Ottawa Sun Turns Alzheimer’s Science Piece Into Ad for Local Sugar Shack | The Body of Evidence

Ottawa Sun Turns Alzheimer’s Science Piece Into Ad for Local Sugar Shack


How did a report on a molecular neurology finding turn into an ad for a sugar shack in the pages of the Ottawa Sun?

I'd like to know.

Science journalism frequently receives flack from dedicated bloggers who argue that the journalist got the science wrong, failed to contextualize the findings, or hyped the research beyond reason. But turning a basic research finding into a publicity for a local business is a new one for me.

That business is Fulton's Pancake House and Sugar Bush in Pakenham, Ontario. Its co-owner, Shirley Deugo, takes up half of the news report, talking about natural remedies and how aboriginals have been using maple tree sap for "thousands of years". She even gets the final word in the article by stating that "we don't need to understand everything [...] If our ancestors said it worked... then yeah, let's go with it." Spoken like a true non-scientist.

But the absurdity does not end there, for the article is accompanied by a video which, to my befuddlement, has nothing to do with the research findings. Instead, it is a promotional video for Ms. Deugo's sugar shack. Meet Parker Deugo, 13: "I'm kind of the head of the operation." We watch interviews with the father and all three sons, as well as footage of their family business. Then the video ends on a credit slide.

Why do we learn about Fulton's Pancake House and Sugar Bush in Pakenham, Ontario? Because Canadian and American teams have just presented "very preliminary" findings that isolated compounds from maple syrup seem to prevent protein misfolding in brain cells extracted from rodents, a type of misfolding seen in Alzheimer disease.

While your typical news report would quote an independent researcher on the quality of these studies, the Ottawa Sun journalist decided instead to quote the co-owner of a sugar shack, and someone at the Sun decided to accompany the article with a video ad for the business. This makes one wonder if the journalist and the business have been on very friendly terms for a while.

Given recent cutbacks at traditional media outlets, I was expecting the journalist to be a "generalist"; he is instead a science reporter. Tom Spears received an honourable mention for the 2014 Science in Society Journalism Award by the Canadian Science Writers' Association. He was also the recipient of the 2014 Mary Stuart Education Award from the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club. He wrote an intelligent article for the Ottawa Citizen about predatory journals, and even fabricated a fake scientific paper that he submitted to them to prove how easy it was to get published. 

I would like to know what went wrong with the maple syrup piece. As it stands, it represents shameful science reporting. Not only are there no quotes from experts regarding the strength of the findings, but the interviewee, whose words constitute half of the article, spews forth pseudoscientific nonsense wrapped in logical fallacies. The article fails to contextualize the science via an outside expert and, to add insult to injury, spreads an anti-science message.

Shameful and embarrassing.


Update: As I was about to post my article, I noticed that the Ottawa Sun article appears to have been taken down. This may or may not be related to the email complaint I sent to the journalist... and the editor-in-chief. The article can be viewed via Google Cache.