Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A tip for science writers

Currently, a story about the Hadean Earth is the banner article in the science section of the New York Times. This is good. As the article explains, the Hadean- formally the time from Earth’s formation to 4 billion years ago, and informally the time for which we have no rocks- is traditionally underconstrained (no rocks, no data). But in the last few decades, rocks and individual minerals have been found, and the picture that is emerging is that the Hadean may have been more similar to the modern Earth than originally thought.

This is all well and good, and I have no argument with the science or the presentation of it. People in the know have known about evidence for a wet early Earth for years, and the New York Times is a good place to get that knowledge out into the wider human community. However, I have a complaint about the way the reporting was done, which could prove problematic with a more contentious topic.

The writer of the Times piece writes:

“The picture that’s emerging is a watery world with normal rock recycling processes,” said Stephen J. Mojzsis, a professor of geology at the University of Colorado who was not involved with the U.C.L.A. research.

Mojzsis’s name is not on the paper, and he may have been unaffiliated with this particular project. However, a quick Google scholar search will show that he and Harrison have co-authored a dozen papers over the last decade or so on early earth evolution. Several of these papers include work done on Jack Hills zircon, which is the topic of the Nature paper at the heart of the article. So presenting his opinion as that of an uninvolved, detached scientist is probably a bit of a stretch.

I don’t know how much training or education science journalists get with regards to the culture of scientific collaboration, but simple tests like reading the names on a publication list will at least give a hint as to how connected or independent various scientists are.

As an aside, Harrison and Valley did not discover Hadean zircons. That was done in the early eighties. What happened in 2001 was that both groups developed (independently) the ability to measure oxygen isotopes on single zircon grains to the precision needed to make inferences about the source magma of the zircon.

And anyone wishing to know more about the state of research into the Early earth should get to San Francisco in the next week and a half. There are several sessions at the annual fall AGU meeting.


Weekend_Viking said...

Hey cool, at least they used one of my photos in the sidebar of the article. I've never been in the new york times before.

(I was a lab tech on that project at ANU for several years after finishing my doctorate, and the photo in the sidebar I recognise as one I took when me and my boss Peter Holden were trying to work out how to get a single shot reflected light image of the zircon mounts accurate enough to enable it to be used as a template for automating the grain location on the spectrometer. Earlier we'd used a standard petrographic microscope, but it could only shoot part of the mount at a time, and photomosaics built that way were not accurate enough to do the grain location automation. We didn't have a reflected light microscope large enough to do the whole mount in a single undistorted shot, but one of the binocular scopes could do it, but was not set up for incident light, so I pulled out one of the binocular lenses, and used a bright white LED torch and some ducttape and a frosted glass diffuser to rig a reflected light setup through the binocular optics, allowing us to get the mounts shot in one piece. If you look closely you can see the white blobs that are diffuse images of the LED pattern in the head of my torch, duct taped to the jury rigged diffuser (which didn't work properly, hence the blobby image.))

But yes, poor journalism, because Steve , an excellent scientist, is hardly unassociated, being an integral (but overseas) member of the Australian design team that builds the SHRIMP spectrometers in Canberra used in the research. There really are not many people involved in this sort of bleeding edge equipmment and analysis, so it's hard to find even a couple of degrees of separation, though.

Weekend_Viking said...

(looks at your blog in more detail)

O Hai!

I'm Zane, by the way, haven't seen you for a few years. I too am currently working exploration in central australia...

C W Magee said...

Hey Zane, I figured that would be either your or one of the Pete's photos. You still working? We all lost our jobs today- chairman put the company into hibernation mode and sacked everyone from the managing director down to the fieldies- including us geologists.

Drop me an email, tell me what you're up to (and if you know anyone who's hiring).

Thanks for the down&dirty on the photo, by the way. It's alway good to know the story behind the "simple pictures" that show up in the end product.

Although I think you are confusing Steve Clement, the canadian mass spec designer, with Steve Mojzsis, the stable isotope geochemist who did his PhD at UCLA when Harrison was professor there.

NiteSkyGirl said...

as an astronomy writer i found this very interesting and helpful, I'm adding it ti my NiteSkyNews portion of my blog. thanks !!

Cookie Munster said...

I'll start by mentioning that I am a journalist who does occasional science reporting. So, I think it's reasonable to have expected the reporter saying that I think it's reasonable to expect the reporter, Kenneth Chang, to look up the professor on Google scholar, and disclose that he has collaborated with Harrison in the past. But he should still use the quote.
You have to face several practical realities. The first is that the universe of people qualified to comment on this paper is very, very small. You have to find someone with the technical expertise in the field and who has read the paper. Remember, this is a paper that is not yet published, so it's really a very small number scientists.
Then you run into the second problem: Getting the person on the phone. The reporter may have contacted 10 scientists, but only heard from the one. It happens this way often. There are problems of shared language, vacations, time zones, and how much the professor has on his/her plate at that moment that can limit whether the reporter gets the call back in time. Finally, I'd point out that in the case of a more controversial issue, more care would have been taken. In a case like this where few are going to dispute the matter, the reporter settled on one scientist. In a case where someone makes a claim about something controversial, like inherent differences between the genders, races, or something else, the reporter would have spent more time gathering independent points of view.
Anyway, I hope that helps. Apologies for my typos. I'm a bad typist, and it's a tiny comment box.

TeriPower said...

I am very interested in this photo of the zircons. Can you tell me more about it? Were you looking at actual rock with the minerals exposed? How is it that they were so geometrically aligned? I am an artist interested in the early earth and the evolution of color. Was this a sample of mineral that you collected? in a museum? Tell me more.


Dr. Lemming said...

Are you referring to the picture in the banner?

Those are zircons extracted from a crushed quartzite (from the ~2.2 Ga Jacobina succession in Eastern Brazil, FWIW), mounted in epoxy, and then polished to remove roughly half of the grain. Holes are from a eximer laser, and should be about 30 microns across. Zircons are all about 3.3 to 3.5 billion years old.

Sample illumination is oblique for the picture.