In the new series (sorry, “season”, cos that’s what we call them now, right?) of Heroes, one of the titular super-mutants is experimenting with her limb-regenerating ability. She scissors her little toe off, it amusingly pops off and flies across the room. For a moment you think her Pomeranian is going to eat it.
The media is currently going a bit doolally about this guy who apparently “grew back a finger” after his mate sprinkled powdered pig intesines on it. Ben Goldacre’s excellent Bad Science blog covered the story yesterday, and what the sensational stories don’t make clear is that he lost some skin and flesh, but no bone or nail. This happened to me once, and I didn’t need any quackery to get my left little fingertip back. I have a small circle of pink skin without any fingerprints there, where the cheese grater decided to turn the White Cheddar into Red Leicester. Does this mean I am a regenerative superhero? Of course not. The Heroes girl has the ability to grow back bone, and flesh, and skin, while you watch. Us normal humans can grow back flesh and skin over a matter of days or weeks. Both are amazing, one is real.
Update: Ben Goldacre was on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme this morning talking about this very story.
What is also amazing is how certain parts of the media get so excited about stuff that is very wrong. In 2004, The New Scientist famously printed a report about some homemade fully artificially intelligent ‘ChatNannies’ which would protect “the children” from online paedophiles. It wasn’t clear how, but the AI was very impressive, considering it was apparently thrown together in someone’s shed. More impressive than the current state of the art in AI. Too impressive. Less impressive was the background of the creator Jim Wightman (aka Death’s Head), who turned out to be a Holocaust denier and nasty man in general, with a history of lying about his programming exploits. But as he said, the skeptical scientific community only hurt their own children by questioning him.
Science and tech are complicated subjects, but trying to simplify them too much just ends up confusing more than enlightening. The problem is that a lot of it is interpreting statistics and test results, which is a tedious and delicate process. All the more reason to have knowledgeable people reporting on it, or at least people who understand the process, and the limits. You wouldn’t have the cookery columnist reporting on the credit crunch – although that does sound tasty.
Update: more from Mr. Goldacre