It is December, and I couldn’t think of a better time to start a new project. New Year’s resolutions are for sissies (sp?), and not only have I started my Christmas diet preemptively, I have also decided to start some of my new projects early to give them a run up before the dreaded January swamp…
So let me introduce SciVoxPops - a chance for everyone to have a say about a hot science question.
The project will not only pose these questions and relay the doubtless fascinating answers, but use these voxpops in ways they are unaccustomed to. I’m going to analyse them.
Gist: A scientific question or issue will be posed, comments and replies will be obtained, the results will be collated, presented, and analysed. You will find out fascinating facts as well as some diverse opinions.
What I will do: Each week, I will pose a scientific question across various social media outlets, and also to real people in the real world. I will collate the comments, present them, and try to tease out some sense or trend which, hopefully, will throw up some surprising results. These will be presented in a weekly blog. If this trial goes well, YouTube will be conquered.
What you will do: Watch out for the question each week. On twitter, search for the hashtag #scivoxpop. Send an honest or witty reply, then wait to find out how you fit in or out in a blog here at the end of the week. Tell everyone you know, and send me suggestions for future SciVoxPops.
First question tomorrow (Fri 9th Dec). Hint: it will be a subject close to my heart to get the ball rolling.
VoxPops – literally Vox populi or ‘voice of the people’, is commonly used to describe the so-called man-on-the-street interviews carried out by TV and Radio journalists. Whilst they often provide a light relief from the professional and often cutting reporting of journalists and people trained in public speaking, they are usually left at just that.
I would like to use a large volume of these to try and tease out trends in opinion, especially about scientific questions or issues. Sometimes it will be a matter of opinion, sometimes it will be a matter of communication. Will we find the Higgs Boson? What is the best source of energy? How old is the Earth? Which sci-fi movie taught you most? All of these questions can be addressed and gauged by YOU, the man (or woman or undecided) on the street (or in the lab or on the internet). I can’t wait to see the results.
In fact, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ – what we use these days in croudsourcing the best kind of DVI cable to buy and other Very Important Issues – was a concept first postulated by Sir Francis Galton way back in 1907. He published his research in the journal Nature entitled, coincidentally ‘Vox populi’. So this is my hundred-year-old tribute to Sir Francis, in attempting to harness the ‘wisdom of crowds’, using the VoxPoppery of today.
UPDATE: This week’s SciVoxPop is ‘Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?’ Answers here or on twitter, or if you’re shy email me…
Its been a few weeks since I returned from my manic summer flitting between departments of the BBC and other jobs, and it’s high time I picked up the pace and made up for my terrible absence over the last few months. I have lots lined up, but let me first share with you what has kept me busy for so long…
I was lucky enough to be awarded a rare and fantastic British Science Association Media Fellowship, along with nine others from across the country. The media fellowships sponsor placements at a variety of media hosts, including the Times, and Nature News. Myself, I was placed with BBC Online and Radio. I won’t say any more, but will instead share the report I wrote as thanks to the BSA funders and supporters.
Apologies for the length, but scan to the bottom to find out what my various contributions were over the summer.
It was the day after returning from my 6 week placement with the BBC. I was walking dejectedly through the centre of Oxford, wondering how on Earth I would get back into the swing of academia and how I would manage the switch from journalistic writing back to academic writing. I had my headphones in and I was listening to that week’s Material World.
The interjection had come from a senior Professor in my department, who laid a hand on my arm, apologised for the interruption, and congratulated me again.
I was dumbfounded – what had I done to deserve such unprompted and public praise from one of the most indomitable people in my academic sphere?
She went on to explain that she and her husband (the Head of the Department no less) were lying in bed the previous night (too much information, but I’ll take the rough with the smooth), listening to this week’s Science in Action on BBC World Service. They both apparently jumped with excitement when they heard my name in the producer’s credits at the end. I could do little but keep saying thank and smiling dumbly
Lots of people have told me similar stories of how they came across the work I did with the BBC this summer by accident – often asking ‘Was that really you?’. But this brief one-sided conversation with a professor I have revered since starting in Oxford really struck home the impact of the fellowship. I was lucky to have been awarded by this placement by the BSA, and even luckier that those weeks were spent with the BBC.
Summer with Auntie
I was brought up with the BBC. It was a constant companion in our home while I was growing up, and it still holds a position of unattainable respect within my family. What joy, therefore, when I found that not only I had been awarded one of the elusive BSA fellowships, but that that fellowship was to be with the Beeb.
I was not especially hopeful about being successful with the BSA fellowships. I knew quite a few very talented people who were applying from Oxford alone, and I had to make the stipulation that I couldn’t carry out my placement in August. Yet I still sat by the phone and the computer on the decision day, watching the clock and jumping at every loud noise. After the call came, I was beside myself and was probably quite unbearable for several hours afterwards.
As it turned out, the entire summer was full of BBC. I was also lucky enough to get onto a work experience program with BBC Horizon, and got into Radio 1’s good books by giving their Fun and Filth Cabaret a good review at the Edinburgh festival. Despite some of these enterprises crossing over a lot in their USP, none were really aware of the other – giving me the first taste of what a immense thing the British Broadcasting Corporation really is.
Old and the New
Splitting my (and my BBC fellowship companion Hamish’s) placement between Online News and the Radio Unit had a certain kind of symmetry to it. I’m not sure if it was planned like that, but three weeks with each served to demonstrate the fundamental contrast between the old and the new. The ‘old’ world of radio was sharply different in location, pace and content to the ‘new’ digital world of online news. Science news online was based in the iconic Television Centre along with lots of TV studios and the cast of Strictly. There were sparkles on the floor, and rooms with brightly coloured and improbably shaped chairs, and a Costa vendor in the corridor. The Science Radio Unit is in Bush House at Aldwych, a magnificent building stuffed full of marble colonnades, sweeping staircases and dark wood panelling. The lifts were leather on the outside and velvet on the inside – the buttons were brass. The Beeb have seemingly accidentally captured the golden age of the wireless and keep it running alongside the very essence of modernity.
“Can I borrow your Dictaphone?”
The answer I got to this question in the online newsgathering offices epitomised my experience there. Decidedly inappropriate, but delivered with such dry wit as to leave me with tears in my eyes even as I dialled up an interviewee. The staff of News Online were mostly men, but the most open, welcoming and patient men anyone could hope for.
A daily reader of the news website, I was at first a little starstruck to be sitting two desks away from none other than Jonathan Amos and Environment Correspondent Richard Black. Their kindly but crude banter soon put me at ease and I launched into three frenetic weeks of writing, phoning and formatting.
News editor Paul Rincon patiently showed me the ropes and, somewhat worryingly, set me loose on the news. The first story I wrote was about bacteria that can process uranium in soils – something I know nothing about. It was at this point that I also realised that I knew nothing about how to write a BBC news story. Copying a template from a random article I scavenged off the website, my first lesson was this. Never, ever, write a paragraph with more than one sentence. Even when I tried to sneak two very innocuous short ones together, they were spotted and pulled apart. Offensive though this was to the secret prose-lover in me, it makes a lot of sense. In terms of reading news, it really does help, and makes the writing completely anonymous, as it should be.
