Science Exaggeration in the Media

Recently, new scientific data showed that the Sun is rounder than previously thought. As readers of this blog probably know, I am a very fact-oriented person and I dislike exaggeration, especially regarding scientific data.

Let’s see how the media decided to label this discovery, just looking at the titles of a few articles…

Doing it right:

  • Huffington Post –  “Sun’s Shape: NASA Data Show Our Star More Round Than Previously Thought”
  • Complex Tech – “Scientists Discover the Sun is Rounder, Flatter Than Previously Thought”
  • Gizmodo (UK) – “Turns Out The Sun Is Rounder And Flatter Than We Thought”

Doing it wrong:

  • Gizmodo (US) – “We Were Totally Wrong About the Sun’s Shape Until Yesterday”
  • Yahoo! – “Astronomers continue to be baffled by Sun’s nearly perfect shape”
  • The Independent – “Sun is too round, say scientists”
  • Herald – “Mystery of our too-round sun”
  • The Christian Science Monitor – “Mystery continues: Why is the sun ‘too round’? New measurements show the shape of our sun is ‘too round’ to match the theories about the forces at work on the sun.”

Want to know the really interesting part?

The article in the Huffington Post link and The Christian Science Monitor link are the exact same article by Charles Q. Choi, frequent contributor to Scientific American. Funny how different news agencies manage to spin the same story with a different title.

12 Events That Will Change Everything

[The feature article of the June 2010 edition of Scientific American (pp. 36-48) is actually a compilation of articles titled “12 Events That Will Change Everything.” Online version here.]

Scientific American, June 2010 Cover

This Scientific American feature discusses 12 major events. Below are the twelve events in order as presented in the magazine. (In parentheses are the likelihoods of each event as described in the magazine; the terms in order from least likely to most likely—very unlikely, unlikely, 50-50, likely, almost certain.)

The 12 Events:

  1. Cloning of a human (likely)
  2. Extra dimensions (50-50)
  3. Extraterrestrial intelligence (unlikely)
  4. Nuclear exchange (unlikely)
  5. Creation of life (almost certain)
  6. Room-temperature superconductors (50-50)
  7. Machine self-awareness (likely)
  8. Polar meltdown (likely)
  9. Pacific earthquake (almost certain)
  10. Fusion energy (very unlikely)
  11. Asteroid collision (unlikely)
  12. Deadly pandemic (50-50)

Each of these would have profound implications for the world, though some are certainly more important than others. The ones with the most immediate and negative global effects would be 3 (extraterrestrial intelligence), 4 (nuclear exchange), 11 (asteroid collision), and 12 (deadly pandemic). Of these, 4, 11, and 12 are deadly, while 3 has the likely potential to be.

Numbers 1 (human cloning), 2 (extra dimensions), 5 (creation of life), 6 (room-temperature superconductors), 7 (machine self-awareness) and 10 (fusion energy) all seem to be beneficial.

This leaves 8 (polar meltdown) and 9 (Pacific earthquake), of which the former will have slower but costly consequences, and the latter will have a non-global effect.

Whether the good events or the bad ones come first—or even at all—will depend on science, determination, and chance.