Saturday, January 16, 2010

*sigh* No, He Didn't

From a link at Uncertain Principles, I found this: "Why is the news media comfortable with lying about science?"
The most egregious case seems to have happened at the UK's Daily Mail, which ran an article in the Science and Technology section of its website entitled "The mini ice age starts here." In it, the author argues that we're due for decades of global cooling, driven by ocean currents that the article claims produced the last century's warming—not greenhouse gasses. These facts are ascribed to impeccable scientific sources: the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, and Mojib Latif, a prominent climatologist based in Germany. A substantially similar story, with precisely the same attributions, later appeared on the Fox News site.

There was small problem here, though: Mojib Latif is still alive, and was easy to get a hold of. When contacted, he pointed out that large portions of the report were inaccurate. A prominent climate blogger contacted both Latif and the NSIDC; he quotes Latif as saying, "I don't know what to do. They just make these things up." Referring to "facts" attributed to it by the article, The NSIDC's director said, "This is completely false. NSIDC has never made such a statement and we were never contacted by anyone from the Daily Mail. "
The second case examined in the above post involves ABC trotting out Jenny McCarthy to rebut a recent study regarding diet and autism in children. Jenny McCarthy's single qualification for being in the media is that she was Playboy's Playmate of the month, then of the year, more years ago than I care to recall. Take that, scientists. Your boobs aren't big enough, you don't show enough skin, and you aren't blond enough to have an opinion on medical issues.

The post makes some very important points, and there are some important and insightful comments as well (though many are of the fairly useless "me too" variety).

Which brings me to the particular case I want to bitch about today. A few days ago, I pointed out a piece from Scientific American in which Bob Yeats, one of my geology profs, had said in part,
In an interview last week for an unrelated story, Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus in geoscience at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said that an imminent big west coast earthquake concerned him far less than a "big one" that might occur in Haiti, due to the large fault near the capital city of Port-au-Prince—and the poverty-driven low level of earthquake-preparedness there.

"If they have an earthquake on this fault that runs through Port-au-Prince," the death toll would be tremendous, he said January 6.
Predictably, over the last couple of days, the media have misrepresented this to the point that I could bite through rebar. KGW came first, as best as I can tell, with the headline, "OSU geologist forecasted Haiti quake."
PORTLAND, Ore. -- An international earthquake expert from Oregon State University forecasted that a destructive earthquake would hit Haiti just a week before it happened.
*sigh* No, he didn't. The author didn't talk to Yeats, he talked to Andrew Meigs. Yeats was in Japan at the time. There is no source for the claim that Yeats "forecasted the quake." Forecasting would involve issuing some probability of a quake larger than some magnitude within some window of time. I do know that Yeats' major interest is in the neotectonics (recent earth movements) of western North America, a region from which Haiti is noticeably absent. I for one had not been aware that a fault strand of the Caribbean-NA plate boundary ran through Port-au-Prince, but I would imagine most structural-tectonic professionals were very much aware of that. A large population with terrible infrastructure, and essentially no standards for such construction, would, to paraphrase Richard Clarke (I think) have US disaster experts "running around with their heads on fire." Yeats couldn't have helped being aware that a quake in Haiti would be a disaster beyond imagining, but that's a long way from saying, "Well, sometime in the next week or two, Haiti is going to get battered almost to death."

Next up was KVAL, with the same headline. They do get the lede pretty much right, though.
CORVALLIS, Ore - International earthquake expert and geologist Robert Yeats forecasted one week ago that one of the world's most at risk locations for a major destructive earthquake was the fault that runs through Haiti and near Port-au-Prince.
Still, identifying "one of the world's most at risk locations" isn't a forecast, it's a statement of fact, and one that had been made many times before (though I again emphasize that I had not been terribly aware of that fact prior to the event). Yeats seems to be getting credit (which I doubt he actually wants) simply for having been the most recent to repeat this fact.

And AHA! I should have guessed! Here's the OSU Press Release. Found it as I was tracking back links, and I hadn't seen this until just now.
An international earthquake expert at Oregon State University predicted one week ago that one of the world’s most at-risk locations for a major, destructive earthquake is the fault that runs through Haiti and near Port-au-Prince.
I've ranted about journalism by press release before...
This is why traditional journalism is dying. Reprinting some author's press release isn't journalism. It's not reporting. Press releases are intended to do one thing: get publicity for the sponsoring institution. There might be some important information in them, but if so, it's purely coincidental.
...and I'm certain I shall do so again in the future. Strengthening my firm belief that press releases should be banned, take a look at the third paragraph of this pile-o-crap:
The observation also brings home the remarkable advances scientists have made in recent years in understanding the complex, as-yet-unpredictable behavior in the thousands of faults around the world that set the stage for earthquakes, and the socio-economic forces that make some locations more vulnerable than others.
See the problem here? Shorter press release: "OSU prof predicts as-yet-unpredictable event."

Case closed. Putzes.

The Oregonian gets into the act too, with the headline, "Report: OSU professor says deforestation caused many deaths in Haiti quake" *sigh* No. He didn't. What he said is quoted right there in your article:
[Yeats] saved his harshest criticism for practices such as deforestation. He said that many trees have been cleared from the hillsides in Haiti, increasing the likelihood of landslides.

"I haven't seen the figures, yet," Yeats said. "But I suspect a lot of the deaths were caused by landslides."
Headlines are written by editors, not by reporters, so a lot of the invective in this post is directed at them, not the reporters. But from the outside, to the readers, this distinction is most often lost. The important thing to note here is that the death and destruction we've seen thus far is almost exclusively from Port-au-Prince, where landslide damage does not seem to have been a major factor. Dave's Landslide Blog notes this morning that liquifaction (which could be thought of as a particular kind of landslide) is the process that destroyed the port, but in other posts he notes that there doesn't appear to be much in the way of slide damage in the city. He also notes that we don't know much of what is happening outside the city yet... that's a bad sign. I suspect Yeats is right, but we don't have that information yet. Which means that the Oregonian's headline is jumping the gun and misrepresenting Yeats' comments at the very least. BTW, for ongoing analysis of geologic factors influencing both the results of the quake and the recovery/aid effort Dave has been doing a yeoman's job.

Finally, the article that The Oregonian bounced was from my own hometown's Gazette Times, a paper for which I have never been shy to express my contempt. So do they for once come through? Need you ask? Here's the headline: "OSU professor predicted Haiti earthquake." And here's what he actually said:
"What surprised me most wasn't that it happened," Yeats said by phone Thursday morning. "But that it happened when it did. I didn't expect it this soon.
Yeats said other areas of concern include Kingston, Jamaica; Tehran, Iran; and Istanbul, Turkey. He said those cities also are on large faults and their building structures are vulnerable as well.

However, Yeats said, it's hard to convince political leaders to take action because geologists can't answer the big question the leaders want answered.

"We don't know when earthquakes are going to happen," Yeats said. "That's what they want to know. It's possible the earthquake might not happen in their lifetime, and their focus is on the present."

"We don't know when earthquakes are going to happen." "OSU professor predicted Haiti earthquake." How is it that reporters and editors can look at those two sentences in the same short article and not feel a sense of mental conflict, no cognitive dissonance? It's important, because if we can't expect journalists to recognize paradoxes, how can we expect the broader public to try to sort out their nonsense?
Alice laughed. `There's no use trying,' she said `one ca'n't believe impossible things.'

`I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Case closed. Putzes.

1 comment:

Silver Fox said...

These outfits should read this blog post. Since when is "concerned" the same as "predict?"