Don't forget to check the facts - because nobody else will

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This experiment reminded me of another hoax I became aware of a while ago. A family member told me how food preservatives would become an issue for cemeteries because bodies would no longer decompose, not even after decades. Supposedly, specialists all over the world are noticing that problem but cannot do anything about it as long as we are on such an unhealthy diet. Where they had this from? Well, they read it in a respectable Russian newspaper.

This sounds reasonable at first. After all, food preservatives are meant to keep bacteria in check, probably the very same bacteria that are responsible for decomposing human bodies after burial. But wait, even preservatives in food won’t keep it fresh forever. And in order to have some effect, preservatives would have to be everywhere in the human body in a concentration comparable to the concentration in food. That would be rather unexpected because normally our digestion dilutes everything. Some substances have the tendency to be accumulated in our body but that accumulation only happens in certain body parts.

So there were a few reasons why that story sounded fishy to me, yet interesting enough that I wanted to do some research. I couldn’t find anything on the topic in German even though the story supposedly originated in Germany — but lots of articles in Russian. This topic seems to pop up regularly in the Russian press, with the starting point as far as I can tell being the TV channel NTV [ru] in November 2003. Supposedly, the news agency ITAR TASS brought this but I couldn’t find any evidence of it. The story mutated slightly over the years but for example kept referencing the conference on the topic in Munich happening “right now.” Somebody even translated it to English (that’s the 2012 edition featuring a list of dangerous substances in our food and a fake source reference: The Daily Mail).

What about the evidence? An expert on the topic is apparently some “Werner Stolz from Berlin” who is even giving some critical commentary on our diet. It isn’t told which scientific organization he works for and the conference he spoke at “in August” (what year?) also remains unnamed, he appears to be a product of somebody’s imagination. A search for his name turns up exactly nothing — while this name isn’t too uncommon in Germany, no scientists can be found that would be working in an even slightly related area.

There is even less info on the “Swiss scientists” that supposedly put up the theory that food preservatives are a likely cause. No names, no scientific institution, no study title. Compared to that, the info on Prof. Rainer Horn is extremely precise, and even his quote seems to be accurate — just not the context. As can be seen in this article from 2008, Prof. Rainer Horn is typically cited complaining about low oxygen levels in the soils causing problems for cemeteries. This isn’t a big surprise given that Rainer Horn isn’t a biochemist but rather Professor for Soil Science.

It’s interesting to see how this story combines real and imagined facts —“half a truth is often a great lie,” this principle seems to work well here. The source for the true part appears to be this article from November 2003 which bears similarity to the Russian news coverage and even mentions food preservatives before moving on to more realistic theories. The difference is that the facts mentioned there actually check out. But complaining about the “Western food culture” made a much better story for the Russian-language audience, and so somebody “improved” it. Even now the story is still being republished, always with the claim of being brand new, and I didn’t see any readers commenting on the obvious flaws in it.

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