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The Poor Quality of Most Science Reporting

I was as interested as anyone else in the reported discovery of a large impact crater in Wilkes Land, Antarctica.  However, the more I found out about the story, the more disappointed I became with the level of gullibility exhibited by the people reporting the story.  It is possible that there is a large impact crater in Wilkes Land but, from reading the initial reports, you would hardly be able to tell that:

  • The idea is not new.  A simple Google search reveals: "No giant meteorite crater in Wilkes Land, Antarctica", C.R.Bentley, Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 84, Sept. 10, 1979, p. 5681-5682. In its abstract, this paper refers back to a 1962 paper by Schmidt which first proposed that the "large gravity anomaly in Wilkes Land, Antarctica, was caused by the impact of a huge meteorite".
  • There is no evidence dating the feature to the Permian-Triassic boundary (according to a report in Nature which is unfortunately is now subscription-only).  I would have thought that at least some scrap of evidence pointing to an age of about 250 million years would be needed before suggesting that it cause the Permian Triassic extinction and the break-up of Gondwanaland.

It looks to me that this was a story that got out of hand:  von Freese and Potts presented their idea tentatively as a poster paper at a conference in order to solicit the opinions of other experts, but a science journalist picked up on the idea and presented it as a much more novel and much more solid than it really was.  There seems to be an almost irresistible tendency for journalists to exaggerate in this way, maybe their careers do not depend so much on getting things right as on attracting attention.  I suppose the way to cope with this is to follow the motto of the Royal Society: "Nullius in Verba" ("On the words of no one"), that is to read the reports but to retain a healthy scepticism and check for yourself when you can.  It would be nice if the reporters did this).  Also, I have found the news reports at Nature and Science are usually reliable.

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