I learnt other musts for an online article, things the casual reader would never usually notice: headlines must be between 31 and 33 characters, long titles no more than 55 characters; the first four sentences must summarise the story, including the authors and the journal, to be used on the Ceefax pages. I didn’t even know Ceefax still existed. ..
All in all, the workload was pretty intense. It was a rare day that I wasn’t writing a story with another one or two queued in the system and yet another one on my list of possibles. That’s the thing about news – it keeps on happening. I was initially surprised that the stories were a little tardy in coming out after an embargo had been lifted; the story usually would have spread around my twitter feed well before the BBC articles came out. But when you consider the monumental feat that the rarely more than seven-strong team pull off in covering all the news, you really have to hand it to them.
Incidentally, the answer to my question was ‘No, use your finger like everyone else’.
“Bonjour, avez-vous un attaché de presse?”
Three short weeks later and I was to abandon TV centre for the leafy theatrical hubbub of Aldwych. The Radio Science Unit, high up in Bush House had an entirely different feel to it. Here the staff comprise almost all women, and almost all were focussed on working for their individual programmes. All the science radio programmes come out of that office: Material World, Science in Action, Health Check and Click weekly, and the series of Frontiers and Discovery. You really couldn’t ask for better exposure to science radio.
The day I started, the unit were inundated with various other work experience students, and by pure fluke of desk placement, I was taken under the wing of Science in Action producer Ania Lichtarowicz. Science in Action is a 20 minute pre-recorded programme focussing on world-relevant science and is broadcast on the World Service. I was completely unprepared for this – expecting to work on Material World I had only swotted up on their themes and format. I don’t think I had knowingly ever listened to the World Service.
But Ania was extraordinarily kind and acted more like a mentor than a boss. She gave me sole responsibility to research and prepare interviews that were then recorded in the studio with presenter Jon Stewart down the line from Los Angeles. In later weeks, she taught me how to and left me to edit these interviews – cutting them down from around 15 minutes to four… This was by far the skill that I was most pleased to learn: something entirely new and utterly engrossing.
Researching international stories for the World Service is nerve-wracking if you’re not fluent in about twenty languages. Just listening to Ania switching effortlessly between Polish, English and French riddled me with inadequacy. More often than not I found myself switching to the British default: loud and slow. “Hello! Do. You. Have. A. Press. Officer?!” Not the most professional perhaps, but it got me by.
I was sad to leave the unit after working on just three programmes. Despite having worked just as hard as I did with News Online, there seemed to me so much less to show for it. But the Radio is targeting a different group of people – probably people who would loyally listen each week, whereas I would be foolish to think that everyone who visited the website would be reading my articles.
The most famous curry house in the world, oh, and some science too
For most people carrying out this year’s BSA fellowships, the British Science Festival on the 10th-15th September came at the end of their placements. I only started at the beginning of September, so had just a week of journalistic experience under my belt by the time the festival started. For this reason, I was full of trepidation on the train to Bradford – everyone else would be old hats, jaded sitting around in trilbies and smoking while they leafed lazily through their shorthand notes. Perhaps my concept of newspaper journalism is stuck a bit in the 1950’s…
Bradford had only ever previously entered my conscious as the location of the ‘World’s Most Famous Curry House’, and the ‘World’s Largest Naan’. I didn’t ever imagine the city as a hub for scientific research I have to admit, but I quickly realised that it didn’t matter. He point of the Festival was not to update on the latest measurements of a particular sub-atomic particle, or to debate the minutae of new climate data. It was to showcase some of the most exciting, public-friendly science being done by British scientists at the moment. Sure, so the science may not have been all that new, or even completed yet, but the point was it was interesting.
It was a bit of a change of pace – starting work at 8 rather than 9:30 – but I still wrote at least one story a day for the duration of the festival. Topics like cancer drugs from flowers, sticking food waste in a microwave to get fuel, and launching giant balloons to stop climate change, were all genuinely fun to write about. A last minute press conference on dark matter on the final day resulted in an article by me that remained the most read on the entire website for three days. Testament, if any was needed, that the festival really does have surprises up its sleeve.
The festival was a great chance to catch up with my fellow, er, fellows, and hear about all their diverse experiences. I didn’t have as much contact with them as I’d have liked, as the BBC team (16 of us in total) were given a room to themselves. Quite apart from the misplaced air of superiority this gave us, it physically separated us from the rest of the press pack and the decisions and discussions being made. I think this stood in the way of some of the networking I would have liked to have done, and didn’t really help with my image of jaded, trilby wearing journalists conspiring against us.
In all, the seven weeks (three weeks with online, three with radio, and one at the festival) I spent as a BBC journalist this summer was one of the most enriching experiences I could have hoped for.
The undeniable joy of seeing your name in a byline, or hearing it at the end of a radio show, is the most immediate return for the work you do. But almost equal to that were the personal emails I received from the researchers I had contacted for comments and interviews. Without fail they were gushingly thankful for the coverage I had given them, and I felt proud that I had made a little mark in honest, fair and unbiased reporting of science.
I hope I can use the lessons and skills I learnt on this placement to continue to make that mark. I came away brimming with ideas for novel short-form reporting, and for advice for my researcher peers. As a researcher, there is nothing to stop you putting yourself forward as a press contact for your work, whether is a world-changing question or a day-to-day data collection. If you sell yourself well, the best reporters will be able to make everyone in the world want to do what you do.
Moreover, this summer I have met some amazing people with the same values and drive as me, and I hope they will continue to be friends for many years to come.
Further Reading and Listening
6/10 Science in Action (Researcher)
13/10 Science in Action (Co-producer)
13/10 Material World (Researcher)
20/10 Science in Action (Co-producer)
The day began with a session led by John Naughton of the Open University and the Observer, and by Lou Woodley from Nature Publishing group. The session theme was ‘Science Journalism in the Era of New Media: Opportunities and Challenges’, and it served as an excellent introduction to topics of discussion that were revisited throughout the day. The ‘new media’ is characterised by the open and individual opportunities created by the internet, as opposed to mainstream print media dominated by large news organisations. The traditional view of science journalists as ‘gate-keepers of science’ must be modified, Naughton said, as ‘they stand at the gate, but there are no longer any fences.’ He added, ‘Science journalists are now curators, guides, navigators and sense-makers.’ Science journalism was metaphorically compared to a densely interconnected ecosystem, with different types of communicators and journalists working together to ‘add value’ to news stories which break more quickly and easily than ever before. This metaphor was expanded to explain a host of phenomena in new media, including the replacement of the ‘elephants and dinosaurs’ of large mainstream media organisations, by the ‘acid-shooting termites’ that dominate the expansive blogosphere today. The spread of internet communities was compared with an ecological catastrophe that can wipe out a rainforest ecosystem, and replace it with new populations of saplings (new ideas and approaches to science communication), which must be given time and space to grow and develop, to show their full potential. Naughton concluded by saying that ‘science writer’ is no longer an accurate term, and in the era of the new media, journalists are should be true ‘multimedia practitioners.’
