Saturday, March 12, 2011

Scientific Disasters

Tsunami inundates city of Natori in Japan (Kyodo News/AP)
The catastrophic events occurring in Japan in the last two days show just how important good science reporting is to the public welfare. These events have (so far) included a magnitude 8.9 earthquake in Japan, dozens of aftershocks, an enormously destructive tsunami and, now, an ongoing emergency with several nuclear reactors damaged in the quake. 

All aspects of this event involve scientific topics and the public needs to understand both what has happened, what is likely to happen in the near future and long term, and what lessons (if any) we can draw from these tragic events in planning for the future.

I am not a journalist, and although I write about science I do so as a scientist, not a science journalist, so perhaps I have no place criticizing people who work in those fields. As a scientist, I have been so thoroughly trained in the values of the scientific enterprise that those values have become part of my ethical framework. When I see deviations from these ingrained values, I feel that a wrong has been committed.

To a scientist, truth is the highest ideal and all scientists strive to find out what the truth is, whether it be the exact mechanism that led to a particular earthquake or the precise sequence of events that have led to several overheated nuclear reactors in the earthquake zone. I realize that other people may not have these values, and may prefer to hear comforting statements if the truth is too hard to bear. I personally feel, though, that I would rather have the truth no matter how bad it is, and I will seek comfort in my own way.

Journalists say they seek the truth, too, but I wonder if some may have other sets of values, for example, seeking out (or even generating) controversy and drama. Despite the fact that I'm not a journalist, I have found myself with plenty of friends who are, and most freely admit that journalism, as a field, is driven by the idea that "controversy sells." Perhaps this explains the post yesterday by a young science writer entitled "Today's Tsunami: This is What Climate Change Looks Like."

After reading this piece, which claimed to show a link between climate change and earthquake-generated tsunamis, I immediately contacted a former colleague of mine at the National Science Foundation to ask his professional opinion, as a climate scientist, about whether climate change could be linked to more severe earthquakes or tsunamis. His response: "Absolute rubbish." 

He went on to explain that the more important issue linking tsunamis and climate change is the increasing numbers of people living along coastlines and the accompanying decrease in barrier marshes that are known to mitigate the impact of a tsunami. This important issue is not mentioned at all in the piece linked to above. It seems I wasn't the only one outraged by this article, and other journalists took the author to task, such as in this piece by Tom Yulsman.

A corrected article was posted this morning, so it seems as if the author might have gotten the message, but a careful reading shows he is apologizing only for the title, not the content of the article. And the "update" added today confuses the issue even further by seemingly equating tsunamis with storm surges that, as we know (or should know), accompany hurricanes. A hurricane is not an earthquake, and despite the fact that a storm surge might look like a tsunami, it doesn't take a scientist to know that these two phenomena are completely unrelated.

I have already seen the unfortunate effects of this type of uninformed writing, in comments on blogs, Facebook and Twitter from members of the public who seem to think that yesterday's horrific earthquake and tsunami could, somehow, be traced back to our lack of attention to global warming. Where did they get this idea? As a former science professor, I fully understand the confusion that members of the public have about scientific issues, but it is our duty as scientists--and science journalists--to help people keep all this complicated information straight.

I am no global warming skeptic and I fully agree that we need to pay attention, now, to the impact of our own activities on the planet, but publishing a provocatively-titled piece that seems designed more to draw attention than increase people's understanding, will set us back in those efforts. A few more people may read your article, but what will be the long-term consequences for the planet of spreading misinformation?

The catastrophe in Japan continues, and the need for good science reporting remains as we move to the next phase of this tragedy. Already there is a great deal of conflicting information out there about what is happening with several damaged nuclear reactors. The situation itself has drama aplenty, and there are ongoing controversies about nuclear energy that are guaranteed to muddy the waters of any facts that are released by the authorities. 

The public, both in Japan and around the world, is, understandably, on the verge of panic about this development, so solid reporting of well-researched facts is of utmost importance. I hope my colleagues in the science journalism community will rise to this challenge, so that we don't amplify the effects of an actual disaster by committing a scientific disaster.

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