May 27 2016

A Tale of Two Science News Reports


One of the recurring themes of this blog, and of the skeptical movement itself, is that science news reporting is generally poor. It is highly variable – there are some excellent science news reporters out there, but most are mediocre and some are terrible. The problem is that the average quality is simply too low.

The problem is compounded by the fact that scientists sometimes overhype or overinterpret their results, but even more common, the press office for the university at which the scientists work often sensationalize the science. At every step there is an opportunity to add hype, misinterpret the actual results, sensationalize, focus on the speculative aspect of the study rather than the actual data, or simply get the story wrong.

The race for clicks seems to be driving the quality of science reporting down, favoring clickbait headlines. Reporters don’t seem to mind getting the story wrong and then being corrected by science bloggers, for then they just get another round of clicks correcting their own bad reporting as if it were someone else’s fault.

Sclerocormus parviceps

Scientists recently discovered an icthyosaur (a large marine reptile) from shortly after the end Permian extinction event about 247 million years ago that saw the end of 94% of all species on Earth. The new species, Sclerocormus parviceps, has some surprising features.

The ichthyosauromorpha clade is characterized by having a long snout, teeth and a tail with big fins. S. parviceps has none of these features. It had no teeth, and so probably ate small invertebrates. This suggests a relatively rapid speciation of ichthyosaurs after the end Permian extinction event.

This makes sense in that the Permian extinction would have left a lot of empty niches in the ecosystem. There would have been a lot of selective pressure on surviving species to fill these empty niches. The same was true for the birds and mammals that survived the K-T extinction event about 66 million years ago.

S. parviceps is a basal ichthyosaur, occurring near the origin of this clade. What this new find suggests is that within a million years after the extinction, ichthyosaurs radiated into many forms, with only a few surviving and becoming the “typical” form of the clade. This suggests a more rapid adaptive radiation for the clade than previous fossil evidence suggested.

The authors give this summary:

It now appears that ichthyosauriforms evolved rapidly within the first one million years of their evolution, in the Spathian (Early Triassic), and their true diversity has yet to be fully uncovered. Early ichthyosauromorphs quickly became extinct near the Early-Middle Triassic boundary, during the last large environmental perturbation after the end-Permian extinction involving redox fluctuations, sea level changes and volcanism. Marine reptile faunas shifted from ichthyosauromorph-dominated to sauropterygian-dominated composition after the perturbation.

Science Reporting

The story has been widely reported in science and general new outlets. Here is an example from the Guardian. They do a great job. They link to the original study, they put the study into a reasonable context, and provide good quotes from actual scientists. The headline: New fossil find points to rapid evolution of marine reptiles after mass extinction, is also a reasonable summary of the science.

Now let’s take a look at the reporting of the same story from University Herald. Trouble starts right with the headline: Newly Discovered Dinosaur Fossil Challenges Darwin’s Theory of Evolution; Marine Reptiles Evolved More Quickly.

S. parviceps is not a dinosaur, and this new find does not challenge “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.” Further, the statement that marine reptiles evolved more quickly is vague; more quickly than what?

The reporter, Mariel Peralta, links to the Guardian story, so she had the information. This is also not all on the headline writer. She writes:

The Sclerocormus parviceps fossil is an important piece of evidence as marine reptile fossils after the mass extinction era are rare, according to dinosaur experts, Discovery News noted. Furthermore, it challenges Charles Darwin’s Evolution theory where species are supposed to evolve gradually over time. However, the fossil evidence seems to say otherwise.

Do you think the discovery of the Sclerocormus parviceps fossil challenges Darwin’s theory of evolution? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

She makes the dinosaur mistake plus introduces the idea that this fossil challenges Darwin somehow. The reporting is so bad that I suspected the outlet was a creationist front, but that does not seem to be the case (or it is just well concealed).

She also writes:

Furthermore, scientists were amazed at the 1.6-metre length of the dinosaur as it appeared just after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 250 years ago. This refutes the previous belief that ichthyosaurs and their relatives evolved very quickly. The new fossil dates back to the period after the mass extinction where a majority of terrestrial and marine dinosaurs were wiped off the face of the Earth.

Wow. First, this was 247 million years ago, not 250 years ago. S. parivecep was not a dinosaur, and this was not the extinction that killed the dinosaurs. It’s a different extinction – I suspect the writer is not aware that there was more than one extinction event in the past. Further, the study shows that ichthyosaurs evolved quickly, it does not refute that belief.

In short, this is a horrible hack job of science reporting that mangles all the basic facts and focuses on a fictitious implication of the research that seems to have been invented by the reporter to generate click bait. Peralta should not be reporting science news.

And this is an example of a big problem for science journalism. There is an erosion of specialist science journalists and editors, and so we have more generalist reporters doing science news, with these types of results.

16 responses so far

16 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Science News Reports”

  1. DS1000 says:

    The University Herald may not be a creationist front, but at a minimum the author is. There’s just no way to she fit the “evolutionists got it wrong” narrative so well by accident.

  2. WalterW says:

    The University Herald is a news aggregator site. It doesn’t do actual reporting but rewrites news stories from other outlets. There is a big leap between it and something like the Guardian, so your argument is flawed.