I have watched the first two episodes of BBC One’s ‘Inside the Human Body’, and I have been so thoroughly impressed by it, I feel I need to share my feelings, and explain why it has touched a special nerve.
When I was explaining the latest episode to a friend over a glass of wine (thus explaining my lack of eloquence), I called the programme ‘Inside my Body.’ This embodies the cleverest, but probably the most textbook trick in the science communication book. It is the first lesson I learned—that people don’t care about humans, they care about people. And in the introduction to each episode, Michael Mosely acts out an exercise in making you care. He introduces the people you will meet in the next hour like a skilled host at a dinner party, with an interesting fact that will make you want to hear their story, and then throws in a smattering of ‘you’. Within the introduction, ‘you’ and ‘your’ are used five times. You are described a
s the most extraordinary survival machine, and you have the most complex brain in the planet. I’m feeling pretty impressed with myself by this time, and the programme hasn’t even begun. I defy anyone to turn a blind eye to such an onslaught of compliments.
Yes, yes, it’s a trick to make you care, to make you watch it all the way through so you can see exactly how the ‘Ice man’ is like you, or what Gerald is going to do about dying. It is an incredibly transparent trick, but by god does it work. I like it, and even if it does seem a little overdone at times, I don’t see why my biological existence shouldn’t be flattered once in a while.
So once you’re past the compliments, the real fun begins. The CGI graphics are, quite frankly, stunning. Now, I don’t know anything about how this sort of programme is conceived (will do soon!) but I would like to imagine that the entire thrust behind this show was to bring the best possible graphics to the table and to make me sit open mouthed at the sheer spectacle of it. If that wasn’t the plan, then someone give Rushes Postproduction (you will not know how many tries it took to catch that on the credits) and the people who commissioned them an oversized trophy for the best inadvertent showstealer. When you are watching a baby shifting around in the womb and it suddenly strikes you that there is no way that could really be filmed and it is, in fact, an animation… well that’s when I nearly fell out of my chair.
The reason I am willing to believe that the mind-blowingly good graphics were put there on purpose was because of the otherwise appalling CGI that other BBC programmes are blessed with. I’m not going to name and shame, you’ll have to play catch the credit as I did, but I will just propose:
Enough gushing about the animation.
With popular science programmes today, as I am sure has always been the case, a fundamental fear must be whether the audience will understand. It is impossible to cater for every possible audience, and it seems the overall effort is to err on the side of low-brow. Inevitably, then, the more informed members of the public will doubtless feel patronised and indignant, and write a letter to Points of View etc, etc. But catering for those PoV contributors will leave the greater portion of the public in the dark. Inside my body (as I am going to keep affectionately calling it) includes human biology scarcely more complex than most A-Level syllabuses (syllabi?), much to the satisfaction, I’m sure, of students currently revising for their exams. Well communicated with a personal touch . And for those who have a tendency to feel patronised, I would hazard a guess that the stunning animation (did I mention that already?) would keep the indignation at bay.
Can I just add at this point that I really like Michael Mosley. Not that that has any bearing on anything, but I just like to spend an hour listening to him. Is that odd? Probably.
Onwards. I have mentioned already the personal introductions we are given at the beginning of the programme, and if Dr M isn’t enough to keep you watching, chances are you will stay tuned in to follow those stories. And what is good about them is that they are not overdone. We meet them, from newborn baby Tyreece to 84-year-old Gerald. We hear their story, what makes them important, what makes them special, and then we move on. The end result is something incredibly moving.
I was shocked when I was shown the moment of Tyreece’s birth, and I was on an emotional and moral precipice when I watched Gerald’s last breath. Should I have access to such important moments in these people’s lives from my computer, from my living room? It seems inherently wrong and yet it was presented so gently, so unassumingly, that it seemed to propose a sort of moral lesson. It said look, if a major programming corporation can take life and death in their stride, accepting it and not shirking away from it, you should too. Not in a brash, uncaring way, but instead don’t be afraid of it. It happens to everyone, and it’s ok. I cried when Gerald died, and I had only known him for 10 minutes. The knife edge that was walked was navigated successfully, and it was tasteful and very, very moving.
My final point of unadulterated praise is also on the subject of taste. It is clear, simply from the introduction, that filming took place all over the world. The programme seeks to embrace diversity, and many cultural and ethnic representatives are figured. I would be very surprised if they were all found in West London. But the point is that you don’t notice. You watch it and think ‘Yes, that is our diverse world.’ There are black people, white people, Asian people, and even ruddy looking people in silly hats. Unlike some recent programmes that should remain nameless (should, but won’t ahem… Brian Cox: Wonders of the Universe…ahem), the show doesn’t boast about where it is, and how far it has travelled to film someone smiling and holding a stopwatch. It is slick, and clearly high budget, but tasteful along with it.
Now I know this sounds like a gruesomely biased gush of compliments towards ‘Inside the Human/My Body,’ but ultimately that is why I have written it. There is not enough praise for what people do these days, and as I watched it I could bullet point the aspects of it I loved. So I have done so. There will be people who disagree with me. My friend, over that glass of wine, failed to see the attraction of beautiful animation, and took objection with occasional shots of Dr M looking ponderously out of a window. But I didn’t care, I bloody loved it.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced last week (5 April) a push towards more paid internships as part of a strategy to increase social mobility in the United Kingdom.
The launch of a new scheme that asks companies to pay their interns was met with optimism by journalists and campaign groups.
Science writer Michael Kenward, formerly a writer and editor at New Scientist, who has long been an outspoken critic of unpaid internships for journalists, told ABSW: “Unpaid internships discriminate against poor youngsters who do not have wealthy parents who can bankroll them.” And, he added, some organisations act as “exploitative outfits who churn through one unpaid intern after another, rather than hiring paid staff”.
The large majority of internships available in the private and public sectors are currently unpaid, offering, at most, to cover travel expenses. We recently reported on whether it is legally or morally sound to offer such unpaid internships to science writers who are just starting their careers.
As part of the larger Social Mobility Scheme, Clegg’s new initiative aims to open up internships for people from a range of backgrounds, allowing all young people access to work experience which had previously been the domain of the financially independent and well-connected.
Clegg has proclaimed an end to the time when your career path was determined by the doors that could be opened for you by your father’s friends. “For too long, internships have been the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected,” he wrote in The Telegraph.
But after announcing that all firms should aim to pay their interns “national minimum wage, or reasonable travel expenses”, it transpired that the offices of the Liberal Democrats intended to pay their own interns up to only £5 a day. Internship payment was not to be introduced until 2012, and Westminster are still advertising almost exclusively unpaid internships on their website. The amount firms pay their interns will also remain firmly their own choice.
The announcement by the Lib Dem leader came just a week after the Graduate Internship Scheme— which created over 8,000 paid internships for graduates annually — was quietly scrapped by the coalition government.
