Friday, March 5, 2010

Not Enough Hours in the Day

Okay, I'm back.

It's been a crazy few months.  Everything that was so disruptive in January carried me right into February and then all of a sudden the Olympics were on - right outside my window.  I've never watched the olympics games so thoroughly.  But seeing as they were actually here in Vancouver, immersing myself seemed like the right thing to do.  If you haven't heard, it was pretty cool and could not imaginably have had a better happy ending.

It's taken most of the week to decompress and start getting caught up on the main parts of my life.  Now I can start catching up on the secondary portions.  Yes, skepticism is secondary.  It's on the bubble, but when it came time to prioritizing what to catch up on this week, it was clear where in the hierarchy it fell.  In that spirit I'm starting slowly back in.  There are just not enough hours in the day...

You've probably heard about the Chilean earthquake last week.

Did you hear the news from NASA on Monday about what the quake has done to our planet?

One of the local free dailies had the following headline on the top of the front page: "CHILE EARTHQUAKE SHORTENS DAYS."

Going to the AP story inside, it becomes immediately clear that the headline implicitly exaggerates the truth.  The day is shorter by 1.26 microseconds according to the story.  You will never notice this difference (if you had any expectation that you would.)  In the course of an average life the cumulative difference in days would add up around 3.5 hundredths of a second. 

Take the exploration of the subject one step further and got to the actual Jet Propulsion Laboratory press release and it's clear that the 1.26 microseconds is a preliminary calculation and will be refined as more data is collected..  Furthermore, while the release leads with the information about the shortened day, it clearly notes that a more significant effect is the shift of the Earth's figure axis (the axis about which Earth's mass is balanced) - which is different from it's North South axis.

There is often a lot of talk about how the media mis-reports science, and I don't want to understate the impact of the mis-reporting of science, but I want to suggest that in the "if it bleeds it leads world of news reporting that there is a certain level at which, more than simply expecting misleading reporting, we should embrace it.  I think that this case is good example.

The degree to which the popularized headline misrepresents the story is pretty nominal.  On the surface it is accurate, and it is nothing if not intriguing.  In order to reach the typical person who isn't specifically interested in science you need to appeal to that visceral sense.  The effort it would take to make "Chile earthquake unusually effective in moving Earth's mass vertically" into an intriguing headline would necessitate an even greater divergence from the real-life implication; Eg. "Chilean earthquake spins earth off axis."  Bring on the 2012 nuts.

Running down the middle between the proper science and sensationalism strikes me as the proper choice in this case.  Even JPL seemed to think so and led with the viscerally intriguing part of the story - though with less embellishment and more qualifiers than the AP.

The media inherently goes for the part of the story that is most intriguing to the common man as a business decision - to get and keep your eyes on their paper.  Often this is destructive.  Often they get the story completely wrong, even inverting the actual findings in the process of presenting good copy.  But when they don't grotesquely misrepresent the facts and manage to get people to read deep enough into an article to widen their knowledge, it is overall a win.  The headline draws in readers.  They go to the story and learn how the earth is spinning faster because the overall mass is closer to the centre - like a figure skater spinning faster by drawing in her arms.

The AP was hardly the only news outlet that conflated the effect.  Take this report that cites 2012 in the first breath, does use the phrase "knocked the eart off it's axis" but at least it follows it up with an interview with Michio Kaku. 

I'm not sure if the next video will remain the next in the queue, but right now the next video is absolutely 2012 & Edgar Cayce credulity leading from the same news item....  Seems there is no stopping stupidity.  And even if there was, who has enough hours in the day to get it done in?


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