Bad Journalism about scientific Matters...

(last updates 15. Oct 2000 and 6. Jan 2001, jump here resp. here)
A short time ago I witnessed once again the total incompetence of nearly all journalists in scientific matters (below I list some other major faults): one of the numerous, recently discovered asteroids was announced to struck possibly our planet in the midth of the 21st century! All insiders could immediately tell, that this was pure speculation, because the planetoid has until now only a provisional designation, what means, that it doesn't belong to the now about 10,000 asteroids with well established orbits. Indeed, in the astronomical press you can read the true story: with a tiny probability of 2 ppm (means 2 thousands of parts of promille) it could struck earth, but this is totally irrelevant at now, because the orbit will be more precisely determined in the future and finally exactly traced after an encounter with our planet in 2027 at a distance of at least 30,000 km (this is around 10 % of the moons distance from earth). And besides this, the probability, that another, yet unkown celestial body (asteroid or comet) will struck earth in the coming 50 years is comparable. Therefore this is no matter of discussion nowadays. Final remark: meanwhile this case was closed, because older photographs of the now as the same identified object enabled a more precise calculation and therefore the minimal distance changed to moons distance from Earth, what means a tenfold increase...

The reasons for this and further misleading informations by journalists are twofold, I guess: first most journalists lack an adequate education in science, but despite this write with a certainty, which is often not claimed even by experts of the subject, and despite the journalists don't really understand the background. The second problem is in my view, that the good and absolutely necessary freedom of press is simply abused by irresponsible journalists, who abuse this as a possibility, to write or publish otherwise bare nonsense without being punished or otherwise stopped, only to create sensations for egoistic and economical interests.

No doubt about this: often we scientists also don't make the best out of the situation of possible or indeed important knowledges with the public. We have also to improve, but it is just impossible to do so, if journalists proceed with this far too often unscrupulous behaviour.

Now follows a list of ever growing items, in which widespread misunderstandings and prejudices are exposed (there are often only slight differences, but nevertheless important ones):

  • the greenhouse effect: without it the temperatures on our planet were globally below the melting point of water, and the earth therefore covered with snow and ice! Indeed the mankind emits great amounts of gases like carbondioxide and methane, which increase the greenhouse effect above the natural level, but don't create it. This is sometimes referred as anthropogenic greenhouse effect, an addition to the natural one.

  • another common misperception is the assumption, that increasing greenhouse effect will increase temperatures on Earth at all places and on all times equally. Due to the nature of the radiation and convection features of atmosphere and water (especially the oceans) this is a rather complex pattern. While hard to calculate for every region on Earth, it can be stated for sure, that this isn't the case: the general tendency is a higher increase of lower temperatures to higher ones, while the warmer regions respective warmer times of year are less affected. And by temperature change induced switches of cold and warm water flows in the oceans in some regions even a cooling might occur! For example, it's not unlikely, that Europe will witness some increase in mean temperatures in the next few decades and then a heavy drop below todays values, when the gulf stream is switched off!

  • the trials to mount an ABC missile defense in USA is often treated in scientific journals, therefore I decided to put it up here too. When the last time again (do you remember Ronnie Rayguns SDI project?) experiments were performed, the success number was still very low. This came as no surprise for experts around the world; even the majority of them in USA think, that this program will never work --- at least safe for another general technical development for decades. But there is still a number of people, who try by exploiting the indeed not unfounded fear, that some terroistic acting countries could mount an ABC attack with new missiles some day. But with it's inefficiency this program is rather more dangerous than helpful by creating a wrong illusion of safety! (by the way, politically speaking, such a program can even easily reduce overall safety by inciting new spirals of weapon development like counter measures and so on; but there are always economical interests, and for some people these range higher than general community interests!)

  • Plutonium is often supposed to be the most dangerous radioactive material around with respect to proliferation (abuse by not authorized persons or countries for nuclear weapons). This is totally wrong: the most dangerous material of these is highly enriched Uranium (U-235, to be precise), which is used for example by some high temperature fission reactor types. The reason is, that the demands of technical abilities to construct a functioning nuclear bomb with Plutonium are much higher, than for the same with highly enriched Uranium, despite the efficiency of such a bomb (if it works at all!) is not affected by the selection of this material.