Gus Baker, co-director of Intern Aware, a campaign group promoting open access to the internship system, told ASBW that they were “very disappointed by this PR stunt of Clegg’s” and that there was “not enough meat on the bones” of the announcement.
Meanwhile, the Interns Anonymous blog questions the detail of Clegg’s white paper, which they call “hazy at best”: the danger is that companies could use vague phrasing such as “reasonable out of pocket expenses” as a loophole to avoid paying even minimum wage.
Many journalists doubt whether this white paper will be remembered past this week, although it is clear that there is a growing public demand for more equal access to internships and highly desirable jobs such as science writing and journalism. Time alone will tell whether the move was just a PR stunt, or whether it will spell real change for British internships.
Meanwhile the Low Pay Commission’s annual report found that there has been increase in the number of internships since the recession began and has critcised Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for failing to enforce minimum wage laws on interns, according to Intern Aware. The report said “We are concerned [..] at the continued evidence of apparent breaches of the National Minimum Wage Regulations where opportunities, which on any reasonable test appear to be work, are unpaid. […] We believe that stronger action needs to be taken on enforcement.
We recommend that the Government takes steps to raise awareness of the rules applying to payment of the National Minimum Wage for those undertaking internships […], we recommend that these rules are effectively enforced by HMRC using its investigative powers.”
This news report was written by me for the website of the Association of British Science Writers, and can be found here
The Wellcome Trust announced their inaugural Science Writing Prize, in association with The Guardian and The Observer last week (7 April). The new competition encourages non-professional science writers to submit a short (800 word) article aimed at the general public for consideration by a panel of distinguished judges. The two winners will be awarded a £1000 cash prize, and their article will be published in one of the newspapers.
The launch of the prize will fill the gap left by the loss of The Daily Telegraph Science Writer’s Award in 2009, which helped launched the careers of many, including science writer Ed Yong.
“Winning the Telegraph award opened up many doors for me,” Yong told ASBW. “It proved to potential editors that I could write and gave my pitches an extra bit of punch. More importantly, it proved to me that I could write and gave me extra motivation to practice and pitch.”
Another well-known competition for non-professional writers, The Guardian Student Media Awards, have no category for science writers.
Now, the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize invites applicants from the UK and Ireland to write a short, innovative piece on an area of science that they are passionate about, and which is suitable for publication in The Guardian or The Observer.
Competition organiser Alok Jha, who is a science and environment correspondent at The Guardian,said: “We want to identify some of the best writing about the remarkable ideas and stories emerging from the world’s laboratories, field trips and research journals. If you can enthuse people about cutting-edge particle physics or the latest developments in synthetic biology, this is the competition for you.”
Only non-published, amateur writers are eligible to apply for the prize. There are two categories: one for professional scientists at postgraduate level and above, and another for anyone else with a non-professional interest in science, including undergraduates.
The judging panel includes editors from both newspapers and representatives from the Wellcome Trust, who will be looking for originality, innovation and a distinctive writing style.
Apart from the cash prize for winners in each of the two categories and publication of the story, there will be a further, award for the top thirty entrants on the shortlist who will be given the opportunity to attend a science writing workshop at The Guardian.
Lewis Dartnell, astrobiology researcher and published science writer, won second prize in The Telegraph competition in 2004, and is enthusiastic about its impact on his career. “I still have that ‘first published piece’ framed at home!” he told ASBW. “I freelance regularly, and the award even set me on my PhD path. I am really excited that now the Wellcome Trust are taking up the mantle and launching a new science writing award — I hope lots of other people can now benefit in the way I have.”
The deadline for applications is 20 May 2011, and the prize will be awarded at a ceremony in London on 12 October 2011. For more information, see the competition web site.
This news report was written by me for the website of the Association of British Science Writers, and can be found here
Two weeks have passed since Richard Hoover’s paper in the Journal of Cosmology, claiming evidence for cyanobacterial fossils in meteorites, broke the news.
The feedback I have received from my report at that time has been most encouraging, and from scanning the popular press, and internet blogging community, I have been warmed by the healthy logical scepticism that dominates now. To be honest, I thought the matter was settled, and we could all put it behind us as a lesson in overexuberant interpretation and sloppy scientific publication.
But no. It would seem that the Journal of Cosmology are still thrashing around in a borderline hysterical way, with a tone very much like that of their soon-retracted ‘The terrorists have won’ official statement. This time, an email sent round to the JoC mailing list, also replicated on the JoC website, seems to blame the Obama administration for slandering Hoover and the Journal of Cosmology. Republicans, much? And we are all made to feel like horrible bullies for making poor Richard Hoover ‘terrified’.
The email is copied below. What strikes me most is the ‘facts’ stated by the JoC, that ’The IJA had received a paper by Hoover, but it was never reviewed as it was determined to be too lengthy’, and ‘NASA’s Chief Scientist … brazenly lied’, for example, while being of great import to our understanding of what is going on, actually have no corroborating statements or references to back them up. A journal, of all places, should see the absolute necessity of that. You could argue with every point made, but why do I get the feeling you would be beating your head against a brick wall? Anyway. Here it is, and I’l let you make up your own minds.
Sent: Tue, 22 March, 2011 3:46:32
Subject: Obama White House, Meteors & Microfossils–The Slander Campaign
-In 2007 NASA Approved Hoover Data For Publication: Discovery of Microfossils in Meteors
-In 2011 NASA Denounces Hoover & JOC For Publishing Data
-Obama Elected President–White House Intervenes on Day 1 of Story
-NASA Threatens NASA Scientist. Orders Hoover Not to Speak to Media
-NASA Chief Scientist Lies to Media
On March 5, 2011, the Journal of Cosmology published the data of Richard Hoover of NASA, which NASA approved for publication
in 2007: the discovery of microfossils in 3 meteors. The Journal of Cosmology, its editorial staff, and Richard Hoover of NASA were subjected to a campaign
of slander and defamation by NASA administrators and NASA’s Chief Scientist after the Obama White House became involved.
-2007 NASA administrator Michael Griffin was ordered by White House to Lie About Climate Change.
Now they are lying about the Hoover discovery. Politics and religion have again trumped science.
1) In 2007–NASA approved the submission of the Hoover Microfossil-Meteorite data for publication.
2) The IJA had received a paper by Hoover, but it was never reviewed as it was determined to be too lengthy.
3) Hoover wrote the paper submitted to JOC in Sept-October 2010 and submitted it in the first week of November of 2010.
4) The Hoover paper submitted to JOC, and the data it contained, had never been reviewed or rejected by any other journal, but contained the data approved by NASA in 2007 for publication.
5) The Hoover paper was reviewed, and subsequently underwent a major revision and was resubmitted in November, and again reviewed and approved. But it was not immediately published in JOC as is our normal standard procedure.
6) For the next 4 months the Hoover paper was critically examined by a Referee/Editor who went over it line by line, even enlarging the photos to pixel size to search for any evidence of tampering or fraud or anything which would make the data suspect. The data looked solid.
7) We were well aware the paper would be controversial, and were braced for slanders and defamatory attacks.
8 ) Before it was published the Hoover paper was made available to the scientific community for comment.
