Oil spill doomsday debunked. Did peer review journalism fail or succeed?

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A skull in the desert


If the news hasn't reached you, the world's going to end in about six months. Hug your children, get your affairs in order. Well, scratch the affairs. Nobody's going to be around to care.

And if you haven't seen that article that's spreading across the Internet faster than the methane it describes in the Gulf, let me summarize. The media blackout in the Gulf has mostly prevented the news from spreading, but Terrence Aym (the author of the article) wants everyone to know the truth. A massive undersea methane bubble has been disturbed by the Gulf oil spill. Add in a cracked ocean floor and elevated seabed, and you have the recipe for Instant Doomsday, which will be ready for delivery within the next six months or so.

Fortunately for your holiday party plans, there are plenty of other journalists, both traditional and new media, debunking this theory:

Where the open source way comes in is Aym's publishing medium. Helium, a "knowledge cooperative" that pays writers to contribute to its citizen journalism site. It's a collaborative take on journalism. Content is rated up or down by the other writers--it's a meritocracy. And more highly rated articles get their writers more money. Old media is suffering. Journalists are losing jobs. Helium is using open principles to create a potentially viable model for profitable journalism. This should be a success story.

And maybe it still is. Traditional journalism has had its share of failures on the part of journalists. Steven Glass. Jayson Blair. And those are just cases of outright lying or plagiarism. Aym may simply be a poor researcher. As Time puts it, "The problem with journalists is that most of us are trained as journalists and not, say, economists or physicists. To a certain extent we need to take experts' word for it that they are correct."

Or maybe in six months, we'll all find out the hard way that he was the only good researcher.

But assuming we're still here to discuss this when the fireworks ring in 2011, is this a failure of that particular journalism model? The site has found large new audiences who had never heard of Helium. The article alone has more than 30,000 Facebook "likes." Did the peer review model fail? Or was it actually successful because of researcher journalists like Annalee Newitz at io9 publishing their own results?

Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


I think articles like the one this article talks about will keep happening because usually journalists who report science news aren't smart enough to understand the science they're reporting. Just as Time says there. But it's more than taking experts at they're word, it's also understanding the words being taken.

Ultimately, it is "gossip". And I think it is human nature to spread gossip and not even bother with "researching the truth."

It reminds me of the rash of stories touting that "Colony Collapse Disorder is linked to cell phones". It got debunked once and everyone calmed down. Then a couple folks from a university in India did an experiment that had the rigorousness of a grade school science project... and the stories again flooded the internet.

It's human nature, which is then exacerbated by a world population with a nearly universally poor science education.

So, to answer your question, yes, I believe peer review failed in this case, and it will from time to time. And it will happen more often with "sciency" articles.

Not all is bad though. I found the methane article ripe for humor and used it as such. :)

That's an even larger problem that traditional media has always faced--being able to evaluate whether a study was done well and should actually be considered science. And it's only worse now that everybody with a mouse and a modem can look up every other half-brained "study" or "experiment" to use as "evidence."

What it really means is that the new face of journalism, which is likely to include amateurs and part-time journalists, is going to have to be even more careful about whom they cite. And on top of that, there's a greater responsibility on the part of the reader to judge their information sources more carefully. I love io9 and get pop cultural updates through it regularly. But I admit, when I found that debunking first, I described it as, "at least as reputable as whatever Helium is." Which is also, admittedly, a lingering bias on my part about what "real" journalism is. That answer is still a bit unclear for me. Although in this case, I think it has to do with what my idea of io9 is--I think of that as where I see recaps of Fringe, not where I read about science, in the same way that I don't expect to learn about global warming research from Perez Hilton.

>>>>What it really means is that the new face of journalism, which is likely to include amateurs and part-time journalists, is going to have to be even more careful about whom they cite.

For those with a sense of morality this might work but it appears that there are large numbers of so-called journalists who are really either editorialists masquerading as journalists or are simply looking to make a buck any way they can.

There are few, if any consequences to behaving otherwise unless one works for someone who does have a sense of what is right and will enforce it. Most news companies appear to only be interested in the bottom line and hence their employees model that behavior.


