Bad Non-Journalism (Updated!)

This post originally written 28 April 2007 and updated the following week.

I’ve already wasted some of the Universe’s limited supply of ones and zeros writing about bad science journalism. I’ve even looked at one particular case in some detail (and believe me, I’ve got more on the way). Hopping over my various regular stops on the Blagnet this morning, however, I realized that bad journalism can be easier to spot than no journalism at all. In order to fix the system, we need to understand all of its failure modes.

Carl Zimmer writes of a story which should be making the rounds but isn’t:

You may perhaps recall a lot of attention paid to methane from plants back in January 2006. A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute reported in Nature that they had found evidence that plants release huge amounts of the gas—perhaps accounting for ten to thirty percent of all the methane found in the atmosphere.

It’s not hard to imagine why people would get excited about this. Heck, anything which says plants are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is pundit food. “Trees cause more pollution than cars do!” Etc.

Now, the irritating thing about science is that bold claims can be tested, which a team of Dutch researchers have just done. Yesterday, their paper went online at New Phytologist. Tom A. Dueck et al. write the following in their summary:

  • The results of a single publication stating that terrestrial plants emit methane has sparked a discussion in several scientific journals, but an independent test has not yet been performed.
  • Here it is shown, with the use of the stable isotope 13C and a laser-based measuring technique, that there is no evidence for substantial aerobic methane emission by terrestrial plants, maximally 0.3% (0.4 ng g-1 h-1) of the previously published values.
  • Data presented here indicate that the contribution of terrestrial plants to global methane emission is very small at best.
  • Therefore, a revision of carbon sequestration accounting practices based on the earlier reported contribution of methane from terrestrial vegetation is redundant.

So, why isn’t the good news tearing up the network? (Check for yourself: it’s not.) At the very least, this should be a fantastic opportunity for pundits of one faction to fricassee the pundits of the other. Zimmer finds one item of original reporting, in Chemistry World. It’s worth reading to get a sense of the back-and-forth CITOKATE involved in this question. The problem remains: why only one story? And why so little attention paid to the press release? Zimmer has his speculations, to which I can’t add very much.

Perhaps a little blaggregated attention to this story will help it become more visible and push it into the wood-pulp media.

UPDATE (2 May): Zimmer says that he’s seen a few more sites publishing the press release, but only one additional piece of original reporting — in Nature‘s news section (sadly behind a subscription wall). Google News results are here.