9) It was published in the first week of March and immediately met with an avalanche of slanderous attacks, led by a NASA administrator at Ames Research Center and a fake expert, and two media outlets with ties to NASA.
10) JOC quickly became the target of these attacks, now led by NASA’s Chief Scientist, who, to our astonishment, brazenly lied about the history of the Hoover paper and about JOC and its review policies. In so doing he maliciously disputed the legitimacy of the work of two NASA Senior Scientists Science Directorates who have published five peer reviewed articles in JOC, and over 30 NASA scientists and 4 NASA astronauts who have also published their own peer reviewed work in this same journal. JOC has in fact been guest edited by a NASA Senior Scientist Science Directorate, and another senior scientist at NASA/JPL. NASA’s chief scientist was willing to discredit anyone and everyone including top scientists at NASA, in order to destroy the legitimacy of the Hoover discovery.
11) Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe spoke by phone with Richard Hoover the weekend the article was published, and reported that Hoover was clearly “terrified”. Hoover reported that NASA officials had been threatening him and “shouting” and “yelling and screaming” at him, demanding that he recant. They also ordered that he was not allowed to speak with the Press.
12) Over the following week we received 24 commentaries on the Hoover article. Most of these were sympathetic.
13) JOC is so confident of the data the editors at Science and Nature magazine were invited to cooperate in an independent review. These editors were uncooperative.
14) To date, there is no evidence the Hoover data is not accurate. The preponderance of evidence is these are microfossils of microorganisms which are extraterrestrial in origin and which colonized these structures and the parent bodies, before this planet was formed.
15) We had anticipated the results would be met with hoots of derision. We anticipated slander and defamation. We believed that much of this would be motivated by ignorance, fear, and religious beliefs. We did not anticipate that NASA’s Chief Scientist would lead a slander campaign and boldly make up easily disproved lies about the Hoover paper and JOC. We frankly wondered why he would maliciously defame the work of numerous NASA scientists who had published in JOC and why he did not fear consequences from officials higher up.
16) On Friday, March 18, 2011, Dr. Rudolf Schild, Editor-in-Chief of JOC spoke at length with Richard Hoover and learned that the White House, i.e. the offices of President Obama, became a party to this issue almost immediately after the story broke. The exact nature of this involvement is unknown to us.
17) We have been concerned that Richard Hoover might be forced to recant. He has not done so yet. However, it is also clear he has been under enormous pressure at NASA by powerful forces which wish him to disavow his findings.
18) The involvement of the offices of the President of the United States in this sordid affair, and with all its power, is most distressing. What the motives are, are unknown to us, though clearly the entire campaign of slander, defamation, intimidation, took place after the Obama White House became involved.
These are the facts as we know them. We believe the data is real. The implications profound.
We have to consider if a mountain-sized chunk of this planet was sheared from the surface and tossed into the abyss, only to land billions of years from now on another planet, that this chunk of expelled Earth would be peppered with the fossilized remains of various organisms. Hoover found fossils of microorganisms which had lived in the parent bodies which may have included planets older than Earth.
The Hoover data, by itself, does not mean life on Earth came from other planets. It simply means we are not alone–and the implications are staggering. However, based on the evidence compiled in an inexpensive book, “The Discovery of Alien ExtraTerrestrial life” and which includes Hoover’s discovery and landmark paper, and the discoveries of other independent scientists, the conclusions are threefold:
We are not alone. Life is everywhere. Life on Earth, came from other planets.
JOC never intended to take the safe road. Our goal is to advance science. We are open to all ideas, even those we disagree with, so long as they are backed up by science and scholarship. This is why JOC, with 15 Million Hits for March alone, has become one of the most read scientific journals in the world.
It takes courage to lead. It also takes intelligence to recognize when it is time to move on. The involvement of the offices of the president of the United States in this sordid affair, and with all its power, is most distressing. What the motives are, are unknown to us.
Our goal is to advance science.
Earlier this month, a paper was published in the open access online Journal of Cosmology, claiming to have identified verifiable alien cyanobacteria in rare water-rich meteorites. The paper, published by Dr. Richard Hoover at the NASA Marshall Flight Centre, was immediately picked up by various news outlets and soon, news of the finding had spread across the public domain causing amazement and outrage in equal measure.
Why? The claims are controversial enough, but increasingly, all is not as it seems with Richard Hoover, his microbes, and the Journal of Cosmology itself. Many people have said many things in the week following the announcement, and it is my hope to consolidate some of this, and also to shed some light from a personal perspective – I have a review paper published with the Journal of Cosmology in the same issue.
So, as far as I see it, there are two main questions that should be posed of the Hoover-microbe furore:
- Is the claim true? It is good science?
- Has the paper been properly peer reviewed and published?
Various pieces of evidence may be brought to bear on each of these questions, and the story may change as more facts become available, but addressing each one should help to disentangle the complex issue.
In summary, Richard Hoover claims to have found filaments of alien cyanobacteria embedded within CI1 carbonaceous meteorites. These meteorites are exceptionally rare – only nine have ever been recovered – and have an unusual petrology and structure. They are composed largely of clays and carbonaceous material, held together with salts such that, when the rocks are soaked in water, they disintegrate. Hoover has taken six samples from two of these meteorites, and tested them geochemically, as well as imaging them using Environmental and Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy. Great pains were taken to reduce the chances of contamination with modern material during the preparation process, and a method developed by the author previously, using comparative nitrogen contents, was used to demonstrate that the imaged structures were not modern contaminants. Hoover compares filamentous and variously tapering and bulging structures in the rock to forms of modern cyanobacterial genera, before discussing more general implications for life existing in the solar system, and even seeding our own planet in the past.
That is what the paper says. But to the scientist, it does seem to simultaneously say too much, and too little. It says too much about history, general astrobiology, and meteorite petrology which should have been, or should be, covered elsewhere. And for such a big and important claim which understandably makes good headlines, the scientific method that supports it is notably lacking in substance. The Journal of Cosmology picked up on the grumblings of the scientific community fairly quickly, and invited 100 experts to comment on the findings of the paper. This commentary is now published on the Journal’s website alongside the paper. At the time of writing, 21 invited scientists have offered comments, and the views are certainly varied. Many accept Hoover’s findings without question, and use them as a platform for further discussion as to the search for, and implications of, extraterrestrial life. Some agree with Hoover’s findings, but have qualms with the presentation or weight of evidence for certain of his conclusions. And some scientists, notably Michael H. Engel of the University of Oklahoma, and Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford, find much of Hoover’s evidence unsubstantiated, and interpretations reached without proper appreciation of the extraordinary evidence needed to prove his extraordinary claim.
My personal opinion is one of scepticism. Claiming to find life in a meteorite is indeed an extraordinary claim, and given that we have not abundant evidence for life verdantly colonising other planets and bodies within our solar system, we must logically assume that it is rare. Thus, it is more likely that such structures are abiogenic, than being formed by life. Biogenicity may only be confirmed by multiple lines of supporting evidence, and convincing disproof of the null abiogenic hypothesis.
