The sun becoming less active, a new ice age is coming! Screamed the headlines across the internet. The call echoed from science blogs, across notable newspapers, throughout the twitter-sphere and on to Facebook.
People used this news to joke about having to buy more thermals, or used it reinforce their denial of climate change. Except the headline and the article were untrue.
The story originated with a press release issued by the Royal Astronomical Society, announcing new research into the sun’s solar cycle, which allows for a greater understanding of how the solar cycle happens.
Within the press release there is a line that reads: “Predictions from the model suggest that solar activity will fall by 60 per cent during the 2030s to conditions last seen during the ‘mini ice age’ that began in 1645.”
It was this phrasing and also the mention of “Maunder minimum, 370 years ago” that were jumped on by the media. Though ‘mini ice age’ was only mentioned in the press release and not in the research itself.
Within the press release it was clear that the maunder minimum was only mentioned to give some context. The research and its corresponding press release only dealt with the sun’s solar cycle not its effect on the earth’s climate.
When reporting this, the context was overlooked and links were drawn that were not there in either the press release or the research itself. It was sloppy reporting at its finest.
Once one reputable news source had reported it, others quickly copied it without returning to the original material for verification.
Then when someone did a fact check and that propagated around the Internet, news sources were either forced to redact the story or as many chose to do, publish another story with the fact checked information in it.
This coincides with a new found interest in science and the ability of the internet to provide us with information, along with a growing number of science based news sites and Facebook groups including ScienceAlert, IFLScience and Sciencedump to name but a few.
Overall this new interest in science is a positive thing. However, it does come with its pitfalls. The major pitfall is the oversimplification of content for ease of reading, and the under qualification of those reporting the material.
Scientific reports are mostly published in scientific journals, which can be long dry reads – on the reasonable assumption that most of the people reading these papers will be mostly academics or people that already have solid knowledge of the often complex subject matter being discussed.
Most scientific journals are peer reviewed, with expert scrutiny to make sure that it conforms to academic standards before it is published.
Scientific magazines such as Scientific American and New Scientist have also been practising this for over 150 years.
What these more popular magazines aim to do is to provide a way for the general public to have access and understanding of current scientific events in a way that they can understand.
They tend to take articles reported in scientific papers and reformat them into a structure that people can understand. There is an assumption that that those reading these texts will have a limited knowledge of the subject, if any, so some background information may be inserted, as well as visual aids such as charts or drawings to aid understanding.
The people that tend to contribute articles to these publications range from the original researchers themselves to science writers who if not academics do come from the area of study that they are reporting about. The magazine may also employ its own journalists who would be employed on the basis that they have some training and understanding in how to read and interpret scientific papers correctly.
Articles can range from a couple hundred of words to articles that span over several pages depending on where in the magazine that article are placed in.
Magazines tend to be issued on a schedule, weekly, monthly, yearly etc, this means that they are less subjected to the pressures of standard news reporting, they have the time to check and recheck articles before publication.
Newspapers historically used to employ their own science journalists who would have specific training in interpreting scientific papers and would write weekly or less frequent columns about the current happenings in science.
Now in the age of the internet with falling budgets and the trend to churn out as much content as fast as possible, the job of reporting science is being given to the average journalist. There is less likelihood they will know how to fully interpret the literature that they are basing their stories upon, and having a greater reliance on sourcing material from other newspapers to cover any shortfall means that many of the safeguards against misinformation that scientific magazines have are not there within the standard newspaper.
This is made worse with the move to online where articles are being reduced in length for easy viewing on smartphones and tablets. Highly complicated subjects will never readily reduce down to the size of a tweet and the chance for misreporting is increased dramatically.
Then there is the rise of the science blog and other such sites. Many of these sites have appeared within the last five years taking advantage of social media and a renewed appetite for science.
Enthusiasts run most of these blogs. Many do not have a science background, though some of them do. Elise Andrew of the popular Facebook page IFL Science for example does have a bachelor in biology.
Many recycle science content from other places around the internet. Thus many of them fail to factcheck their content as it comes through and are using other news outlets to source content from.
Many of these blogs also utilise social media to drive people to their pages where they can earn revenue through adverts. This promotes the use of sensationalistic headlines to get people to click. This leads to promoting the propagation of material that may be erroneous in nature.
With this widespread propagation throughout multiple sites it means that if there is misreporting on a subject then it becomes very hard for a person to identify that errors have been made, or worse they see the widespread reporting as reinforced proof of its accuracy.