomic mistakes and general tone of OMGBUGZ.  She does at least correct the taxonomic error when it’s pointed out, and removes the beetle photo.

3. Scientific American prints the CSPI news release (with offending photo) almost verbatim, and even ADDS several alarmist comments about OMGBUGZ-IN-URFOODS. As a garnish, they called cochineal “beetle juice” and the scale insects “cochineal beetles.”

4. A whole bunch of other media outlets screw it up with even new and different photos.

(I actually stopped looking after those two, because I was just too depressed. God help us if they find out that shellac is sometimes used on apples to make them shiny, or how figs really get pollinated.)

I’ve written before about VNRs–video news releases. An awful lot of what you see on television is PR produced far outside a news studio, and used to feed the 24/7 news cycle.  PRwatch produced a report on VNRs in 2006, and some of their criticisms of that practice sound rather familiar:

  • “TV stations disguise VNRs as their own reporting.
  • TV stations don’t supplement VNR footage or verify VNR claims.”

Now, I occasionally screw up here at the Bug Blog–sometimes I don’t fact-check a story thoroughly before I run with it.  However, I’m not Scientific American or the New York Times, and I don’t have a professional news staff!

I’m just a B-list (really, more like G-list) blogger that interrupts her cheerful obsession with insects with occasional cranky ranting.  Exhibit A: this post.

But, people.
If you are part of the media apparatchik, for God’s sake, check your facts! Make a call!
Just because some organization has “science” in the title, that doesn’t mean they are experts.

Clearly, I need to start issuing press releases so that I can have my opinions published uncritically everywhere.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Whoa, as a long time subscriber of Scientific American, I’m quite surprised and a bit disgusted. Seems like the people that commented on that SciAm story needs to be the ones fact checking for Scientific American.

  2. Well, one bug’s as good as another, right?

  3. Wow, this is just too much.

  4. Also, the beetles in the photo, some sort of tropical Chrysomelidae?

  5. … ah, the ‘media’ … such imperfect beings, so obsessed be they to ‘tell us the story’, to be the ‘broadcasters’ …

    A beat photographer, born and bred in a media household, told me recently that he was on assignment to video/shoot ‘Christmas trees’ for the local news paper & website.

    ‘Ah’, said I, ‘which ones – pine, spruce, cedar, what fir?’
    He said, ”Christmas’ trees’

    Time passed. I asked how the shoot went. ‘Fine’ said he, ‘It’s amazing that seeds produce such differently shaped trees, some healthier then others, some mangled and stunted.’ I asked ‘what species were you shooting?’ He answered, ‘I forgot to ask, they were ‘Christmas’ trees … ‘

    hmmmmm, this media kid is SO clued out about the NATURAL world, it’s beyond funny, it’s kind of scary …

    Thing is I think he is much more representative of the media ‘norm’ then not. What turns them on primarily is ‘techy’ equipment that facilities their jobs. Everything ELSE is just ‘product’ to BROADCAST & SELL.

  6. I spent too many years working in various news media to be surprised by anything like this. “News” these days is a sausage machine that takes low-grade shite from every imaginable source (and quite a few unimaginable ones), runs it through a corrupt and contaminating system, and then pumps outs the informational equivalent of shite-filled condoms. Blurt, blurt, blurt. Faster, faster, faster.

    News now is 40 percent filler, 40 percent shite, 19 per cent fluff, and one per cent fact—if you’re lucky.

    Sorry, I’ll take my meds now and have a lie down.

  7. I will state it again… don’t these people have fact checkers?!?!? OMGWTF!

  8. YES!
    I work in media and am always surprised at how little fact-checking writers do themselves, but for the fact check squad to fail– that’s just depressing.

  9. Just received this from Sci Am:

    “Thanks for your comments on our blog. We’ve made a few changes to the post, and added an editor’s note:

    Ivan Oransky
    Managing Editor, Online
    Scientific American”

    They haven’t changed any of the text, though, so it still refers to “bug bits”–even though only the extracted carminic acid is used from the insects. (i.e, only the extracted liquid parts of the scales). The only change is removal of the photo.

  10. Perhaps your new nom de blog should be Cassandra.

  11. Oh, I hope not! Sometimes the world does seem like an endless source of frustration, though :p

    (I do like that the name Cassandra translates as “She who entangles men.” I don’t do any entangling anymore, but it’s always nice to have options.)

  12. The Scientific American editor has now emailed me to complain that my statement that “the only change is the removal of the photo” is incorrect.

    They have changed the words “cochineal beetle” to read “sometimes referred to as the cochineal beetle.”

    They also ADDED a link to the FDA ruling, which should have been there in the first place, frankly.

    Can anyone else find a change other than that in this screen shot of the earlier article?

    Taxonomic FAIL, take 2

    Here is what they have not done:
    *they have not indicated that it is not proper to call them beetles
    *they are not informing about cochineal, but emphasize the gross-out factor of OMGBUGZ!
    *they have not critically questioned whether CSPI’s call for a ban is valid

    I still think it’s a massive fail.

  13. For another current example of bad science writing on insects, check out “First Rule of the Ant Colony: No Hanky Panky” in TIME Magaine, reporting on worker policing via detection of cuticular hydrocarbons that signal egg production:,8599,1870695,00.html . The writer is under the impression that worker ants that produce eggs do so by sneaking off and having sex.

  14. […] it’s a bug AND a feature! So much misinformation is being published right now about Cochineal, I thought a post that explains what it is, how […]

  15. Total and complete fail!
    Especially SciAm picking nits with you over the amount of changes they made when they very well know the tenor of their piece remained the same with all the major issues involved. The adding of “sometimes referred to as” is a snot nosed way of trying to get you off their back about the accuracy of the name issue. Pretty juvenile.

    I suppose they don’t really want to know where the pigment crimson comes from either (also historically used in food and medicines). Or Purple, or oh damn…time to rant and bang head against the walls. Nurse!! Medicine!!

  16. Here’s a shocker–Fox News got it wrong too.,2933,479233,00.html

    Of course, they were just reprinting the AP story…which was pretty much the CSPI take of the story, complete with quotes.


  17. Oh, too funny! Someone caught what I missed in the article featuring the ladybeetle:

    “The FDA now wants labels to read that beatles were used in these particular products.” [sic]

    Apparently, John, Paul and Ringo were more colorful characters than we ever knew!!

  18. […] caught Scientific American in a major Fail, and Dr. Aust points out that Rath is “Keeping it Unreal.” Socratic Gadfly covers fake […]

  19. Hi, I found your site through Junkfood Science’s website.

    This is off-topic, but I was wondering if you had seen the Masters of Horrors episode Sick Girl. It’s about a girl who gets into a lesbian relationship with another girl. It has a lot of cute/creepy bug humor in it, I’m sure you’d be able to appreciate more than people who aren’t so familiar with bugs.

  20. sorry to post twice, but I realized I forgot to mention, the first girl is very interested in bugs. Heh.

  21. […] like the Scientific American Fiasco, you can trace coverage of this very maggoty cheese (even I might not eat it, which should tell you […]

  22. […] at least compared to mammals, but still, getting them wrong will rile up your etymology crowd (Bug Girl’s Blog). And there’s quite a few of […]

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