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A press release title that irks me

May 12, 2008

I’m sure this will make the rounds in the geoblogosphere … at least I hope so. I don’t have the time right now to find and read the paper … please comment and/or link to it below.

A press release with this title just came across my feed reader:

Hot Climate Could Shut Down Plate Tectonics

Oh no!! Not another negative impact of global warming! Oh wait … no, it’s just another sensationalized press release title that could mislead the public.

Here’s the key statement from one of the authors of the paper:

We found the Earth’s plate tectonics could become unstable if the surface temperature rose by 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more for a few million years,” Lenardic said. “The time period and the rise in temperatures, while drastic for humans, are not unreasonable on a geologic scale, particularly compared to what scientists previously thought would be required to affect a planet’s geodynamics.

Hmm … a rise in surface temperature of 100 deg Farenheit over a few million years … let’s say it again … 100 deg Farenheit over a few million years

Another statement within the press release reveals what the study is actually about:

Lenardic said the research team wanted to better understand the differences between the Earth and Venus and establish the potential range of conditions that could exist on Earth-like planets beyond the solar system.

This sounds really cool!! I’m interested in learning more for sure.

My beef is that the title of the press release (which I would bet wasn’t written by the scientists) is extremely misleading. It’s difficult to imagine that whoever did write this title did not anticipate some confusion with respect to the hot (pun intended) topic of the day — global warming. The scales of both temperature change and time are not even close. Several degrees vs. 100 and several centuries vs. a few million years. Furthermore, the title explicitly refers to a prediction. With prediction and forecasting of climate at the decadel and centennial scale getting increasingly more attention in the press, might it have been prudent to qualify this statment with the “few million years” caveat?

To me, this is another example of sensationalized sound-bite science that has the potential to mislead the public. I’m all for getting the public excited about science news … but, at what cost for perpetuating or instigating significant misunderstandings?

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    May 12, 2008 2:53 pm

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2008.03.031

    I think the author bears a little responsibility, look at the title of the paper: “A climate change induced transition in the tectonic style of a terrestrial planet”

  2. May 12, 2008 3:17 pm

    I don’t mind a title to a paper that’s short and a bit vague … those don’t get distributed widely outside of scientific circles … I’m more perturbed with the title of the press release, which gets picked up by news wires and disseminated w/out context. But, yes, good point … and thanks for the link.

  3. May 12, 2008 4:51 pm

    Look also at the first quote of the author:
    “The heat required goes far beyond anything we expect from human-induced climate change, but things like volcanic activity and changes in the sun’s luminosity could lead to this level of heating,”

  4. May 12, 2008 5:27 pm

    I find the subtitle more irksome:
    “Study: With locked crust, Earth could become another Venus”

    Subduction returns CO2 to the atmosphere by thermally decomposing subducted and tectonized carbonates.

    If subduction stopped, weathering would continue, vocalnic and hydrothermal CO2 release would drop, and CO2 levels would drop, allowing the planet to cool more easily.

    I tried looking up the actual paper- it is still in preprint, with no online abstract.

  5. May 12, 2008 5:52 pm

    Lab Lemming … the link by Anonymous (1st comment) should take you to the paper.

  6. May 12, 2008 6:44 pm

    Ha, I saw that headline earlier today and had the same visceral reaction – ugh! And the link from the 1st commenter only went to a title page, not the article for me. Anyone else?

  7. May 13, 2008 2:58 am

    I may have become too cynical for my own good, as the title doesn’t angry up the blood as much as I should probably expect. My opinion of the main-stream media’s grip on science reporting is so low, no amount of metaphorical crustal-locking can save it now.

    (But it’s a well timed paper. I’m actually doing some preliminary research for a Venus-themed section in the next podclast.)

  8. May 13, 2008 6:33 am

    Mel … that link took me to a PDF.

    I only quickly skimmed through the paper … it’s very rich in geodynamics and some of it is, honestly, over my head. But, the idea that the plate tectonic ‘machine’ can be altered so significantly by surface perturbations is intriguing and deserves investigation.

    I’ll re-iterate … it’s not the paper itself that irks me … I love provocative papers … it’s the, dare-I-say, framing in the press release title.

