4 Viral Science News Stories The Media Totally Screwed Up
As much as we all love a good science story, sometimes the media just gets it all wrong. Science is often complicated, covering a complicated thing in the right way is often difficult, and are difficult things truly worth doing? Answer: Hell no. And yet we've demonstrated that the media keeps right on trying, time after time after time. So ... let's demonstrate that again, shall we? (Listen, coming up with a whole new topic is difficult. You know how we feel about difficult things. We've discussed this.)
Those "I Made A Bot Watch X" Stories Were Never Meant To Be "Scientific"
Tech journalists cannot stop freaking the hell out whenever they see one of those "I had a bot watch X" tweets.
These are mostly thanks to Keaton Patti, a comedian who has made bots watch everything from Family Feud to TED talks to commercials for Olive Garden, after which he tells them to produce scripts replicating what they've seen. The results are often hilarious gibberish, because them computers think they people when they clearly ain't even word correctly. One little problem: The whole thing is horseshit. (People posting things on social media that aren't true in order to go viral? Say it ain't so!)
As neutral net researcher Janelle Shane explains, this isn't how bots work. For one, "forcing" a bot to watch endless hours of television won't result in a written script -- it'll produce video. After all, to echo the words of our friends in the human centipede community, you get back what you put in. We can forgive a human writing in the stage directions after the fact, but this is like asking a Roomba to scooch around your kitchen for a few hours and then demanding it build you a new one.
If you want to know how a real bot-written script reads, here's a hint: It doesn't make any goddamn sense.
Also, as Gizmodo pointed out, there likely aren't "1,000 hours" of this stuff to pull from in the first place. There are only nine Saw movies, for instance, and Olive Garden certainly hasn't made over 120,000 30-second commercials. Also, one of the scripts includes the work "fuck," which, unless we've missed the most hardcore Olive Garden commercial in history, kind of throws the whole endeavor into question.
We Really Shouldn't Have To Explain Why "Dimming The Sun" Is Not A Practical Proposal
Hey, remember that scene in every disaster movie in which the lead scientist announces that the world is on the brink of destruction, and then everyone goes on coffee break for the next few hours? No? Well, that's pretty much the situation we're in right now with global warming. We've tried nothing, we're all out of ideas, and there's nothing left for us to do except take up scuba diving.
But wait! Didn't some scientists recently suggest that we could stop global warming by dimming the sun? That sounds ... extremely stupid, but let's give it the benefit of the doubt! The heating system in our home has a thermostat, which means (according to the laws of transitive property) that our home planet must have a thermostat too. Why didn't we think of this sooner?
Possibly because it is stupid baby logic that has no basis in reality.
These headlines were in response to a paper by Wake Smith and Gernot Wagner in Environmental Research Letters, which examined the capabilities and costs of solar geoengineering -- basically, the idea that dumping a shitload of particles into the upper atmosphere would deflect enough sunlight to stave off Armageddon for a little bit longer. It's a concept that scientists have been kicking around since the 1970s, so Smith and Wagner weren't exactly off their meds by covering it.
If they'd read the paper, however, the media might have seen that while solar geoengineering is theoretically possible, implementing any such plan would require us to disperse those particles 4,000 times a year ... using an aircraft which, as of writing, doesn't exist ... for a total cost of $2.25 billion a year ... over the next 15 years. It's theoretically possible, yes, but so is our revolutionary theory that we could stop global warming by plugging every smokestack in the world with a comedically large banana.
There Were No Sonic Attacks On The Cuban Embassy
In 2016, American embassy personnel in Havana began suffering a variety of "concussion-like" neurological conditions, possibly because they'd been attacked by sonic weaponry.
While sonic weapons are definitely a real thing, the idea that they're being used to secretly bump off embassy workers isn't supported by any of those ... whaddya call those things? Oh right, facts. As neuroscientist/journalist R. Douglas Fields explains, sonic weapons are hard to conceal, and even harder to focus on single targets -- especially ones inside a building.
The injuries don't appear to have been caused by an audible noise, either, because A) local residents haven't been affected, B) someone would have reported a noise loud enough to damage people's brains, and C) when the Associated Press published a cellphone recording of the sonic "attack," people quickly identified the noise as, uh, crickets. Oh god, the commies have weaponized crickets!
Although the media was quick to pin these shenanigans on the Cubans, the Chinese, and/or the Russians, there's no evidence for it -- nor any logical reason that nations with advanced brain-melting tech would waste it on some bureaucrats when they could target Congress or the White House.
The GOP Didn't Block The CDC From Using Certain Words In Its Reports
In 2017, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had outright banned the CDC from using several words in any official reports: "diversity," "entitlement," "evidence-based," "fetus," "science-based," "transgender," and "vulnerable." Media outlets like CNN and The Guardian swung into action and called out the government -- not just for attempting to stifle discussions about these topics, but also for trying to erase the topics entirely.
As Vox pointed out, though, this wasn't a blanket ban on using those terms. The "ban" only extended as far as documents relating to the agency's then-upcoming budget request. That's because the agency's budget (and sadly, the whole country) is currently in the thrall of a bunch of angry old folks who rage-urinate every time they see blue.
The sad fact of the matter is that the CDC wasn't forbidden from using those words by the Trump administration, but self-censoring those terms because Republicans would rather defund an entire federal agency than look at the word "fetus." And they weren't doing it to screw anyone who deviated from the Bible Belt Default Character Selection Tool, but to continue helping marginalized groups despite being currently governed by people who make their political decisions based on bumper stickers.
Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook, and has a newsletter dedicated to depressing history facts. It's not as heartbreakingly sad as it sounds, promise!
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