Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘extinction’

A recent story from BBC News emphasizes how difficult it can be to pick out the science from the hype when reading science news reporting.

The article, “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’,” explains some recent research by a Durham University professor based on a computer simulation of climate change over the last 42,000 years, and how this would have affected vegetation.

This sounds pretty interesting, but what struck me more than anything was the way the results were reported, certainly by the BBC reporter, possibly by the researchers as well.

Reading the headline, you would think the case is closed — our hunter-gatherer ancestors are not guilty — vindication at last! “Woolly mammoth extinction ‘not linked to humans’.”

One clue that the truth is more nuanced can be seen in the BBC headline writer’s weaselly use of single quotes. The headline writer can make the article sound more sensational, while using the quotation marks to shift the burden of proof on others. (See a colleague’s comments on this practice: “John the Baptist’s Bones and BBC’s Quotation Marks.”)

The article says that the reason for the mammoth’s extinction has been controversial. Some scientists claim it was climate change, others that it was encroachment by humans. Others have rolled in the beloved deus ex machina of a meteor strike.

Now, according to the BBC writer, “that debate has been settled.” Case closed! Congratulations on your latest sensational science story!

But then I notice a quote from the actual scientist:

What our results have suggested is that the changing climate, through the effect it had on vegetation, was the key thing that caused the reduction in the population and ultimate extinction of mammoths and many other large herbivores,” he said.

“Our results have suggested…“? Humans have been exonerated and debates have been settled based on … ‘suggestions’?

Certainly a computer simulation of climate change and its affect on vegetation is interesting and useful, but it’s really just one piece of scientific evidence. And, like any computer program, a simulation is subject to one of the basic limitations on any computer program: Garbage in, garbage out. Not that the simulation is wrong, but it could be, especially if it is programmed based on erroneous assumptions.

When reading science news reporting, or original scientific research for that matter, it’s important to realize that it’s difficult to prove definitively what happened in the past. And the further in the past the events in question, the harder it is to prove anything, without written records by reliable observers.

Digging up bones, fossilized pollen, or pottery shards from the ground is valuable work, as are analyzing DNA and running computer simulations. But the interested reader needs to keep in mind that scientists (and the journalists who write about their work) have skin in the game in one way or another — whether that be professional ambitions, funding to attain, reputations to uphold, or just plain personal ideologies to justify.

ARK — 21 August 2010

Read Full Post »