This type of talk always catches my attention:

<cite>whether a study was done well and should actually be considered science</cite>

Science either means "knowledge" as the ancients meant it almost exclusively, or it refers to a method of arriving at knowledge, as the moderns have almost always meant. The problem is not the journalists who cannot deem some study as true science or not. The problem lies in their confusion over whether they are referring to a method or a knowledge. Unfortunately, most want to mean both or simply confuse the two. They refer to the method, or the "way", of modern science but, at the same time, they also identify science with knowledge. This is a real problem. For the modern scientific method has left behind the search for true causes and settled on describing nature mathematically. Here is a physical example: a physicist can describe, mathematically, the motions of one billiard ball colliding with another, and all of the collateral motions occasioned by the first collision, but he has no way of telling you what happened to the energy from the arm of the player in its transfer to the balls. In other words, he can draw you a nice diagram of the motions and can repeat those motions under a controlled environment, but he can never tell you the cause of the billiard ball's motion when the player strikes it. Does his energy transfer to the ball? What is the nature of that transfer? Is my account of the motions true always or is it just the most likely case?

Did peer reviewed journalism fail? Yes and no. Yes, because all the peers have lost track of what science originally, and still, claims to be able to do. And no, because it is not the fault of any one person lacking in "science" education.

As a small conclusion to my lengthy rant, consider for a moment all the theories that we have come to accept without a thought and almost always without working through the mathematical edifice that has brought about the theory. 1. Sun-centered universe. How do you know, exactly? 2. Atomic view of the universe (i.e. the world is made up of atoms and molecules). Again, how do you know? Do you know these things the same way you know that if you pick up a barely manageable rock and drop it on your foot, it will hurt?

Some food for thought.

>>> And no, because it is not the fault of any one person lacking in "science" education.

If you are writing for publication you are obligated to understand what you are writing about and to know enough to check the facts otherwise it's nothing but gossip represented as truth and thereby a lie and a negative impact on society.


I suspect that a poor science education strongly correlates with an inability to reason and properly research.

That being said, science journalists *do* often subject themselves to peer review. Plus science journalists can understand science related topics far quicker and more deeply. But... there are so few of them anymore.

"you are obligated to understand what you are writing about" -- when most publications have since layed off their science writers... they still have to write about it. Example, the oil leak fiasco. Ultimately, that story is a story of science and engineering. By your reasoning, no one is qualified to report on accident with any depth. And I would agree with that. Most publications don't have the expertise on hand to report with any depth of understanding.

Another example, the recent renewed breathalyze over cell phones and colony collapse disorder. Total journalistic failure. It wasn't about the dollars, except in the sense that they canned the science guy so they have no one on staff that could see the otherwise glaring holes in the science.

Anyway... easy subject to over comment on.

Since when has there ever been peer review in journalism. Journalism is a for-profit venture (even in this instance the journalists are paid) and the pressure is high to get the headline and the most eyeballs. Our media proves it everyday. We don't see the most important stories we see the most sensational stories. It happens everyday. And, when one writer (I hesitate to call all of them "journalists") latches on to or creates a juicy story large numbers of other writers pick it up and turn it into a feeding frenzy regardless of the facts.

This can and does happen everyday because there are no consequences to doing such thing. Writers seldom get sued, peers seldom rebut such things publicly, and the public simply forgets who started the "gossip" in the first place.

Serious problem. If we really could find a way to ensure comprehensive peer review that would be the single most important contributor to our quality of life and personal freedoms I can image. Few things are more important than honest and unbiased reporting.


I wonder if science is ever affected by profit. I suppose that ultimately the truth of a matter will be borne out, but I wonder if there are times when theories, discoveries and techniques that are not vigorously pursued because of who provides the funding, or how much funding is provided. I wonder if there are scientists who don't pursue a particular path because it's "not what they are being paid for."

My hypothesis is that commercial science is affected as much as commercial journalism by the need to focus on specific outcomes. I suppose that could be reflected in some cases of peer review as well.

Wasn't much of the pure science from our history actually achieved by dedicated amateurs?

Today the WHO (World Health Org) officially declared that the swine flu epidemic is over. I don't know what the death toll from it was, but it couldn't have been all that bad, or someone would have reported it by now. Another crisis, like the oil spill crisis, that wasn't. All that swine flu we had to hurry up and make is now being burned.

A crisis isn't all that bad... if it is prevented or averted.

Oil leak crisis... the damage has not been tallied yet. So far, it's only cost mere billions. If they didn't stop the leak, the devastation was expected to be vast, and BP would probably have gone under at some point (neglecting the possibility of a bailout).

Influenza has killed bazillions of people in the past. No one knows exactly how severe a new strain will be until it takes it's toll. And the death toll for swine flu was reported: roughly 11,000 people with an estimated 50 million sickened (American's only).

If people sat on their hands... it would have been far worse. And if no measures are taken each time a significantly new strain of flu comes around... well, I suppose the economy would eventually recover from 1/2 the population being wiped out in a worst case scenario. Yeah, probably worth spending the cash. Sometimes, it is probably a good idea to be proactive.

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