Friday, July 27, 2012

Just for fun let's join the pile-on on Slate's bone-stupid and dirt-ignorant science reporting

Confession: I like Slate and many of its features.  There are often good stories in Double X, I'm a fan of Emily Yoffe's Dear Prudence advice column and Matthew Yglesias's economics articles, and I rarely miss Brian Palmer's Explainer pieces.

But their science reporting not only chronically sucks, it's also very oriented toward the sort of thing that trying-to-be-hip liberal arts grads think is science reporting:  food additives and why to be scared of them.  What trendy people who want to be green are doing with their used underwear.  They do manage to get that the anti-vaccination stuff is bullshit, but then they try to be fair to the anti-vaxers anyway; on issues like creationism, global warming, and so on they tend to run articles about how many scientists or other experts agree and not about the evidence or the arguments, probably because they can count people in white coats but they don't really understand evidence or arguments.

And then there was today's spectacular piece of craptastic reporting.  Luckily for us all, the story (which is credited to Slate V Staff (V is their video channel)) managed to screw up the distinction between a solar system and a galaxy, which thus alerted intelligent third and fourth graders that the writers did not have a farking clue what it was about.  For a while apparently the screwup was in the headline as well, but now it appears to only be in the article text, the url for the article, and a picture caption (more progress may happen later).  So they went from having it wrong in 4 places to having it wrong in 3, which I think should count as a 25% improvement.

Here's the article location (notice stupidity in url): go on over there, oh faithful followers, and pile on it!

And for those of you who don't have time to do that, here's what I said there, which is actually the more serious matter:


They also managed to miss the actual scientific significance:

Kepler 30 is our twin in only one respect:  it is a non-Hot Jupiter system.  Most of the exosolar solar systems discovered so far have been Hot Jupiter systems, i.e. ones where you have a great big honkin planet, Jupiter sized or even bigger, in a very tight orbit (Mercury or closer).  In  all Hot Jupiter systems where the planes of rotation of the star and of the planet have been determinable, it has turned out that the two planes are wildly out of kilter, and in Hot Jupiters with multiple planets this also has turned out to be true of the other planets; i.e. they're not in a common plane.

Our own solar system is one of the very few non Hot Jupiters so far known.  All our planets are in a common plane roughly parallel to the solar equator.   Kepler 30 is another non Hot Jupiter.  The research team was able to determine -- using sunspot versus eclipsing -- that Kepler 30's three planets are all in the same plane with its equator.   There are now TWO non Hot Jupiters with the solar equator and the planes of the planetary orbits all aligned.  This suggests that non Hot Jupiter systems form from the primitive disk and stay that way, whereas the much-more-detected (either because they are more common or because they are easier to find with current tech, we can't know which yet) Hot Jupiters suffer one or more cataclysms that throw their planets into orbits far out out the plane in which they originated. 

This in turn may explain the apparent absence of other civilizations so far in our radio search for them: maybe only right-sized worlds in the habitable zones of Non Hot Jupiters offer enough time for intelligent life to develop, and maybe that kind of real estate is  terribly uncommon.   It also may offer a perspective on the formation of planetary systems generally; maybe by far the most common process results in Hot Jupiters.  Maybe the process of detecting the planes of the equator and the ecliptic and matching them can be used to find the elusive non Hot Jupiters. 

In any case, it is a big, interesting science story, at least as interesting with regard to where we actually are in the universe as the Higgs Boson or the unknown hominid ancestor story,   and  it was totally missed by the Slate staffers, whether they were interns, regular staff dipschittz, elves for whom Slate didn't set out fresh bread and milk, or some wandering homeless guy that they gave a bottle of gin to if he'd just do a science story for them. 

AND, as many others have noted, they didn't manage to understand the difference between a galaxy and a system.  God forbid they ever have to handle a globular cluster.

On the bright side, I'm sure the piece about why American women will still wear bikinis for the Olympic beach volleyball event was probably thoroughly vetted and dead accurate.


And that was the last line of my comment at Slate.

Now, look.  I know it's perfectly possible to be trying to scientific accuracy and to screw it up.  In fact, my own novel Losers in Spacewhich really really really tried to stay true to the hard sciences, contains an overwhelming whopper for which I shall probably some day shine Howard Davidson's shoes with my tongue.  (Well, actually, Howard's too nice a guy to really make me do that.  I hope.   But he'd be entitled, dammit). 

And it happened for probably exactly the same reason that Slate's lousy reporting did: I thought I knew more than I did but was in fact massively ignorant and easily confused.  That can sometimes be the beginnings of wisdom, and perhaps Slate will redeem itself by hiring a couple of real science reporters.  But as Dave Barry wisely said, it's not nearly as effective to tell a kid that "Darling the stove is hot and you mustn't touch" as it is to hold his little hand on the burner (yeah, I know, I will now get 3-5 emails telling me that there are people so dumb that they will read that and do it; maybe I need an eleventh form letter).  So go over to Slate, grab'em by their metaphorical wrist, and don't let'em go till it smells well-done.

And while you're at it, if you're on Amazon or Goodreads and reviewing Losers, you might point people to that blog post; I wince a little every time someone says the book was written with "perfect accuracy"  or some such phrase.  (On the other hand, I cackle with evil glee every time someone complains that it was written with perfect accuracy, or grumbles that they found yucky old science in their science fiction.)

Late breaking word: io9 gets it right. And io9 has never really pretended to be anything other than pure fun.  Of course, aside from being more accurate, their article is much more fun than watching that silly video at Slate, which looks like a slapped together at the last minute project in a Communications for Non-Majors course.