12/18/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Wall Street Journal : Never Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story


"Woke up with a hangover?" begins a story by Sumathi Reddy in the Wall Street Journal. It might be caused not by a martini but by "a range of unexpected foods, from cheese to pickles to citrus fruit," she writes.

Sounds interesting. How does that work? Not so well, we quickly learn.

Reddy doesn't wait long to begin her rowback. At the top of the second graf, she writes that the idea that a banana or an onion can trigger a headache is "controversial." So we're not talking about hangovers? We're talking about headaches. And it's controversial. But hold on; there's more to come.

"Little scientific research has been done," she writes. We're still in the second graf. Most studies rely on "data that aren't always reliable." 

On to paragraph three: "What's more, the possible biological links between food and headache aren't clearly understood." Some experts "believe" there is a "chemical reaction" or a "vascular response," or an "immune-system response" or "a naturally occurring chemical in food." But nobody knows for sure.

Paragraph four: "Despite a lack of evidence, there is widespread belief that certain foods are associated with migraine" and other kinds of headaches, she writes. And she goes on to tell us all about how foods can cause hangovers.

This is the best illustration I've ever seen of the old newspaper crack, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Facts have an unfortunate tendency to undermine stories that could be incredible -- if only the facts were a little bit different.

Reddy shows us how it's done. All the facts, she freely admits, suggest that there is no basis whatever to her story. But despite that "lack of evidence," she writes the story anyway. It's breathtaking.

I'm wondering whether this represents a new way to write a story when the facts are against you. A writer admits that there are no facts to support the story, and then goes ahead and tells the story anyway. And he or she has a ready disclaimer: I told you myself that the facts didn't support this story!

The same tactic was used in a personal favorite of mine, a recent New York Times Magazine cover story entitled "Can a jellyfish unlock the secret of immortality?" Six thousand words in, the author, Nathaniel Rich, writes that the "immortality" of the jellyfish "is, to a certain degree, a question of semantics."

You see how it works? If you challenge Rich on his false claim that jellyfish could hold the key to human immortality, he can say, Hey, I told you it was a matter of semantics. Don't blame me if you swallowed the whole thing!

Yes. Breathtaking.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.