Fill ‘er up

This just in: A German scientist has recently been forced to clarify that contrary to press reports, he has not invented a method of turning dead cats into automobile fuel.

Ahem. Apparently, the confusion stems from a story that the German newspaper Bild Tuesday wrote about Christian Koch. Koch holds a patent on “KDV 500”, a technique that can turn waste — such as paper, textiles, and plastic — into crude oil. So Bild Tuesday published the following:

Bild Tuesday wrote a headline: “German inventor can turn cats into fuel — for a tank he needs 20 cats.” The paper on Wednesday followed up with a story entitled: “Can you really make fuel out of cats?” [snip]

“I drive my normal diesel-powered car with this mixture,” Koch is quoted saying in Bild, next to a large picture of a kitten. “I have gone 170,000 km (106,000 miles) without a problem.”

There’s a saying we have in journalism: Too good to check. This means “the story is so incredibly weird and amazing that I don’t want to check it, because if I find out it’s not true, I won’t be able to write it.” Well, the dead-cat story was clearly way too good to check, such that typing “dead cats fuel” into Google News — really the best search query ever — shows that dozens of newspapers picked up this story and ran with it, ranging from CNN to the People’s Daily Online. The upshot is that the poor scientist spent last week frantically sending out press releases denying that he was grinding kitties’ bones to make his bread … which of course resulted in an even more surreal slew of headlines, such as “Inventor Denies Dead Cat Fuel Ingredient”.


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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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