Folmsbee: Beard science is bad science


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Over the past few weeks, the Internet has united in fear and anger over the latest and greatest scourge of our time: beards. But the revolt wasn’t over the diminishing returns of the iconic and ironic facial hair of hipsters. Rather, as we so often do when our world descends into chaos, we turned to the scientific experts at the ABC’s KOAT Action 7 News – Albuquerque. Only they could have broken the story that “some beards are as dirty as toilets.”

This news of the dangers of beards was picked up by other outlets across the country, including the New York Post’s headline of “Bearded men have poop on their faces” and NBC News’ much more measured “Your Beard May Be Filled With Poop Particles.” Should our hirsute countenances be cleansed of these deadly bacterial reservoirs? Are toilet beards going to kill us all? Probably not. But this viral tidbit of scientific journalism is an insult to both science and journalism.

Importantly, this “study” was conducted by John Golobic, a microbiologist at Quest Diagnostics, at the request of the local news team. Beards from a number of volunteers were swabbed and grown in culture to identify the resident bacteria. From the amount and type of bacteria he was able to grow from them, Golobic describes this “uncleanliness” as “disturbing.” Because of this, he argues these men should have a “thorough beard scrubbing.” Ultimately, the fearmongering peaks with this final statement from the piece: “If the city were to find similar samples in the water system, Golobic said it would need to be shut down for disinfecting.” Clearly, the bearded are the pestilent spawn of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, ready to level civilizations with their facial petri dishes.

However, the first and most fundamental error of this study is it was not actually performed by bona fide scientific researchers. Quest Diagnostics is neither an academic nor industry research institution, but rather primarily provides diagnostic testing services for physicians and hospitals.

This difference is very, very critical. Everyone seems to see this as a true scientific investigation of beards, but they are confusing science with the tools of science. Any lab technician can swab something and find bacteria. This is not science. Science is testing a hypothesis, and a good scientist would have an experiment with proper controls, perhaps comparing the bacteria found in beards to those from clean shaven faces.

But even if this were performed by the best scientists as a controlled experiment, it still would have been recognized as a pointless exercise. Finding bacteria on faces is certainly not groundbreaking, since bacteria occupy every surface of your body, not to mention the entirety of the planet. Finding bacteria in beards has no scientific impact, no research applicability and zero medical value. After all, it is not as though emergency rooms around the country are riddled with patients admitted for beard-transmitted diseases.

As seemingly harmless as this kind of fluff story may be, it does reflect a real lack of respect towards true scientific investigation. There is a big difference between career scientists and the so-called scientists of these viral stories. The former are entrusted with billions of dollars to investigate the fundamental forces of life, discover new treatments for disease and explore the cosmos. The latter simply go through the motions, using shoddy work to snatch up easy headlines. In a world where we can’t tell the difference between the faux science of poop beards and real microbiology, it is clear why federal support of scientific research continues to dwindle.

Ultimately, we need universal scientific literacy, because it’s also not clear who really is to blame for such a fumble of science journalism. If the journalists involved had proper training in reporting scientific findings, they would have known to contact professional microbiologists to confirm the accuracy and applicability of the findings. But the professionals at Quest Diagnostics should also bear some of the responsibility. They have a deep understanding of these kinds of assays, but they should also understand their limitations. But more importantly, they should have the scientific training to recommend a more thorough kind of experimentation, with proper controls and context for analysis of the ultimate results. In this case, everyone involved should have understood how science needs to be performed, and also how it deserves to be reported.

The viral success of this bacterial beard narrative is embarrassing and serves as another nail in the coffin of scientific journalism.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].