While Hoover’s work goes to great lengths to prove that the structures are not modern contaminants – including exhaustive isolation methods during preparation, noting the fact that the filaments are embedded in freshly fractured rock surfaces, and the fact that their elemental and protein constituents do not match with measured modern biological objects – it does fail to acknowledge the likelihood that the structures, while being native to the meteorite, are in fact abiogenic. As any Precambrian palaeontologist will tell you, identifying cellular fossils in Earth’s rocks is fraught with difficulty. Disentangling true body fossils from abiogenic structures like carbon chains (as in the 3.4Ga Apex Chert, proposed as biogenic by Schopf and Packer in 1987, and subsequently given an abiogenic explanation by Brasier and others in 2002), and carbonate globules (as in the Martian meteorite ALH84001, proposed as biogenic by McKay and others in 1996, and subsequently given an abiogenic explanation by Golden and others in 2001) is an essential and logical part of the scientific process necessary to confirm life in an otherwise barren rock. The biological morphology would also need to be supported with multiple other lines of information – contextual, geochemical and elemental, and the much more likely abiogenic null hypothesis for each supposedly biological signature would need to be first disproved. Only in light of these many lines of robust evidence, could the structures be confidently assigned a biological origin.
Martin Brasier, of the University of Oxford shows compelling images of ambient inclusion trails (included below), which are formed by the migration of a mineral crystal through a lithified substrate (Reported in detail by Wacey and others in 2008). These purely abiogenic processes create structures that look strikingly similar to Hoover’s trichromic cyanobacterial filaments.
In a personal communication, Ian Musgrave of the School of Medical Sciences, University of Adelaide, drew my attention to magnesium sulphate nanotapes that closely resemble the tape-like structures reported by Hoover (Zhou 2006). Further, Gounelle and Zolensky demonstrated in 2010, that magnesium sulphate bacteria-like structures do occur in CI1 meteorites due to post-landing changes in water content.
The general outcry by scientists and the informed public since publication of Hoover’s paper, not only in the official Journal of Cosmology commentary, but also on countless blogs and social media discussions bears testament to the fact that the science is not as robust as it could be. An official statement from Dr Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, seems to be trying to put distance between NASA and the paper:
“NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper.”
Even though Dr. Rocco Mancinelli, Editor of the Journal of Astrobiology later says that the manuscript was rejected after peer review, the whole affair remains suspicious.
But it is the job of the publication process to pick up on any problems, so now the Journal of Cosmology itself is coming under scrutiny.
The Journal of Cosmology website, as the first encounter, does not inspire confidence. In these days of easy website hosting, creation, and design, the unprofessional look of the page is jarring, and harks back to a MySpace age, where fourteen-year-old musical wannabes with very little design taste could make a page that looked surprisingly like this.
But look is not everything. Giving the benefit of the doubt, and taking the Journal at its word, one can assume that its concern is more with good, peer-reviewed science, and not with superficial appearance.
Any paper published by an academic journal must first go through what is known as the ‘peer-review’ process. An author, or group of authors submit a manuscript to a journal for consideration. The journal first decides whether they are interested in publishing the paper, based on the topic, and then they send the manuscript out to at least two experts in that particular field – the peers. The experts are asked to assess the paper on the basis of relevance to the field, international importance, and the robustness of the science carried out. The peers will then either recommend the paper for publication, and advise ways in which the paper could be improved, or reject the manuscript, giving reasons. The peers remain anonymous throughout. After correction and redrafting of a recommended manuscript, the journal will accept it, and it will move into the ‘proof’ stage. Here the text is typeset by sub editors of the journal, and returned to the authors for final error checking. It is the job of the subeditors and the authors together to ensure that all typographical, grammatical and subject errors are picked up and corrected before the paper is published. Only after this has been completed, will the paper appear on an online or in print, and may be cited by subsequent papers. The publication process can be extremely lengthy, often taking months or even years from initial submission to publication. It is a rigorous and thus time-consuming process to ensure that the science is as good as it could be, and potential queries and qualms are addressed premptively.
Given that the peer review process is specifically aimed at making the science in a paper as robust as possible, it is then reasonable for non-specialists to interpret the results at face value, as being the best they can be. Disagreements with the interpretations may be subsequently made, but the assumption is that results were reached in a way that is generally accepted and respected by other experts. This should be the case for the Hoover paper in the Journal of Cosmology, just as it is the case with every paper in every academic journal.
Now, I am in a bit of a special position, in that I have a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology in the same issue. This was an invited submission, passed on to me by my supervisor, and the paper is a broad theoretical review of the potential for life in our solar system. It is nothing groundbreaking, but was intended as part of my PhD thesis conclusions. The chance to publish it was an added bonus, so I submitted it on a wing and a prayer, on 1st February, for publication in the March issue. I should add at this stage, that the Journal of Cosmology is one of many ‘open-access’ journals – requiring no payment or subscription in order to read the articles within. It is also exclusively an online journal, so printing related publication times are unsurprisingly significantly reduced. Still, I was somewhat surprised that they expected just a month-long turnaround from all reviewers, authors and subeditors.
Along with the manuscript, I was asked to recommend five potential experts who would be a position academically to review my work. This is normal for academic publication – as often the authors themselves will have the best idea of who the experts are in their field. The journal may not use these recommendations (obvious problems of the author only choosing people who will review their work favourably apply here!), but they are often used as at least a starting point. I selected reviewers from a range of fields, from space science to microbiology. On the 24th February, I received an email from the Journal of Cosmology, informing me that my paper had been seen by two reviewers and that they had both recommended it for publication… and this is where the process became a little irregular. Normally, the reviewers would write a few short paragraphs confirming their thoughts on the manuscript and directly advising changes and additions. No such comments were included in my communication with the editors. They merely said:
“Your article has been reviewed by two referees, both of whom recommend publication without need for significant revision.
However, both felt that many of your references were outdated, and that if you included, or at least mentioned, some of the recent research and theories which have been published, RE: Europa, Titan, Enceladus, it would make for a much stronger paper.
SEE FOR EXAMPLE:
This was reasonable feedback, and there were several references that I had inadvertently missed – not difficult when you are reviewing a large amount of literature. Even so, I thought it odd at the time that no reviewers comments were included. Nevertheless, I revised my manuscript, and resubmitted it on the 27th February. I received an email from the Journal confirming receipt, and saying it was being ‘processed’. I assumed that this meant it was being sent back to the reviewers for approval, but didn’t hold much hope for it being ready in time for the March issue. It was to my great surprise, therefore, that I received an email on 1st March:
“Your revised article has been reviewed, accepted for publication, and can be viewed at this link: http://journalofcosmology.com/SearchForLife131.html Your article, with links, has also been added to the Table of Contents for volume 13.”