  9. May 13, 2008 2:21 pm

    I’d read Lenardic’s work under any title. What’s surprising to me is how fragile Earth is under his modeling–just 40K temperature rise to dump us into a Venus state. With the sun growing hotter, I guess it’s inevitable in a gigayear or so.

    Lab Lemming, if atmospheric CO2 dropped the surface would cool, true, but heat flow from the mantle would inexorably rise under its stagnant lid. That’s where the episodic-resurfacing model for Venus starts. I’m sure Lenardic is miles ahead of me, though.

  10. May 13, 2008 9:51 pm

    There’s a paywall there.

  11. May 14, 2008 9:26 am

    Andrew says: “I’d read Lenardic’s work under any title.”

    Your completel missing my point. Your not the kind of semi-interested-in-science-news person I’m talking about. You run an entire blog about geology and know the author by name and reputation. You are an expert within the context of the general public.

    Google ‘climate stop plate tectonics’ or other variations and you’ll find some blogs/forums where the kind of misconstruing and misunderstanding I’m talking about are occurring. Sure … all of us know this has nothing to do with anthropogenic global warming, but my point is that it’s not surprising some are taking it out of context given the title of the press release. That is my point … i’ll say it again, i’m not annoyed at the paper itself, the authors, the topic, and so on and so forth.

  12. May 14, 2008 10:27 am

    Bad science news is always an issue, as is bad science TV. There is a channel, called the science channel. With a name like that, you would expect them to do an above average (or I dare say, good) job at making a show about science. I have now counted about half a dozen shows that were just really bad. One was all about how the first moon landing was in constant peril.

    An astronaut reported on the cherencov radiation inside their eyes (blue streaks keeping them awake). The astronaut said, correctly perhaps, that these were high Z particles, that is with massive nuclei. The narrator continues saying “These Z particles…” No they are not called Z particles, some new kind of super X-ray… they are described as high Z. So the makers of the show clearly didnt understand what high z means, and decided to go on anyway calling them Z particles.

    Just one of many examples, and yes I wind up yelling at the TV which is not a normal thing to do.

  13. May 14, 2008 10:41 am

    R2K … very good point, I remember when the Science Channel was less flashy and sensationalized, it wasn’t that long ago. Am I getting older and crankier (a real possibility), or has the reporting/portrayal of science fundamentally changed in just the last 5-10 years?

  14. May 14, 2008 12:39 pm

    Maybe I could ask my retired former-geologist dad about that time frame – he was given a “Media Correction Tool” long before he retired – a large, thick stick or plank, with which to “correct” all the times the media misquoted him (newspapers, mostly). Probably he would say it’s always been that way – or at least for 20 years!

  15. May 16, 2008 5:21 am

    I’ll need to read it again, but they seem to be neglecting slab pull…

  16. May 19, 2008 4:53 pm

    I’m not missing your point; I thought that all had been said and I wanted to talk about the paper itself. I respect your crankiness because I’m cranky too, but I’m not cranky about this. “Hot Climate Could Shut Down Plate Tectonics” just makes me laugh. To me the problem (to the extent that there even is one) is not the headline writer, it’s the blogger or journalist who can’t comprehend the content of the press release and just parrots the headline. The headline is there just to snag likely readers. It snagged me because it told me, oh, here’s something about high-level modeling of plate tectonics. Woody Allen had an old joke about learning to speed-read and then going through “War and Peace” in 15 minutes. When you’re scanning headlines, all you need to know is that, as he said, “It’s about Russia.” I don’t think a press-release title misleads the public . . . maybe as much as tabloid headlines do.

  17. May 19, 2008 5:09 pm

    Hmmm … it’s not the headline writer, it’s everybody else’s fault for being misled?

    Sure, I’ll concede that a reader needs to be savvy enough to not be misled … fair enough … but to suggest headline writers play no role in a headline that has potential to mislead strikes me as a bit odd. If that’s the case, they can write whatever they want, if it’s crappy … too bad, it’s the reader’s fault!

  18. May 19, 2008 5:28 pm

    Let me add … I agree with you and do think it’s an interesting topic/paper, which perhaps someone could start another thread to discuss if they’d like (as some of the modeling is out of my realm).

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