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Science, Accuracy and the Media

This week’s Carnival of Space is up at Universe Today, and out of the mix I’ll point you to Ian O’Neill’s musings on the perceived accuracy of science. It’s a look at how tentative research findings can be misunderstood, a phenomenon that’s hardly new and often blamed on the media. But is it the media’s fault? In many cases, even a balanced newspaper or TV story can be taken out of context when given a potentially misleading headline.

Thus a 1983 story on observations by NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) received a headline (“Possibly as Large as Jupiter; Mystery Heavenly Body Discovered”) that needlessly limited a research result that had led scientists to speculate on everything from an object near the Solar System to something of extra-galactic origin.

It’s hard to fault the Washington Post, which ran the story, for the bizarre transfiguration of this object into a proto-star or possibly a planet that was sure to collide with Earth, but this seems to have occurred in some readers’ minds. Indeed, O’Neill quotes the original story with a certain sense of disbelief at what it led to. Here’s the quote:

“So mysterious is the object that astronomers do not know if it is a planet, a giant comet, a nearby “protostar” that never got hot enough to become a star, a distant galaxy so young that it is still in the process of forming its first stars or a galaxy so shrouded in dust that none of the light cast by its stars ever gets through.”

The story seems reasonable, yet somehow ‘Mystery Heavenly Body’ became interpreted by certain readers as ‘Earth-menacing planet in the outer Solar System,’ feeding a buzz that continues to translate into various doomsday scenarios. All this was fed more fuel in the 1990’s with the discovery of objects in the Edgeworth/Kuiper belt that some determined doomsday hawkers have misconstrued as this same object. O’Neill sees part of the problem as too flamboyant a use of language:

Out here in the space blogosphere I have been guilty in using flamboyant language, especially in the titles of some of my stories (re: “Temperature Conditions of a Supernova Recreated in UK Laboratory” – I could have just said “10 Million Kelvin Achieved with Petawatt Laser”, or “Synthetic Black Hole Event Horizon Created in UK Laboratory” – Perhaps I needn’t have mentioned “black hole” in the title?), but with space blogs (or any blog for that matter), the main strength of writing in an informal, but accurate, manner is that we can be a little more expressive and more opinionated than “level-zero” news releases. The problem comes when primary sources of the media begin to base their stories on what they perceive to be accurate. Like the Washington Post article in 1983, why strongly indicate that a Jupiter-sized planet had been discovered?

Fair enough, and it’s certainly true that the use of hyperbole when dealing with scientific discovery is hardly conducive to rational thought. But the evidence suggests that if someone wants to take an idea out of context, mis-read an entire article and ignore the comments of the researchers who explained its findings, that person is going to proceed no matter what the headline. All of which is a known problem in science writing, and about the best we can do is push accurate follow-ups, especially as a story (think Gliese 581 c) plays out in ways that deflate the original exciting premise. Newspapers publish corrections that are rarely seen, but the Web offers us a more supple medium in which to report how science’s hypotheses are influenced by subsequent findings.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Adam June 14, 2008, 16:20

    Hi Paul

    Palaeontologists are continually being told by the Press that they’ve discovered a new missing link – much to their annoyance. But then commercial labs are always proclaiming some materials advance as the best thing since sliced bread… until the next press release at least.

  • Ian O'Neill June 14, 2008, 17:37

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for picking up on my article! A great discussion, way bigger than what I wrote about on astroengine, so it’s great to see it being discussed on CD in a high quality way :-)


    Ian ;-)

  • Administrator June 14, 2008, 20:14

    Ian, the post on your site was first-rate, and I’m so glad you brought up the Washington Post story, which was ideal for the discussion. I seem to have missed all that the first time around (back in the 80’s and the later Kuiper Belt stuff), but it’s illuminating to understand some of the themes running into the various catastrophe theories today. Nice work indeed.

  • Minoan June 15, 2008, 8:03

    I’m surprised not one mention of the global warming controversy in that article. The media have run with the most “sky is falling in” interpretations of the global warming debate. Science has become highly politicised and it naturally follows that we get inaccurate reports from the press.

  • John Hunt June 16, 2008, 3:03

    The free media has a problem in that they are economically driven. Reports of the catastrophic (the worse the better) and the unusual (i.e. statistically rare) creates more fascination amongst the public, attracts more attention, and ultimately garners more ad revenue. It’s a situation which we probably will have forever.

    In democratic countries, people’s opinion matters. It determines elections, which results in government funding priorities. Scientists understand this dynamic and can be tempted to wander from calm reasoning and spin the interpretation to the media and thereby make the implications of their work more incredible than it might actually be. Even if they play it straight the media have the incentive to dramatize the story.

    What’s needed is a journalistic ethic in which helping the public understand things for how they are becomes the top goal. There will be an inevitable conflict with the ongoing need to attract reader/viewership. But a talented and ethical reporter ought to be able achieve both.