Last week those clever folks at the Seed Science Blogs were talking about science journalism (why isn't it better, what can we do about it). I don't have any answers, but I do have a great example of bad science writing. This was picked up today by Science Daily, a news site for science related news. It's their top headline at the moment and tagged as a geology story.
As you can see, the headlines are an automated feed from the United Press International (UPI). I believe the story is short enough that I can quote the whole thing without violating copyright laws.
ROME, Oct. 13 (UPI) -- Italian scholars in Rome are debating the controversial theory that Sardinia is the lost island of Atlantis, and whether the theory merits further research.
The theory, offered by Italian journalist Sergio Frau, has drawn both international acclaim and criticism, the Italian news agency ANSA said Friday. About 250 academics have dismissed the claim, saying it sensationalizes Sardinia's history.
The thesis received a boost in 2005 during a United Nations-sponsored symposium on the issue, suggesting it merited serious consideration, ANSA said.
The gathering of academics, archaeologists, geologists and historians coincides with the opening of an exhibition on Frau's ideas, outlined in his book "The Pillars of Hercules."
The location of Atlantis -- or whether the fabled sunken continent ever existed -- has never been confirmed, ANSA said.
The story itself is a very close paraphrasing of the first few paragraphs of the ANSA story that the UPI refers to as its source. For comparison purposes, here is the beginning of the ANSA story.
(ANSA) - Rome, October 13 - Top scholars have gathered in Rome this week to discuss the exciting and controversial idea that Sardinia is the lost island of Atlantis.
The theory, developed in a book by the Italian journalist Sergio Frau, has drawn international acclaim but also fuelled heated criticism.
Despite selling 30,000 copies in Italy, a detailed 20-point appeal by 250 academics has dismissed the book, claiming it sensationalizes Sardinian history.
But the theory received a major boost last year, when the United Nations cultural heritage body UNESCO organized a symposium on the issue in Paris, suggesting the idea was worth serious consideration. Academics, archaeologists, geologists and historians from across Italy are now meeting in Rome's Accademia dei Lincei to look at the theory in closer depth and discuss possible paths of future research.
The meeting has also been timed to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Frau's ideas, originally shown in Paris last year. "Atlantika" uses Frau's book, "The Pillars of Hercules", as a springboard for exploring theories and ideas on the legendary island and its whereabouts. Neither the location nor the existence of Atlantis have ever been confirmed.
As you can see, the same points are made in the same order, often using the same, or similar, words.
My point here isn't to accuse an anonymous UPI writer of plagiarizing an anonymous ANSA writer, but rather to point out the laziness that is endemic in much of modern journalism and the source of may complaints about political, medical, and scientific journalism. All three of those areas of journalism have many first rate writers capable of performing detailed analysis and synthesis of information and reporting it in an interesting and informative style. Unfortunately, most of the bulk of reporting is done overworked low-level writers who can do little more than repeat what they have been told and attach a mildly sensational hook to get the readers' attention.
While the UPI story is little more than a paraphrasing of the first few paragraphs of the longer ANSA story, it's very likely that the ANSA story was nothing more than a paraphrasing of a press release issued by the Accademia dei Lincei for the museum exhibition. There is nothing newsworthy about another amateur suggesting another location for Atlantis. Frau's theory isn't even new; almost every inch of land bordering the Mediterranean has been suggested as a location for Atlantis at one time or another. But Frau needs to sell books, the museum needs to sell tickets, ANSA and UPI need to sell news and the result is headlines on a science news site letting us know that scientists have discovered Atlantis.
As to Frau's theory, it doesn't appear to offer anything new. Frau has picked an ancient civilization that left some enigmatic structures behind and figured out how a rereading of Plato might be said to describe this people. The same method has been used to place Atlantis all over Mediterranean basin and in Ireland, Denmark, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, Mississippi, and almost anywhere else you care to mention except Fairbanks, Alaska (no one has ever placed Atlantis in Fairbanks).
Plato was very specific about Atlantis. It existed 9000 years before his time. It was of sub-continental size. It existed beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Its capital was a great port on the edge of a square plain. It had a Bronze Age civilization. It fought a war with Athens. It sank beneath the sea in one night leaving only a muddy shoal to mark its location. No one prior to or contemporary with Plato ever mentioned anything even remotely similar to Atlantis.
Scientists have not located Atlantis for the simple reason that scientists are not looking for Atlantis. The overwhelming belief is that Atlantis was a literary construct of Plato's, created to make a political point that he never got around to making. The closest that most scientists or literary critics get to looking for Atlantis is to suggest that Plato might have used certain real events as inspiration for his fictional creation.
Frau's theory revolves around the location of the Pillars of Hercules.
Frau had his brainwave after seeing a print of two maps of the Mediterranean as it was in the Bronze Age.
One showed Tunisia and Sicily almost touching; the other, of the Straits of Gibraltar, was remarkably similar.
Frau thinks Erathosthenes moved the pillars because in the 120 years between Plato's era and his, the Greek world changed dramatically, and the strait between Sicily and Africa was no longer at the outer reaches of the Empire.
Furthermore, geological shifts and rising sea levels widened the distance between Tunisia and Sicily, contributing to Erathosthenes' mistake and reinforcing it over time.
If you move the Pillars of Hercules, shrink the island by two orders of magnitude, contract the time element to one tenth, say it didn't really sink but just had a bad earthquake, and ignore all of the other elements of the story, then the Nuragic civilization of Late Bronze Age Sardinia fits perfectly. This is the classical method of Atlantis hunters: if everything is different, then everything is the same.
As long as we have Atlantis hunters seeking attention and lazy journalists seeking stories we will be able to count on a steady stream of headlines telling us that "scientists" have found Atlantis. That's probably a good thing because it means I'll have a sure line to easy publicity for my forthcoming book about Fairbanks, mud, and mammoths.