Here Be Dragons: Science journalists are playing with fire when they humorously dupe readers.
Image credit: Anderson, Wayne/Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

My lowest point as a science journalist came before I even knew what a science journalist was. I was a young punk in an eighth-grade science class at Northwood Middle School in Greenville, South Carolina. For homework, our teacher told us to summarize an article about a recent scientific discovery. I knew instantly what I'd write about: a piece in Discover magazine by the journalist Tim Folger describing the discovery of the “bigon.”

The bigon was supposedly a fundamental particle the size of a bowling ball. The article explained that the Parisian physicist Albert Manqué had discovered it by accident, while tinkering with electrical equipment and vacuum tubes. Manqué had set up a video camera to record his tinkering, and a single frame from the recorded video revealed the split-second when a bigon burst out of a nearby computer monitor, summoned from the void by some errant spark. The article helpfully included the video image, which showed a black, bowling-ball-sized object swelling from a shattered screen.

I devoured the story with glee. The idea of spontaneously generating a fundamental particle so big you could actually see it filled me with wonder. I breathlessly wrote up the story for my homework. I got an A, and the teacher had me read my piece aloud to the class.

When I brought up the bigon the next year, in my freshman high school science class, the teacher told me he’d never heard of it, and that regardless it was simply impossible for a particle to be so large. I brought the magazine up to his desk the next day to prove him wrong. He pointed out a few telltale giveaways, and noted the month on the magazine cover. It was the April issue, he explained. April Fools’! The room seemed to echo with my classmates’ laughter, and suddenly it was very warm. I slunk back to my seat, flushed bright red with embarrassment. Years later, I learned the image in the magazine had actually been a photograph of Tim Folger’s bowling ball shattering an old computer monitor.

The gag damaged only my pride—I look back on it and smile. But sometimes I wonder: What if I hadn’t been able to take the joke? What if I had developed an irrational grudge, and it festered into a lingering, life-long distrust of science and of media? Or what if my eighth-grade classmates who listened to me pontificate about the bigon somehow had never become the wiser? Maybe there is a grown adult in Greenville, South Carolina, right now who still thinks bigons are real, because of Tim Folger, Discover magazine, and me.

There is a long, illustrious history of highly regarded journalists and publications pranking readers with goofy stories on April Fools’ Day. The pranks can be fun and funny—particularly when you’re the one doing the fooling. See, for instance, my colleague Phil Yam’s cataloging of the greatest April Fools’ hits from Scientific American's past. Or look at a new study released today by Nature reporting the discovery of dragons and their imminent return (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group). More examples are being created each year.

But perhaps it’s past time for reputable science publications to abandon the practice—or at least to quietly discourage it. What seems like harmless fun among journalists and their more-savvy readers may have negative unintended consequences outside those knowledgeable inner circles. Recent polling data shows that public trust in science and scientists is not exactly stellar, and ongoing controversies over topics such as climate change, evolution, vaccines and genetically-modified organisms illustrate how easily insidious forces can manipulate the media to promote unscientific agendas. It’s unclear—to me at least—how tongue-in-cheek articles designed to betray a reader’s trust could possibly do anything but exacerbate these serious problems.

To make matters worse, ever-growing fractions of the public now get their news online, from a churning maelstrom of informal sources and content aggregators of varying quality. Dubious stories proliferate and multiply like viruses, spreading through e-mail newsletters, clickbait listicles, and casual Twitter updates and Facebook posts. The internet now ensures that all false, silly stories old and new can live forever, or at least never exactly die. Resurrection is usually just one Google search away.

If you believe everything you read from many high-traffic news sites, then you’re probably now convinced that NASA is building another space station with Russia and is creating a physics-defying interplanetary hyperdrive, that the Large Hadron Collider is about to discover parallel universes, and that a motley crew of ill-prepared amateurs will soon colonize Mars. But of course, none of that is really true, and none of it was reported on April 1st.

The truth is that there’s no longer a need for a special holiday for silly stories—every day is now April Fools’ Day. And if that's the reality, hasn't the joke become rather stale?

This April Fools’ Day, Scientific American will be free of knowingly false and misleading content. I hope other outlets will join us in upholding the responsibility of cultivating public trust. It’s time to let bigons be bygones, and stop deliberately duping readers.