[No Excuse Zone] Gross Errors in the Science Media

This pleasantly snowy evening in northern Indiana, a stroll through the town of Warsaw, and a quick stop in a Walgreen’s to warm up and to pick up a couple of much-craved bottles of Diet Dr Pepper, leads to the doors swinging wide open in the No Excuse Zone. [Geez, the things that can trigger a rant!]

For years, Chuck Doswell, atmospheric scientist and scientific media critic extraordinaire, has rightly lambasted the treatment of meteorological concepts in the mainstream press, including the popular science media. Conceptual misrepresentations and gross oversimplifications abound, as do factual errors, distortions of research methods and results, and severely slanted coverage of one side of an argument.

I was reminded of all this today by two seemingly small but absolutely inexcusable geographic errors in the latest (vol. 26, number 3) issue of Discover, a pop-science periodical I picked up at that snowbound drugstore. I’ll highlight the examples in italics for emphasis…

From “Drilling San Andreas” by Brad Lemley, p. 54:

    …the San Andreas Fault curves up 800 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Not true! The fault extends from the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortes or Sea of Cortez.

From “A Naturalist’s Paradise” by Jocelyn Selim, p. 67, the very first sentence:

    Steven Goodman slipped through the looking glass in 1989 when he first set foot on Madagascar, a biological wonderland 250 miles off the eastern tip of Africa.

Not true! The eastern tip of Africa is in Somalia and about 1800 miles north of the northern end of Madagascar. Instead, Madagascar lies due east of Mozambique, which is not on any African “tip.”

Notice that these are not typos, punctuation mistakes or other glitches that are almost inevitable (but which still should never get past the editor). These are factual errors so fundamentally ridiculous that my two children, 9 and 11, easily can point them out in any given world atlas.

At no charge, I benevolently offer one shockingly easy tip to Mr. Lemley, Ms. Selim and all science reporters and editors who have geographic references in their stories: Look at a map! How much simpler can this be stated?

There is no excuse for such errors appearing in what should be a reputable periodical. They call into question the motives (priorities – creativity, deadlines or accuracy?) of the reporters and editors, and in a broader sense, the quality of journalism as a whole in that publication.

Now consider this: If basic factual mistakes readily get published, how many other errors, distortions or misrepresentations of a subtler, more conceptual nature appear, only to go unnoticed because of the lack of lengthy scientific expertise of the reader in that subject matter?

I browse such periodicals to learn something new, and often do. But can I trust what I am learning? How many scientific mistakes will I and others absorb and propagate because we aren’t sufficiently educated in the specialties and subpecialties behind the stories? Are there enough other Doswell analogs out there who are aware and alert enough to call out such problems? I hope so, but won’t assume so. Chuck can’t read every single popular article on severe storms (his blood pressure might rocket past the rafters if he did!); and the same probably applies to experts in other science specialties as well.

Should one need to be the Doswell of microbiology to root out problems in a story on pathogenic mutations? Should errors evident to a child appear on the pages of Discover or other science periodicals? To both, the short answer is the best: No. And the simple solution is the best: Just get it right.

In a broader sense, it is not hard to do! And even if it were, so what: that is the utmost duty of the reporter and editor.

Accuracy must prevail at all expense, with top priority, even at cost of deadlines or column-inch space. Journalistic integrity and especially science-journalism ethics demand no less. Any truly great science reporter will affirm this; and I have dealt with a few. One of these is Chris Cappella of USA Today, who makes the effort to check tornado facts with me and to coordinate updates of tornado related material there with the Tornado FAQ (at SPC and my mirror site). There are others, and in fairness, I will praise them here also as I encounter or recall them.

There is no shame in verifying facts, checking references, and even passing the story across an expert or two for timely proofreading before publication. In fact, I believe the first two are absolute minima, and the third can only help.


3 Responses to “[No Excuse Zone] Gross Errors in the Science Media”

  1. Jocelyn Selim on August 14th, 2005 10:13 am

    By tip, we meant the rather pointed southernmost projection of the continent.

    Madagascar is about 250 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa.

    Hence 250 miles off the eastern tip.

    It wasn’t a mistake, although your misinterpretation makes me think we could have worded the location a bit more clearly. Still –hardly a cause to attack all of science media.

    Perhaps you should lay off the Dr. Pepper.

  2. tornado on August 14th, 2005 11:25 pm

    I appreciate the author’s caring enough to post a response, but… Huh? That explanation was even more contorted and literally erroneous than that in the original article, as easily shown on any outline of Africa. And what about the other embarrassing error I mentioned?

    Standing firmly behind my original post, I strive to continue reading more science in the journals than in the sloppy popular-science media (to which I did, unknown to those like the author who didn’t fully read my essay, provide a notable exception). Note that I didn’t denigrate all the science media…just most of it! Oh well. If I’m striking a nerve with the guilty parties, I must be doing something right.

    For more insight and examples of these problems, see the essay by Chuck Doswell at [http://www.chatsystems.com/~doswell/media_rant.html ] .

    For the time being I think I’ll stick loyally with the “10-2-4” beverage and keep the No Excuse Zone open for business as the situation warrants.

  3. Jocelyn Selim on July 22nd, 2006 12:02 pm

    I think it’s very excellent that readers care enough to demand precision in science reporting and I commend you for following up on this.

    But could I ask you to look at a map again? Or, if you would like to point to a specific “contorted and literally erroneous” (by the way, how would you be figuratively erroneous? that’s interesting…) I’d be happy to try and clarify this further for you.


    The continent of Africa has a narrow bottom. That is what we meant by tip, not Somalia. You are correct, the sentence would have been clearer if we had said 250 miles east of the southern tip or even 250 miles off the south eastern tip instead of 250 miles off the eastern tip….

    Again, hardly a gross error? (And I’ll let Brad defend himself if he chooses…)


    Best of luck with your Dr. Pepper!


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