Tuesday, November 10, 2009

RANT EXTRA: On the state of the astro-blogosphere

(Too) much has been written lately on how old-fashioned journalism is gonna die and to be replaced by blogs or tweets or wiki-whatevers. In the field of science and esp. space-related reporting the borders are blurred anyway, and the volume of 'copy' produced by bloggers is way outweighing the classical formats in any case. Just watch what the blog feed catcher of the Portal to the Universe (in the creation of which this blogger was actually involved) sucks in all the time. There is a lot of redundancy here, as noted by the PTTU editors early on, often little more than copy-&-past-ing of press releases, and only occasional original work. The watchdog function many blogs in the political area play is mostly missing - and just recently so many examples of poor reporting and/or judgement have come across my screen that this rant just had to get out. I won't name - or link to - individual 'sinners' here: You know who you are, as do your readers. Three examples:
  • On Nov. 5 the British Natural History Museum put online a story about a meteorite with unusual properties that had been recovered thanks to an Australian camera network imaging its fall. Many blogs, including several 'famous' ones, treated this as a news story - when in fact the respective paper had been published in Science on Sep. 18, together with a press release by CSIRO and lots of timely news coverage, e.g. in the New Scientist. Apparently none of the blogger stars had recalled this major astronomy news event from less than two months ago - what does it say about how serious they are with their reporting work? Particularly shocking is that this oversight happened to a number of the 'big names' in the business.

  • There have been two 'incidents' with minute asteroids of 5 to 10 meters in diameter recently, one exploding over Indonesia on Oct. 8, the other missing Earth on Nov. 6. While the former case was at least unusual (bodies of this size hit Earth only every few years), the latter was not as similar approaches to Earth w/o impact are ten times as frequent. Yet there were those blog stories again about how Earth just escaped another "asteroid" collision. Of course nothing other than an Indonesia-style fireball would have occurred, and no distinction between harmless airbursting rocks and dangerous bodies of 25+ meters was made or at least emphasized. The headlines should have been "Earth missed another nice bolide event" ... but instead we got served the dire view that these (non-)cases are further proof that Earth is defenseless against grave danger from space - which does exist, of course, but on an entirely different scale.

  • One week from now the Leonid meteors may or may not produce a decent shower when the Earth encounters some dust trails left by the parent comet. Last year a crude model calculation by a French astronomer (now working at Caltech) had predicted a maximum Zenithal Hourly Rate - i.e. meteor/hour under the best possible viewing conditions - of 500 or more: This would have qualified as half a "storm", reminding meteor veterans of great drama a decade ago, and the prediction was picked up by NASA and even by the IAU in an IYA press release. But this high prediction always stood alone, with other experienced theorists predicting a much smaller outburst. Still NASA ignored the doubts and many bloggers - with rare exceptions - took the 500+ figure for granted, until today. Alas, some time ago the theorist retracted it and is now predicting some 200, while the main 'competitor' is at around 175 and yet another pioneer of the field sees around 100. Even NASA conceded today that the 500 are history (but still thinks 300 possible without presenting the calculations leading to this).
The same NASA website that promoted the high prediction (and was not particularly successful in picking the right model with other meteor events in the past) may also have played a - minor - role in the ongoing 2012 'end of the world' nonsense. For when it came to predictions of how high the next maximum of solar activity might be, it strongly promoted one theorist whose results were at the very high end. And when a big panel of solar physicists in 2007 determined that the next peak would be average at best and almost certainly not high, this finding - reinforced two years later - wasn't communicated well. It's hard to prove causalities in this emotionally charged field of astronomy, but said NASA site is being copied-and-pasted (and absorbed, one would think) a lot, especially by astronomy aficionados not necessarily reading the original literature. And now I hear the makers of the "2012" movie premiering this week in a making-of on German TV (last Sunday) stating as an undisputed scientific fact that the coming solar maximum will be extremely high. Who else is wondering where that "information" came from? And now back to our regular fare of actual astronomy news that are new and correct ...


Mang (433rd) said...

This isn't the first time a small meteoroid near miss has been billed as an asteroid near miss. I've always found it annoying. I recall a paper from a RASC member that used a 50m diameter cutoff. Below that it's a meteoroid and above that it's an asteroid. Use that scale and an asteroid near miss really means something.

Mang (433rd) said...

This isn't the first time "asteroid" near misses have been reported as big news. There was a paper out of the RASC a while back that had a cutoff size. Under 50m diameter was a meteoroid and over an asteroid. On that scale, an asteroid near miss is big news.

doug said...

Particularly infuriating to me was an unbelievably wildly popular Facebook "event" which was promulgated--which gained nearly 1 million attendees!--stating: "It is going to be very great with one of the biggest meteor shower events of our lifetime. I would recomend (sp) everyone mark their calendars for this historic event.... five hundred or more Leonids per hour"

This verges on being a hoax, akin to the Mars hoax. And I would argue that this also amounts to crying wolf, which doesn't much endear people to going outside and looking up *when the time is actually right* (say, if we got a actual meteor storm one day, or a good shower more conveniently timed for most people's schedules!). Now, people will say, "Eh. Last time, they said it was going to be fantastic. And I got up at 2am on a work night. And it sucked."

vrruiz said...

Very interesting thought, Daniel. But what you see in the astro-blogosphere is in no way different to more proffesionalized fields like, well, journalism: copy & paste is the rule. Problem here is that few people is able to see "patterns" in the news and apply critical thinking to them. Experience is plus.

What I've also seen in the recent years is a burst of news releases which aren't news at all, but "potential news, maybe". Separate signal from noise now is a hard task.

And at the end, I don't think the average astronomical readership see any difference between high reporting standards and "copy&paste" one. That's why my astro news site is almost left.