    I think there are many problems with science reporting, but there are also problems with skeptics unable to distinguish between media outlets. There is no “mainstream media” — there are thousands of media outlets, some good, many mediocre, some bad. You are not helping advance the cause of fixing science reporting if you are unable to make that distinction.

  3. Kawarthajon says:

    Here’s another “science gem” from the same website. OMG, it is atrociously written – almost comically so:

  4. Average Joe says:

    Dr N, to WalterW’s point, there’s a huge difference between news aggregators and legacy publishers.
    If you were to dig a little, you’d find a Mariel Mae Peralta LinkedIn page who is from the Philippines and a freelance writer between jobs. Fits well as the author of the U Herald piece.
    I’d wager that a good chunk of news aggregator writers are out sourced from the Philippines.

  5. BBBlue says:

    This is why The Drudge Report is my only source for information. It is the only source for truth, justice, and the American way.

  6. Of course there is a difference in quality. That is my point. I’m not even sure what your point is or how it relates to my article.

    I do think that the lines between news aggregators and news sites is completely blurred. As in this example, the site rewrites their news stories, or pulls article from freelance writers. They are not just aggregating news. A lot of sites do this combination. And many of these news stories are fed through Facebook or other true aggregators and people just see the news item, they don’t necessarily go to the source to find the news.

    As I said in the opening paragraph, “It is highly variable – there are some excellent science news reporters out there, but most are mediocre and some are terrible.” And now it is all jumbled together through multiple layers of aggregators on the internet.

    Further, not all the terrible science news reporting comes from Philippino freelancers. That is just this one example I am using. There is plenty of terrible reporting on legacy media outlets.

  7. BBBlue says:

    Sounds like an opportunity for someone to develop a site that aggregates stories which deconstruct bad science reporting on current topics in popular media. Or is someone already doing that?

  8. Average Joe says:

    You singled out the author so I thought some context for her would be appropriate. The way I interpret this story is that a freelancer was paid x amount per word to regurgitate a story, by her track record, 4 stories per day for the U Herald as specified by her contract with an online writing service. Having the title of reporter is generous. Anyway, by writing articles that generate clicks she may earn additional monies or contracts. So if that’s the motivation, then using some hook about Darwin was wrong seems easy enough next step. That possibility she is Filipino freelance writer is where an interesting story about the evolution of online news aggregators may be. She could be wondering why her writing is attracting attention.
    My point is the news aggregator was easily identified as such; I assumed that such sites are generally viewed as not reliable. Maybe I’m wrong. If the source of this story was an online college newspaper, would you make a distinction and deem it just noise on the internet?

    I do not assert that the majority of people who see stories on Facebook or other aggregators 1) assume they are true 2) do not look at the source.

  9. Average Joe says:

    If you were to characterize my comments as me trying to tell you how to write your blogs, then go ahead, prolly not wrong. So take my advice and enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. You blog trolls can wait

  10. Average Joe says:


  11. BillyJoe7 says:

    Come on Joe, you’re starting to sound as whiny as Walter.

    My only slight criticism of SNs post would be that his headline should have been “A Tale of Two Science News Reporters”, and that he should have given credit to Nicola Davis herself rather than just the newspapaer in which her article appears. This would have put the focus on the reporters – Nicola Davis as an example of an “excellent science news reporter”, and Mariel Peralta as an example of a “terrible” science news reporter.

    But the post gets across what SN intended, so really what’s the problem?

  12. Average Joe says:

    Yeah, I too figured out I was sounding whiny.
    My problem… not worth trying to defend anymore. But It feels to me the blog post is making a mountain out of a mole hill. I don’t disagree that the mole hill is there but I’m not behind effort of the take down. When I sunk my teeth into it, I tasted more sizzle than steak. But this ain’t my pissing ground and only SN reserves the right to choose topics.

  13. BillyJoe7 says:

    Well, yeah, there are topics I would like to see covered here, and topics covered here in which I don’t have much interest (though not many!), but it isn’t my blog and I can’t see any point about complaining. In fact I think it’s a stupid to complain. It’s not a lecture series or a teaching program – though check out the side bar! It’s SN talking about topics he’s interested in. If your interests don’t coincide, you are free to look elsewhere. But, if you’re saying that sience news reporting is not a big issue for science, then I would beg to differ.

  14. Average Joe says:

    Nah, I don’t disagree with issues with science news reporting. I’m using a metric bar of my own reference which is my issue.

  15. ccbowers says:

    BTW it is “Filipino”(the adjective and name of the language often referred to as Togalog) and “Phillipines” (the shortened name for the country).

    I mention this spelling difference not to be pedantic, but because I forgot the specific reasons for the different spellings and bothered to look it up. The “F” spelling came when the Spanish named the islands after Philip (Felipe) II in the 1500s, and the later “Ph” spelling of the country came after Spain gave up control of the islands to the United States. The “F” used in Spanish became the “Ph” used in English for the equivalent name, Filipe and Philip, respectively.

    To top it off, the languages of the islands we now call the Philippines did not really use the “F” sound before the Spanish named it, so the naming of the country and its people was to one that could not be easily pronounced by those people. Typically, “F” sounds are pronouced as “P” sounds to an English speaker.

  16. ccbowers says:


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