Saturday, March 22, 2008

The 4 Steps of Irresponsible Science Reporting

It's easy to forget during an election year, but mass media doesn't limit its oversimplifications and distortions to political news. Media outlets are just as good at improperly framing science news as they are at skewing political news. Today's top science story provides a great example of their ability to confuse.

Step 1: Something Science-y Happens.
The first step in distorting science news is to report on something that is interesting to people who have even a passing curiosity regarding the world around them. Such an event happened on Wednesday morning.

At 2:12 am EDT on Wednesday, the effects of a star explosion arrived at our planet. The visible effects of the explosion could be seen by the naked eye for about a minute. This celestial event was made all the more exceptional due to the astonishing distance between the Earth and the star: More than 7 billion light years — about halfway across the universe.

Normally, naked eye visibility is limited to about 1500-2000 stars. The most distant object or structure generally visible to the naked eye is the Triangulum Galaxy, about 3 million light years away (1/2500th of the distance to Wednesday's explosion). Being able to see something more than 7 billion light years away? That's cool. Let's write a story.

Step 2: A Story is Written.
Never-happened-before astronomy stories make for good sound bite-length stories, so it's unsurprising that major news websites all featured this story during the week. The NY Times pointed out in its story that this explosion was a gamma ray burst, which "might mark the implosion of a massive star into a black hole, or the collision of a pair of dense neutron stars." left the gamma ray details of its story, noting that the story involved an "aging star."

Step 3: A Thoughtless Reader Poll is Created.
It's someone's job at to create reader polls on the basis of the stories of the day. As minor political controversies of this election season have illustrated, the raison d'ĂȘtre of's online reader polls appears to be to inflame reader opinion and heighten their interest in the news — even if that means leading them astray.

Before looking at the poll below, let's remember what this story is about. According to the NY Times, we're talking about "the implosion of a massive star into a black hole, or the collision of a pair of dense neutron stars." With that in mind, here's the Quickvote reader poll:Of course, it's all but a truism that our planet's eventual fate is to be consumed by our dying star. 900 million years from now, our sun's hydrogen will be on its way to depletion. The resulting expansion of our star into a red giant will make our planet inhospitable. Billions of years later, the sun will expand enough to consume the Earth — but we certainly won't be around to complain.

Current supernovae models indicate that our sun is nowhere near massive enough to explode in a supernova. Even less likely is that our star could experience the kind of core collapse supernova that may be the cause of the massive gamma ray burst in the article.

Step 4: Poll Participants Leave More Misinformed Than They Came.
As of this morning, 72% of Quickvote respondents think it's possible that our star will explode and vaporize our planet.
Of course, some of the "yes" folks are those who know something about our star's life cycle and our planet's eventual demise. However, others of these folks are just babes in the woods, alarmed that our star might explode at any moment — just like that star in the article!

An appropriate follow-on to this poll would be a story like What Is Our Government Doing to Prevent the Sun From Exploding? They could even accept responses from readers. I might propose a system of gigantic belts that would prevent the Sun from expanding. No, wait! How about a giant fire extinguisher so we could partially hose down the Sun, should it get too hot?!

(If you like curmudgeon-y blog posts complaining about's absurd astronomy coverage, you might enjoy this old Sauntering post, where we look at the some of the ridiculous images that pairs with any story about a potential meteor/asteroid/comet impact.)


Garth said...

Another mass-media framing of science that is particularly annoying to me is the notion that because someone who happens to be a scientist believes or says something, it is automatically part of the canon of science. As I wrote before, science is not a rank by which arbitrary opinions become valid, it's a rigorous activity which allows us to come to objective consensus.

Andy said...

I completely agree.

The scientist-approved opinions offered up by the media to effectively rebut dominant scientific opinion is annoying and destructive. Al Gore has blamed this phenomenon as one of the principal reasons for governmental inaction on global warming — the media is giving cranks airtime, and the cost is that an issue that should be clear in the mind of John Q. Public becomes unduly muddy.

A less destructive phenomenon that I find nearly as annoying is a move I'll call An Appeal to Einstein.

In a debate on current science, I'm frustrated when a journalist will turn to a quote from a long-dead preeminent scientist as a means of settling the matter. The discussion might concern dark energy, the Higgs boson, prions, or some other distinctly modern scientific matter. Yet, however balanced the debate among current researchers, you can count on the writer putting a thumb on the scale in favor of one side by aligning them with a quote from Einstein, Newton, or Feynman.