11886189-597F-44FC-85CE-22EABE21F267 Created with sketchtool. The Story Behind the Booger Conspiracy

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  Last updated May 25, 2017 at 5:31 pm

If you haven’t watched the Brew Ha Ha episode The Booger Conspiracy, you can check it out here

You may have seen headlines like these over the last couple of days.

The story goes that new research from University of Saskatchewan, Harvard and MIT had found that picking your nose and eating it delivered a boost to your immune system by delivering a rich source of bacteria into your system.

However not all is what it seems with this story. As soon as we look even slightly below the surface, it starts falling apart.

Despite the articles we had seen saying it was

and it had been

There are no links in any news articles to the study itself.

If you go to the American Society for Microbiology website and their list of publications, you quickly find there is no single journal called American Society for Microbiology.

Some of the details in the news articles include statements like this

And quotes from Dr Scott Napper from the University of Saskatchewan like

Dr Napper has published in a few of the American Society for Microbiology’s journals, but not on the topic of nose picking. In fact, nowhere in any of the journals of the ASM is there any study involving Dr Napper which could be linked with these statements. In all of those journals we couldn’t find a study by any author which had similar claims.

Looking on Pubmed, the definitive list of journal publications, we couldn’t see anything recently from Scott Napper which seemed relevant.

However buried in amongst all the results for this story and Dr Napper is a story which sounds strangely familiar from 2013. In it, Dr Napper says he threw out the hypothesis during a university lecture. Four years on and there is no trace anywhere that he has followed it up.

Back to the current stories going around – there’s this guy

Looking on PubMed to find Professor Bischinger’s publication record we find nothing. There was only 1 result for Bischinger and it wasn’t the same person, and the topic wasn’t relevant

And just to confirm – his name also produced zero results on the American Society of Microbiology website.

As far as we can tell he might be a real doctor in Austria, but he doesn’t seem to be an active researcher. We did however find a blog post from 2008 (!) which highlighted exact same quotes attributed to him in 2017. Co-incidentally that blog post also debunks this same story!

But the story doesn’t quite end there, because Harvard and MIT appear to be completely innocent in this whole saga. Back in 2015 there was a (real) study published by researchers which showed that components of nasal mucus did stop bacteria sticking to teeth. However there was nothing in the study about snot boosting the immune system, and it didn’t involve Napper or Bischinger. Putting aside the fact it too is 2 years old, the paper is not linked with the missing research on which these articles are based.

So let’s recap – the research doesn’t exist, and the journal it was supposedly published in doesn’t exist. The leader of the research made a hypothesis in 2013 but never tested it, and the co-author has never co-authored any scientific papers. And the Harvard and MIT “co-authors” actually studied something different without the involvement of Napper or Bischinger.

The story doesn’t necessarily stack up anyway. Your nasal mucus drains down the back of your throat in quantities that dwarfs anything you could snack on, meaning your body is probably already getting a dose of any bacteria trapped in your nasal mucus. Any extra from picking and eating boogers would likely be insignificant.

Just why this story has suddenly sprung up again in such a falsified manner is anyone’s guess. But it comes down to news outlets sharing content, journalists basing stories based on other outlets coverage, and a lack of fact checking.

So what’s the message? Look for credible sources and outlets, always look for a link to the research article, and if it doesn’t add up, start digging a little deeper until you find the primary source. Because sometimes the story is not quite right – or like this, appears to be largely fabricated.

Or… have we just missed something obvious?

The articles that caught our eye about this are:

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About the Author

Ben Lewis
Ben Lewis is a Producer at Australia’s Science Channel, and Editor of the Space, and Innovation and Tech channels. He has worked with scientists and science storytellers including Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield, Robert Llewellyn, elite athletes, Antarctic explorers, chefs and comedians. Ben has also been involved in public events around Australia and was co-writer, producer and director of The Science of Doctor Who, which toured nationally in 2014 in association with BBC Worldwide Australia & New Zealand. Want more Ben? You can hear him on ABC radio in Adelaide, regional SA, NSW, and around Queensland, commercial radio in the ACT, and Radio Adelaide. He also speaks at universities around Australia on communicating science to the public. Around the office he makes the worst jokes known to mankind.


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