And so it was. I was amazed – how efficient! But, no proofs? As a bit of a pedantic proof reader, I was quite looking forward to seeing proofs and being able to check my own writing for errors, and was very surprised that the Journal did not do this. Perhaps it is because it is online, I thought, perhaps because it is open access. I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
But when Richard Hoover’s paper in the same issue started to make a stir in the scientific community, my doubts were resurrected. I decided to do a little prying. So I contacted all five of my suggested reviewers to ask if they had, in fact, reviewed my paper. To my astonishment, none of them had even seen a sniff of it. As I said before, the recommended reviewers are not always used, but as the Journal is primarily about Cosmology, and my manuscript was mostly about astrobiology, I was more than a little surprised that none of my suggestions, even one who had previously published in the Journal of Cosmology, had been approached.
There was also a small matter of me being credited with a PhD I do not yet have. Not something to cause complaint from someone like me, on a relatively un-ground breaking paper like mine, but still something completely unfounded. It now appears that they have done the same with Richard Hoover. On all NASA Marshall Flight Centre (his employer) sites he is listed as Mr, and yet, the Journal of Cosmology have given him a Dr., as they did with me. Some critics suggest that this is Hoover himself trying to overstate his position, but I can attest that it is, in fact, coming straight from the journal.
I read the Hoover paper. Now, I am not senior enough to offer heavy weight criticism about the scientific methods, although I do still have my opinions (expressed above). But I am a freelance editor, and I know an edited piece of writing when I see one. Or rather, I know a not-edited piece of writing when I see one. In my experience and opinion, Richard Hoover’s paper is just not very well written. In overall content, it is not the concise and exact writing that is normally used to report important paradigm-changing claims such as this (see every paper published in Science and Nature for the desirable format for ground-breaking research papers). There is historical perspective, and direct quotes, which could be just as easily cited as references in the text. We are told that a falling meteor broke a branch from a tree, and are quoted the philosophical musings of nineteenth century scientists for nearly six pages before the author’s contributions are even broached. The discussion following the reported results are not relevant to the major finding of the paper, and fail to identify any of the possible alternative interpretations of the microbe structures, other than discounting the fact that they are modern contaminants. Typographically, the manuscript is riddled with errors. Fractured and nonsensical sentences, such as:“It should be noted that one seriously Murchison sample was found to be contaminated…” are frighteningly common. Symbols and units are erratic too – ‘H2O’, ‘SiO2’, and ‘200oC’ are errors that I would expect to find in a an undergraduate essay. I do not blame Richard Hoover for this. We all make a mess of our sentences when editing, but it is the job of reviewers or proof readers to pick this sort of thing up. Formatting is odd as well – not all figures have their own figure caption, making interpretation of the data difficult without intense reading. This is just not what I would expect from a professionally peer reviewed and edited journal. How did they let it slip through unless, and this is just a logical conclusion to draw from the weighty evidence in its favour, the Journal of Cosmology are not doing what they say they are?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not casting unfounded aspersions on the basis of my own biased opinion, and if the reviewers of the Hoover paper, or indeed my paper, come forward and say they did their job to their accepted standard, I will not doubt it. If the Journal of Cosmology can stand up and say they have done all that is expected of a respected academic journal in terms of presenting good science in a good way, and provide robust evidence in support of it, then my qualms will only lie with the reviewers. Until that time the Journal is unavoidably sitting under a black cloud of suspicion.
Clearly, the Journal is aware of the criticism coming its way – as evidenced by this official statement preceding Hoover’s paper on the website. In itself it is not that odd, and is a natural defence against the press’ and public’s scepticism of the paper. But when I first came across it yesterday (10th March), it read very differently, and not so objectively:
“Official Statement The Journal of Cosmology,
Have the Terrorists Won?
The Journal of Cosmology is free, online, open access. Free means = No money.
Our intention has always been to promote science and this means, particularly in this case, stepping on the toes of the “status quo” who have responded with a barrage of slanderous attacks. They are lying to you.
The Journal of Cosmology is a Prestigious Scientific Journal Two of NASA Senior Scientists Science Directorates have published in the Journal of Cosmology (JOC). A NASA Senior Scientist Science Directorate served as a “guest” Executive editor and repeatedly referred to the Journal as “prestigious.” Four astronauts, two who walked on the Moon have published with JOC. Over 30 top NASA scientists have published in JOC.
Top scientists from prestigious universities from around the world have published in the Journal of Cosmology, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, and so on. Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford and who shared the “Wolf Prize” in physics with Stephen Hawking is Guest editing the April edition.
Peer Review NASA Senior Scientist Science Directorate Joel Levine, while participating in a NASA press conference, remarked about how his papers were peer reviewed and he was required to revise all of them, even though he was the editor for that edition of JOC!
As every editor, and guest editor will attest, all articles are subjected to peer review. We reject over 30% of invited papers and over 70% of those which are not invited. Over 90% of all papers are sent back for revision following peer review. Every editor, and Guest editor, has had their work subjected to peer review, and every editor has been required to revise their articles after peer review. Even the executive editors have been required to revise their papers after peer review. We believe in peer review. Peer review provides wonderful feedback which can help make a paper better, or which can explain why the paper is hopeless and must be rejected. However, we do not reject great papers because we disagree with them as is the habit of other periodicals.
Richard Hoover’s paper was received in November. It was subjected to repeated reviews and underwent one significant revision.
Selling JOC The Journal of Cosmology has no income, a small staff, and is overwhelmed with submissions from scientists around the world. A decision was made in early February to stop publishing in June. A buy out offer was received in mid-February. Terms were agreed to in late February. The offer was made public in February. Hoover’s paper was received in November of 2010 and published in March.
We were well aware we would suffer profound, slanderous, attacks by those who would do anything to destroy our reputation. If Hoover’s paper were a factor in this sale, we would have never published it. They are lying to you.
Have the Terrorist Won? Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study. NASA’s chief scientist was charged with unprofessional conduct for lying publicly about the Journal of Cosmology and the Hoover paper. The same crackpots, self-promoters, liars, and failures, are quoted repeatedly in the media. However, where is the evidence the Hoover study is not accurate?
Few legitimate scientists have come forward to contest Hoover’s findings. Why is that? Because the evidence is solid.
But why have so few scientists come forward to attest to the validity? The answer is: They are afraid. They are terrified. And for good reason.
The status quo and their “hand puppets” will stop at nothing to crush debate about important scientific issues, and this includes slander, defamation, trade libel… they will ruin you. Three hundred years ago, they would burn you for questioning orthodoxy. Has anything changed?
The scientific community must march according to the tune whistled by those who control the funding. If you don’t do as you are told, if you dare to ask the wrong questions, they will destroy you.
JOC offered the scientific community a unique opportunity to debate an important paper, but for the most part they have declined.
The message is: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Or you will be destroyed.
Why is America in decline?
Maybe the terrorists have won.”
By all means attack me for being small minded, call me a crackpot and a charlatan, but to me, and to the many people who also read it during its brief period on the website, this is not reasonable scientific debate and defence, but is the stuff of hysterical conspiracy theorists. I am not even sure what point this statement is trying to make – and the fact that the Journal have since removed it, is testament to the fact that they themselves don’t know either. What is going on?
