Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Don't Blame the Press for Space Dinosaurs

Why are scientists blaming us reporters for the irresponsibility of their own PR hype machine?

Don't Blame the Press for Space Dinosaurs

On Saturday someone yelled at me following a Science Festival Event. It was a talk presented at a meeting of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking(PhACT) and the scientist giving the talk, Dave Cragin, is a friend. His talk was informative and interesting but I thought he was a tiny but unfair to the press and asked him to clarify one point.

As an example of bad journalism he’d held up a dishonest press release that was put out by an environmental group. Another example of misleading reporting came from Environmental News Network, which is not a journalistic publication but some kind of collaborative effort among environmental groups.

So I just mentioned that if he wanted to criticize the press, he should have at least one example from the press. I asked if he’d seen similarly irresponsible content in the New York Times or the Philadelphia Inquirer. From somewhere behind me a woman cackled, “Are you kidding, they’re hideous!” I found out later she is a scientist.

Dr. Cragin agreed with me later that he should be more specific in his criticism. I explained to him that PR and journalism stem from different motivations. PR is a form of advertising. The goal is persuasion. Journalists are supposed to aim for the truth. We don’t always succeed but we try.     

This is the second time in one week I’ve witnessed scientists accusing the press of stupidity, gullibility or dishonesty and then holding up as evidence a press release that came from an interest group, university or a scientific organization.  

Don’t do that. It makes you look culturally illiterate. You should learn the difference between an article from the press and a press release. The other case came up last week, in a blog post associated with the skeptics movement. The subject was the pubilicity surrounding chemist Paul Breslow after he made a fanciful statement about dinosaurs in a paper that had nothing to do with dinosaurs.

It was a paper about the orientation or “chirality” of our biochemistry. Amino acids – the building blocks of protein – can come in right-handed or a mirror-image left handed form, but life on our planet is made almost exclusively with left-handed amino acids. Breslow speculated that life on other planets could be based on right handed ones, but for some reason instead of referring generally to life, he refers to dinosaurs. Alien dinosaurs.

It isn’t the first wacky thing I’ve heard come out of the mouth or pen of an otherwise accomplished and intelligent scientist. But it’s easy enough to distinguish when scientists are trying to explain their science and when they’re just shooting the coprolites.

Breslow probably should reserve his dinosaur speculation to private conversations, or his Twitter feed, or something other than his scientific publications, but the most egregious error was committed by the American Chemical Society. They put out a whole press release on Breslow’s careless, off-the-cuff dinosaur remark even though it had nothing to do with what was presented in his paper.  

“Could Advanced Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?” was the headline and it got worse from there. ACS has apparently removed it from their site.   

That tidbit inevitably got picked up in some tabloid trash publications(how could they resist) and the release was simply reprinted whole on aggregators such as Science Daily. It was ignored by major newspapers and magazines. And yet, this boneheaded press release was again used to bludgeon the press.

Here’s a post on a site called Skeptic Blog. I don’t know much about it, but the author of this post is a real scientist. He sent me the link himself.

So I guess it’s not surprising when scientists who don’t work with dinosaurs try to find any connection,no matter how ridiculous, with them. Consider, for example, this recent article, which speculates about whether advanced dinosaurs could rule other planets. My first reaction is astonishment—how could there possibly be a legitimate scientist claiming that we have evidence of dinosaurs on other planets? We don’t even have the simplest forms of life on any other planet yet! The breathless reporting by Science Daily buys into the whole argument without any challenges.

But no reporters appear to have been involved at any stage in this. Some editor touched up the press release. And why not? Science Daily has no reputation as a source of journalism.  

I wrote to the author of the skeptic blog post and suggested he should find a real journalistic story or admit this “article” had in fact come from the scientific community’s own PR machine. If anything, his post serves as evidence that scientists need to be covered by journalists because their societies can’t be trusted to put out decent information.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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