For a week or so now, the Interwebz have been abuzz with an amazing “scientific” discovery: that a species of Dictyophora mushroom found on Hawaii will give some women an “instant orgasm” merely by sniffing it. The story has been getting reposted and retweetered like crazy, as we often see with such miraculously sensational products or discoveries. But is there anything to it?
For me, the first red flag on this story was that it was (originally, so far as I can tell) posted on IFLScience — which, years ago, was the forum for science fan Elyse Andrew to showcase neat sciencey stuff, but has devolved today into just another dime-a-dozen clickbait website where platoons of semi-anonymous authors post anything that looks like it can be presented sensationally to generate site clicks and ad revenue. Its reputation among science journalists has essentially gone down to zero. This tale of the orgasmic mushroom is symptomatic of that decline.
But at least four other red flags made the story even more suspicious:
- The author found an article 14 years old. Not exactly news, and a hint that there was nothing worthy of followup.
- The author did not even read the article, only the free abstract; the article on IFLS is nothing more than a rephrasing of the abstract to which it links. That’s terrible science reporting.
- The abstract gave no information at all that could allow even a basic assessment of the quality of this study. Was this one person who was already high adding a mushroom to a lascivious interlude? We don’t even know that. There’s certainly nothing in the abstract that would indicate a controlled trial was performed. (I tried to buy the full article for this post, but was unable to; will try again later.)
- The journal, International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, looks pretty sketchy. It has a fair impact factor, but the articles currently on its web page are heavy into “Eastern” medicine and set off all the “alternative medicine” alarm bells.
My guess is this IFLScience author searched PubMed for the word “orgasm” to see what might make a trending post for that day. Note use of the term “Earth-Shattering” to describe the orgasm. The goal here was not science reporting; it was clicks, and we have no reason to suspect that the orgasmic mushroom is even a real thing. After all, in the past 14 years, nobody else has reported on it; so that’s a fair indicator that there was never anything to it.
The story’s appeal is undeniable, thus its popularity. Can we, as responsible science promoters, find a way to convert this appeal and mass-retweetering from promoting bad science into good science? A return to Elyse Andrew’s original mission of promoting public interest in science — as opposed to personal interest in web ad revenue — would be a good start.