I am usually loath to post about something without supporting links.  I feel it’s an undue privilege for a blogger to report about something that he or she cannot verify independently of their own claim of fact.  I hate, in essence, to say “trust me” and leave it at that.

But being nearly blinded with rage during the drive home this evening has clouded my judgment.  So even though I can’t find a link to it on their site, I’m going to tell you what I heard on WGBH about tests being done in Boston’s subway on a system meant to detect biological weapons.  From an unrelated article:

The suite of biosensors, developed jointly by FLir Inc., Northrop Grumman and others are designed to set off an alert if a potentially dangerous biological agent is detected. Meanwhile, other sensors would within minutes identify and confirm the specific pathogens. The current series of tests follow on from a 2009 study where inert gases were released in the Boston subway. This time, Bacillus subtilis (AKA hay bacillus or grass bacillus) will be released while the subway is closed and their spread through the system will be tracked by the new sensors.

Sounds interesting, right?  I hope their tests are nothing but successful.

What sent me into a frothing fury?  When WGBH reported the story, they said that a “non-toxic virus” was being used for the test, before identifying the particular agent later as Bacillus subtilis.  I am 100% certain (and here’s where I’m afraid you’re going to have to trust me) that they used the word “virus” at least twice.

Bacillus subtilis is not a virus!  As the linked article correctly states, it is a bacterium.  Viruses and bacteria are, biologically and medically speaking, totally different pathogens.  They are almost nothing alike.

I know at this point most of you are probably wondering what the hell the big deal is.  One kind of germ, another kind of germ.  Minor confusion, big whoop.

The problem is two-fold.  First of all, there is the principle of the thing.  If I have at least some expectation that writers of our fictional entertainments get their facts straight, I have an absolute demand that our journalists do so to the very best of their abilities.  It is simply, plainly, factually wrong to call Bacillus a virus, and sloppy work from an esteemed news source.  I expect better of their science reporting, full stop.

But more practically, I have to spend more time than I enjoy explaining to people that their child’s illness is viral, and that antibiotics will do nothing to cure them.  Antibiotics are effective against bacteria, not viruses.  Some can grok this distinction, and others continue to look at me with a combination of blankness and resentment, essentially concluding that I am withholding helpful medication because of a defect of character or some other flaw in my mind or soul.  It does nobody any favors to blur this distinction.

I realize that probably nobody heard the report, mused to themselves “Huh, I thought Bacillus was a bacterium,” and decided that there must be no difference.  I get it.   But fishin’ hell, reporters.  If you’re going to report about something scientific, get the basic scientific terms straight!


Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I can relate. One of the niggling bane’s of any health plan I’ve ever had to implement is people’s angry insistence that the plan pay for anti-biotics for their cold.

    Used to drive me frickin’ crazy.

  2. This is the kind of mistake that leaves me frothing at the mouth too. I once read a hard sf novel in which the author (well-respected for his science chops) had a really smart, biologically well-educated character claim that wolves and dogs couldn’t have fertile offspring. WORSE YET, the character was actually making a different argument (one we were supposed to find plausible), and the dogs and wolves’ purported inability to reproduce was EVIDENCE.


    I don’t throw books. That one, I couldn’t help throwing. Across the room. It broke the spine.

  3. I feel your pain.

    I work with Daphnia magna. People ask me, “How can you stand working with tiny insects all day”. D. magna are often called ‘water fleas’. They’re not insects, ffs.

    Hell, if you look at the Wiki Page:

    “a cladoceran freshwater water flea”

    Cladocera is an order of crustaceans, not insects – even though they share a phylum (Arthropoda) So saying, “a cladoceran freshwater water flea” is FARKING WRONG.

  4. Note that “water flea” links to a page explaining that they’re crustaceans. “Water flea” is idiomatic, apparently, much like “water bear” or “sea lion.”

  5. Remember this next time they’re reporting on a subject in which you’re not an expert.

  6. Yes, water flea is ‘idiomatic’ in English, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.

    (De kaldes for ‘vand lopper’ herud)

  7. I’m going to play it safe. Anytime I have a sniffle, it’s antibiotics, antihistamines, and pseudoephedrine for me.

  8. Just keep in mind: if they get something wrong that is that simple (if obscure), how much else are they getting wrong that is that simple (if obscure)?

  9. I was complaining to one of my friends today that my daphnia weren’t producing many babies for testing – and he said, “Those are water fleas, right? Do their bites itch as bad as land fleas??”


  10. I empathize. This is a very basic fact to get wrong; if a station can’t get something that simple correct, it casts doubt on whether any of their reporting is any good. The general public is ignorant enough about basic science as things stand; we don’t need the media making things worse.

  11. Doc, can I get your e-mail? Lazy me Is again thinking about a guest post…
    This one is on “The philosopher who writes children’s books…”

  12. My understanding is that if it is a legitimate bacteria, the subway has ways of shutting it down.

    At least, that’s what Bill First’s internist told me.

  13. I’m sick to death of hearing about your viral/bacterial privilege.
    – prions on “Tumblr”

  14. WGBH and NPR in general has stunk on ice for the last years, after the CPB decided to trade reputation for money. April 24th, when they replaced Bob Edwards with the ever-so-folksy Steve Inskeep, marks the date that I stopped contributing. Every interview with some AEI idiot, every “some say”, help me in my resolve. terry Gross is the only person I can stand to listen to for more than a few minutes.

    This doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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