  • the redshift in the spectra of remote galaxies and quasars (cores of energetically very active galaxies) is often wrong referred to as Doppler-shift. This is totally wrong, it's neither a Doppler effect nor the also since Einsteins discoveries classical gravitational redshift, but a cosmological effect: imagine the often used picture of a balloon, which expands as model for the cosmic expansion. If you imagine further the wavelines of photons on the surface of the balloon and not only the usual galaxies, you can literally see, what really is happening: the waves are simply stretched by the expansion of our spacetime continuum and this means a bigger wavelength and vice versa a reduction of the frequency of the waves, and this is exactly, what is observed. A direct consequence of cosmic expansion...

  • many people seem to think, that endangered species with few remaining individuals can be helped with the cloning techniques. Even a few biologists seem to believe this, and I've to regret, that I must deny this as an physicist(!): the problem with too few individuals of a species is the lack of genetic variety, but cloning means nothing else than duplicating the genetic informations and therefore no way an extension of this genetic pool, therefore it's totally unable to sustain the population of such a species. Besides, the so far only species on our planet, which is probably unable to survive without the otherwise always equal cause of human manipulations, is the fastest big cat on Earth, Acinonyx jubatus, mostly known as Cheetah (German flagGepard); and the reason is an evolutional dead-end, caused by the extreme narrowing of genetic variety for the extremely short-range fast sprinters, which are hardly able to hold, kill or defend against others their prey.

  • especially in Europe many people think, that genetic modified food will cause harm with them. Generally speaking, this is wrong without a few exceptions (for example for people with an allergy, if genetic material of other species is integrated in the food); but they are in my view despite this fact right, to fight the way especially US corporations manipulate food nowadays. But the reason for my posture is, that modifying in not really natural ways can cause harm to the entire ecosystem by mostly unpredictable "side" effects. This danger is far more important, than most of the people responsible for the manipulations want to admit.

  • obviously very few people know our Gregorian calendar system really: on a daily base overall we hear the nonsense, that the next century starts at 1.1.2000. This sounds good, but is nevertheless totally wrong. The reason is simply, that this calendar had no year 0, what means the A.D. part started with year 1, the first decade straightforward finishing in year 10 A.D. and so on, the centuries count therefore from 1 to 100 or this time the twentieth century from 1901 up to 2000 and the 21. century straightforward from 2001 up to 2100. Wrong statements simply doesn't become more true, when they are endlessly repeated... Remark: the problem with some feeble and outdated hardware and software of course sets on despite this fact with 1.1.2000, because it's a pure storage and handling problem.

  • even celebrities speak sometimes absolutely nonsense like the journalists. A well-known Frenchman stated, that the Russian Mir station would crash onto Paris and destroy it. Despite a hit of Paris can't be physically totally excluded (but is extremely unlikely, because the aim for downing is the giant Pacific ocean, which can hardly be missed!), a destruction of the big French town is impossible. For such a disaster the Russian space station is simply far from being big enough for such an impact. Fare well, Parisians, in the worst theoretical case a few houses could be destroyed (about a dozen or so) - but a nuclear war in the near future for example between the sometimes irrational and irresponsible acting countries of India and Pakistan is much more likely.

  • probably the worst way to exploit lack of knowledge about scientific (related) topics, is to commit economical crimes. A really annoying one are so-called star registries, which are announcing the selling of star names to interested people (to name them after them or relatives, friends and so on...). These criminals are betraying the people, which are not really customers, but pure victims of these "companies". Despite the IAU (International Astronomical Union) is the only authority on Earth, with the right to name stars officially, the astronomers can hardly fight against this massive, illegal abuse. We have to invite customer protection organisations and responsible lawyers, to fight against these criminal practices. For more informations, please read the Star Naming FAQ homepage or look at my astronomy links regarding star name buying or both.

  • sometimes it's heard or read, that using plants instead of oil and coal could solve the carbon dioxide problem especially of the combustion engine cars. This is a typical account of a too simple approach to tackle a single problem, disregarding related problems... The main fault of this thought is, that it would require tremendous areas of agriculture ground to produce sufficient amounts of fuel by plants. No doubt, this could solve that isolated problem, but it would also for sure prevent the production of enough food for the still about exponential growing world population of humans. Keep in mind, that the usable agricultural area is decreasing, because of the human induced devastation also on a world wide scale. This simple facet of the complex problem is preventing us effectively from using this path. (on a realistic approach, considering all important factors, one has to admit, that largely reducing the number of combustion engine cars is the only escape route so far available, but this is another topic)

That's all for now; if I find another important one, it will join the list. If you have any proposals for it at all, than please email me below.

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