In 2016, the science blog IFLscience.com released an article that led with a shocking headline about cannabis. According to NASA, read the headline, cannabis contains “alien DNA” from another solar system. The headline immediately caught the world’s attention, attracting nearly 200,000 shares, and re-posts on other websites around the internet. The only problem was, the claim wasn’t true: the headline was fake—intentionally fake.
Similar to what NPR had done years prior for April Fool’s day, IFLscience.com had posted a fake headline (which they disclose to readers directly in the article) to see how many people would share the article without reading it. It was a case study on how misinformation is spread, and as the hundreds of thousands of shares suggested, it doesn’t take much.
But in the realm of science, in a time where media is consumed and spread at an unprecedented rate, it isn’t just fake headlines that syndicates misinformation. As one opinion writer points out in The Next Web, misinformation can also grow from the way we interpret the body of an article itself. As Herb reported in June, this is particularly common in cannabis science coverage.
The Next Web article holds up a recent synthetic cannabis study by Lancaster University researchers as an example.
According to the press release, this study looked at the long-term impacts of cannabis use, or cannabis-based drugs, on memory. “The study has implications for both recreational users and people who use the drug to combat epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain,” writes the press release. The only problem: the study was neither conducted on humans nor did it use real cannabis.
Instead, the researchers used a synthetic cannabinoid called WIN 55,212-2 (WIN), which is a CB1 receptor agonist that is sometimes used by researchers as a synthetic substitute for THC. But the problem is, WIN is not THC, and synthetic cannabinoids, while similar to what is found in cannabis, are still not real cannabis. This distinction is important.
Ryan Marino, M.D., a toxicology fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Emergency Medicine, told Inverse that WIN 55,212-2 is “very structurally different” from THC.
Additionally, as experts commonly acknowledge, drugs that are found to work in animal experimentations often fail to reproduce the same results in humans.
“I don’t know how to necessarily extrapolate mouse data with WIN 55,212‐2 into humans with THC, which I’d caution against even though that press release seems to imply equivalency,” Marino said.
And yet, a reasonable person without a background in cannabis science would be forgiven for reading the Lancaster University researchers’ conclusions and applying them to real cannabis.
This is especially plausible considering what we discovered earlier with the intentionally fake IFLscience.com article: many readers do not even get past the headline. So what’s the headline for the Lancaster University researchers’ press release on their synthetic cannabis study on rodents? “Lancaster University research shows cannabis affects memory.”
Maybe cannabis really does affect human memory. But contrary to what one might take away from the Lancaster University researchers’ press release, this synthetic cannabis study far from provides that evidence.