Only time and further developments between NASA, Richard Hoover (who has remained surprisingly silent throughout) and the Journal of Cosmology will eventually reveal the twisted processes behind this suspicious publication. It may be that we will never get to the bottom it. But given that the scientific world has been shaken by the strong viewpoints in play and the many apparent inconsistencies, how have the press and the public reacted?
Sensibly, for once, it would seem! I will put together my views on how the press has dealt with this report in a separate post. But in summary, many of the official news and comment outlets – Yahoo news, CBS, TIME, Philip Ball at Nature and many many others, carried stories that emphasised the scepticism shown by scientists about the report. Some, most notably and disappointingly, Fox News in their initial ‘exclusive’ report, and the Guardian newspaper, show very little caution in using the story to crash the headlines (leaping head first into the churnalism snake pit), but in general, the mixed reception of the paper has been well represented.
Curiously though, in his own blog post, P. Z. Myers, a biology Professor at the University of Minnesota questions why it is almost exclusively him who is quoted as debunking the Hoover findings. In his own words: “I know I don’t have much clout with the academic establishment, and I certainly don’t control the funding…”. Few other expert academics have commented, or at least are being quoted as commenting, other than this very nice summary from Rosie Redfield. While I am fully in support of the media showing a bit of hysteria mitigation, I am in agreement with Prof. Myers, and disappointed in the resourcefulness of the journalists. But that is another story.
So, is there a conclusion? Is there a definitive answer which can be reached? Right now – no. A lot of things seem fishy about Hoover’s science, and about the Journal of Cosmology, and it will take much time, official statements, and academic rebuttals before it is sorted out. I for one, however, hope that this issue does not just fizzle into obscurity, as there are important lessons to be learnt by scientists, publishers, and the public alike, about scientific transparency and open debate.
And readers, please, if you know more, if you have heard whisperings that can shed any light on this suspicious situation, please get in touch. I will happily post links to blogs, articles or web pages that can give insight. Croudsourcing exposed the problems with the research, let’s see if it can provide a solution.
Battison, L. (2011) Niche Habitats for Extra-Terrestrial Life: The Potential for Astrobiology on the Moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Journal of Cosmology, 13.
Brasier, M. D., Green, O. R., Jephcoat, A. P., Kleppe, A. K., Van Kranendonk, M. J., Lindsay, J. F., Steele, S., and Grassineau, N. V. (2002) Questioning the evidence for Earth’s oldest fossils. Nature, 416, 76-81.
Golden, D. C., Ming, D. W., Schwandt, C. S., Lauer, H. V., Socki, R. A., Morris, R. V., Lofgren, G. E., and McKay, G. A. (2001) A simple inorganic process for formation of carbonates, magnetite, and sulfides in Martian meteorite ALH84001. American Mineralogist, 86, 370-375.
Gounelle, M., and Zolensky, M. E. (2010) A terrestrial origin for sulfate veins in CI1 chondrites. Meteoritics and Planetary Science, 36, 1321-1329.
Hoover, R. B. (2011) Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites. Journal of Cosmology, 13.
McKay, D. S., Gibson, E. K., Thomas-Keprta, K. L., Vali, H., Romanek, C. S., Clemett, S. J., Chillier, X. D. F, Maechling, C. R., and Zare, R. N. (1996) Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001. Science, 273, 924-930.
Schopf, J. W., and Packer, B. M. (1987) Early Archaean (3.3 billion to 3.5 billion-year-old) microfossils from Warawoona Group, Australia. Science, 237, 70-73.
Wacey, D., Kilburn, M., Stoakes, C., Aggleton, H., and Brasier, M. D. (2008) Ambient Inclusion Trails: Their Recognition, Age Range and Applicability to Early Life on Earth. In: Links Between Geological Processes, Microbial Activities & Evolution of Life, 113-134, Springer.
Zhou, Z., Sun, Q., Hu, Z., and Deng, Y. (2006) Nanobelt formation of Magnesium Hydroxide Sulfate Hydrate via a Soft Chemistry Process. Journal of Physical Chemistry B., 110, 13387-13392.
Last week the Media Standards Trust (MST) launched a website that detects churnalism, churnalism.com, as part of a drive to improve the quality of journalism.
Churnalism is the process of recycling a press release into a news report with very little original reporting or fact checking. A study by a group at Cardiff University in 2006 showed that “nearly one in five newspaper stories were, verifiably, mainly or wholly sourced from press release material” and that science reporting showed the highest reliance on press releases, with up to 40 per cent of stories based on publicity documents.
MST director Martin Moore told ABSW that “churnalism has grown over the last decade, largely because the communication industry itself has grown.”
Inviting members of the public to identify churnalism themselves, churnalism.com aims to promote transparency in reporting and encourage journalists to cite original sources.
It was inspired by the research from Cardiff University and Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News (2008). The website uses the power of internet crowdsourcing: it takes the text of press release material entered by users of the web site and compares it to a large database of stories from the UK press, BBC, and Sky News on the MST’s journalisted.com. The website gives several user-friendly, graphic representations of the overlap between a press release and media news reports. An overlap of more than 20% is flagged up as a likely ‘churn’.
To take one example, the national press has reported widely on recent developments in microscope technology that allow almost limitless resolution. Churnalism.com identified the story from The Times (1st March 2011) as ‘probably churned’, with 52 per cent of the article lifted directly from the press release.
Science reporting in particular should benefit from this push towards greater transparency.
Freelance journalist Stephan van Duin told ABSW: “Science doesn’t work with big headlines or hard conclusions, so news covering science shouldn’t either. A press release surrounding a new discovery, by itself, is never enough to use as the basis of an article, and it should always be accompanied by other research … A website like churnalism.com is a great way to see how much of this essential context is provided … In a way, it’s a quality check.”
Others are less optimistic about the website’s ability to change the state of journalism.
Bob Franklin, lead researcher of the Cardiff study, told ABSW: “Newspapers have grown, but the number of journalists has decreased, so inevitably they are more reliant on press releases.”
Rather than improving the state of journalism, he says the web site could change the public’s perception of journalists: “churnalism.com will burst a bubble of pomposity and misleading representation of journalists to the public”.
Felicity Mellor, leader of the Science Communication course at Imperial College, London, told ASBW that “the fact that press releases play a prominent agenda-setting role is as much a concern as the degree of cutting and pasting that goes on”. An additional role of the website would thus be to “provide a place where press releases are made publicly available, and to track how many stories have spun out of press releases.”
But another freelance journalist told ABSW that press releases are there to be used and copied by reporters. “Media pay a lot of money to have access to agency copy,” she said, adding that there is nothing inherently wrong with using agency copy and press releases in science news articles.
Just 48 hours after its launch, the website had received over 180,000 page views, from over 28,000 unique visitors. A few days later, the database of ‘churned’ articles is already swelling. Time alone will tell whether industry-changing goals can be achieved by one website, but the laying bare of churnalistic reporting is a powerful weapon in the push for media transparency.
This news story was written by Leila Battison, and published online at http://www.absw.org.uk/news-events/news/737-watch-out-churnalists-you-are-being-watched on Thursday 3rd March.