Oh ... flibbertigibbet! Another one! “Flibbertigibbet” is a really old English word meaning “a gossip” or “a chatterer,” and that’s what we get on the internet — gossip and chatter. If we expand “flibbertigibbet” to mean “useless, incorrect information,” there’s quite a lot of it.
What’s the “another one”? Last week I caught an article on the online version of The Atlantic about houseplants. That’s right — houseplants. Robinson Meyer, the magazine’s staff writer on the climate change/technology beat, published a brilliant little takedown titled “A Popular Benefit of Houseplants is a Myth.” I loved it — well written and genuinely informative, with just the right dash of humor.
For quite a while now, I’ve been seeing articles all across the internet about houseplants and their ability to purify the air in one’s home. All of the articles generally agreed with each other — more on that in a minute — so I thought it was likely good information. I’ve always liked houseplants anyway, so I bought one of the ones suggested as a good air purifier — a snake plant, usually called “mother-in-law’s tongue” around here. I’ve always been able to grow houseplants pretty well. Until this snake plant. They’re usually sort of indestructible; I managed to “destruct” it within a few months.
So, I’ve been meaning to get another one and try again. After all, I keep seeing all these articles “backed by NASA research” about how houseplants purify the air AND I like houseplants. Win-win, right? Well, it turns out it’s only a “win.”
Meyer started by interviewing an employee of a houseplant shop about the resurgence of indoor gardening and then turned his article with “But one of houseplants’ most commonly repeated virtues holds that they’re not only living tchotchkes, but also little HVAC machines: Houseplants, allegedly, filter the air.” Then, he systematically broke down that claim.
He interviewed several experts in the field. By the way, one of his running gags was to report how many houseplants each owns, which is really funny. The conclusion? Yes, houseplants do clean the air, but not to any appreciable degree.
Why all the articles claiming that they do, “according to NASA research?” Meyer explained that NASA did fund a study in 1989 by Bill Wolverton, one of its scientists, to find out whether plants would help purify the air in closed environments like a spacecraft. Wolverton found that houseplants would, indeed, help purify the air.
Here’s the problem. Wolverton researched CLOSED environments, ones that are “hermetically sealed.” Houses most certainly are not sealed, closed environments. Meyer interviewed other scientists and engineers — Wolverton did not return his email for comment — and found that it would take about one houseplant per square foot to purify the air in a home. Meyer joked, “I found only one place that achieved one plant per square foot” — the houseplant shop where he started.
One of the professors Meyer interviewed said, “There’s nothing especially wrong with Wolverton’s 1989 study.” Evidently, the data is correct. There’s an old saying, attributed to many thinkers: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” It becomes clear in Meyer’s article, though, that there is a big difference between theory and practice. No one can stuff his or her home full of enough houseplants to do any real good.
As soon as I read Meyer’s article, I laughed at myself for my gullibility in believing all those other articles. However, it’s not so much gullibility as what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” Here were articles based on “NASA research” that confirmed what I already believed — houseplants are good. I never questioned all those articles touting houseplants as air purifiers because it made sense to me.
I really should have known better. I notice patterns easily, both by temperament and training. I’d already grown suspicious of articles claiming to be based on some sort of scientific proof. They’re easy to spot — many have either “based on research” or “confirmed by science” or some other such telling phrase in their titles.
After all, there have been many of these sorts of “internet trends” in the past few years. A series of articles will appear, people will embrace the concept, then articles appear demonstrating how the original articles are based on misleading or faulty research. The whole trend for “standing desks” over the past few years is an example. No, we shouldn’t sit down so much, but maybe we shouldn’t stand at an upright desk all day, either.
The problem is that most of those articles are not written by scientists. Increasingly, they’re not even written by trained journalists, who check their facts as a matter of course. These “houseplants as air purifiers” articles sound alike because — ultimately, as Meyer points out — they’re all based on a misunderstanding of Bill Wolverton’s original research.
After finishing Meyer’s article, I continued scrolling through my news feed: The third article after his was, you guessed it, another one touting houseplants as air purifiers because NASA research says so. In the week since, three more have appeared in my news feed.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions reflected are his own.