How not to write accurately about science

In one sense, mass media representations of scientific findings depend on finding an easily-understood and attractive idea, a “hook” with which to attract the casual reader’s interest. This can lead to narrowness, superficiality, and distortion. It goes with the territory.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more outrageous example of misrepresenting the content of a journal article than the news piece “Did Belief in Gods Lead to Mayan Demise?” (Yahoo!News, March 21st).

What picture do you get of the original material at the base of an article with that sensational title? — especially when the article begins with this sentence:

A dread of malevolent spirits haunting forsaken areas could, along with environmental catastrophes, help to explain why some areas in the ancient Mayan world proved less resilient than others when their civilization disintegrated, researchers suggest.

The original research on which the news article is based is “Kax and kol: Collapse and resilience in lowland Maya civilization,” published in November 2011 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The PNAS piece is a study by three American geologists.

Geologists? What are geologists doing writing technical papers about Mayan gods?

That would be a fair question, if only the researchers had written more than a single passage about Mayan gods or the “dread of malevolent spirits haunting forsaken areas.”

Here’s what the authors identify as their core concept:

Available data indicates that the elevated interior areas of the Yucatán Peninsula were more susceptible to system collapse and less suitable for resilient recovery than adjacent lower-lying areas.

And at the very end of the article, here’s everything the long journal original has to say about the influence of Mayan religion on resettlement patterns:

In Classic Maya polities, failure implicated both gods and rulers. Their former territories became places of ill fortune and returned to the forest.

So, it was the way that the Mayans saw their gods that kept some sites from being resettled, right? Wrong. The sites in question were typically located at higher altitudes, where water supply was more vulnerable. The study’s authors make it very clear what they believe to be the most important factor in Mayan resettlement patterns:

A question that has come to the fore in current discussions of collapse in the Maya Lowlands is why some regions, notably those regions in the EIR [Elevated Interior Region], were slow to be effectively reoccupied or were not reoccupied at all after collapse (6). Hydrologic problems lie at the heart of this issue. Reoccupation of the EIR by sizeable populations required a system to capture and store rain water.

This passage is in the same, concluding paragraph that contains the sole mention of “blaming the gods.” In other words, the “gods” sentence is but a subsidiary comment, a way of “wrapping up” a long discussion with a little bit of flair.

So where does Yahoo!News find justification for its sensational headline? It doesn’t.

The Yahoo! news article quickly abandons the focus of its first sentence. Instead, the bulk of the article provides a short, superficial, and rather weak recapitulation of the main details of the original journal article. Even if you ignore the misleading title, you won’t get anything like an accurate representation of the journal article’s thrust from this article.

It reads very much like what a junior reporter under a deadline would have produced if he had read the first and last paragraphs of the report, then just skimmed the rest for easy paraphrases. In fact, I’m betting that this is just what happened. All the support that the author of the news summary can find for his slant is this unrelated quotation from one of the original study’s authors:

But the fact that collapse was often a patchwork affair and a prolonged process does indeed strongly suggest that cultural factors — for example, strength of rulership, flexibility of the society and its ability to adapt to change — were equally important for determining whether or not a given site or group of sites adapted or collapsed.

Strength of rulership, flexibility, adaptability. See any reference to gods, or to the power of religious superstition? I don’t either. Come on, guys — if you’re going to report on science, report the science accurately.

And have your headline writers read more than the lead sentences of the articles assigned to them!

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One thought on “How not to write accurately about science

  1. This kind of reporting is particularly poor when the geologists’ story is fascinating in its own right.
    The Mayan workers who had built the magnificent structures realized the priests and rulers weren’t so hot when the water supply failed and went back to their villages. Now they come from the villages to work for the tourist dollar in the sun worship temples which may be just as liable to failure. The Air Canada strike?

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