And the dumbest headline of the week goes to …

By Phil Plait | February 22, 2007 10:50 am

CBS!

This is in reference to the announcement yesterday that astronomers have been able to identify molecules in the atmospheres of two planets orbiting other stars. This is an important step in being able to find organic molecules in other planets, but is hardly "possible life"!

There is no attribution to the article, so I don’t know who wrote it. In general, the headline is written by an editor and not the article author. The article is attributed to the Associated Press and no doubt the headline was written buy a web editor at CBS.

Tip o’ the editor’s transparent green visor to Kullat Nunu for find this gem.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Debunking, Humor, Piece of mind

Comments (37)

  1. Sigh.

    You can always cheer up by hearing what Conservapedia has to say about the Moon:

    The Moon is currently receding from the Earth at less than 6 inches per year. The Moon could never have been closer than about 150,000 miles or it would have been broken up by tidal forces. If the rate of recession is assumed to have averaged about 6 inches per year, the Moon’s present distance of about 250,000 miles implies a young age for the Moon of no more than one billion years. Under the non-creationist claim that the Moon somehow broke away from the Earth, the Moon’s rate of recession must have been faster in the past, and thus the Moon would have been only 150,000 miles from the Earth far more recently than one billion years ago. This contradicts the claim of non-creationists that the Moon and Earth are somehow several billions of years old.

    Oh, yes, and this is quite nice too:

    Our solar system is one of the few that has only one sun. Only one sun and only one moon: this uniqueness may reflect the existence of only one God.

    That sound you hear is my brain, boggling.

  2. Eric

    With all the hat tipping, it’s no wonder you’re bald!

  3. dhtroy

    What’s the saying? Something akin to: “A sure sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere, is that none of it is communicating with us”

    Now, for something OT, I thought up a good headline for the whole Britney Spears thing:

    Britney! Hair today, gone tomorrow!

    HA! I kill me.

  4. ABR

    Perhaps this headline was brought to us by the same people who are busily editing Conservapedia for content? This would certainly be a good topic for the Law of Mass Conversation.

    Blake Stacey…thanks for pointing out the moon entry. I especially liked the part about the cheese.

  5. Melusine

    I’d like to see a tree somewhere – that would warrant “life.”

    Blake, I haven’t been following this Conservapedia deal too closely, but right now someone edited it as ABR pointed out:

    The Moon orbits the Earth. While the Moon is entirely made of cheese, the Earth only contains small fragments of cheese, which are thought to have been knocked free from the Moon when a very heavy cow tried to jump over it, missed, and crashed, sending cheddar debris hurdling toward the Earth. Perhaps God will elucidate His reasons for this some day.

    Obviously, this is a joke, and was edited, but what’s the serious part? The second part you quote:

    Our solar system is one of the few that has only one sun. Only one sun and only one moon: this uniqueness may reflect the existence of only one God

    That just can’t be for real. One moon in our solar system? Is there only one planet, too? :-) ) Sounds like sound and fury not to waste my time reading about…

  6. Rand

    Wow…

    … just wow.

  7. Quiet_Desperation

    Oh noes! Not molecules! We’re doomed! :-o

    >>> There is no attribution to the article, so I don’t know who wrote it.

    I’m starting to think there are crude AI programs that churn these things out over at AP and Reuters and other services. Journalism as a respectable profession or even an art is dead, dead, dead. Mention the term “follow up question” to a young reporter these days and their eyes glaze over.

  8. Was this a Katie Couric story?

  9. One of the good things about the MediaWiki software is that if you have a bit of patience and an archeological temperament, you can find the original author of curious statements. The page history makes clear that the creationist nonsense I quoted came directly from Andrew Schlafly, the project instigator.

    I’d find more silliness for you, but all the attention Conservapedia has gotten thanks to being ScienceBlogged (SciBled?) is making their site impossibly slow. Over half the hits they’ve ever received happened yesterday, for crying out loud.

  10. Irishman

    Melusine, the one Moon thing was poorly worded to express their intent. They want to emphasize the uniqueness of Earth in having one large moon that thereby stabilizes the oscillations and thus the climate. The claim is that an Earth without the Moon would wobble more and therefore life would be far more precarious.

  11. Melusine

    Blake, I see that now. And the “cheese entry” has already been reverted (I do know how Wikipedia editing works, because I see vandalism on Wikipedia all the time).

    I definitely need a spaceship…it’s not want anymore. There are too many psychos running around on Earth. (-8~

  12. Crux Australis

    How the hell does “conservapedia” make such claims as “The cause of the bulge on the Moon to lock in its rotation remains a mystery to those who reject design” and “[the] deficiency of iron on the Moon disproved the primary theory that the Moon must have originated by breaking off from the Earth” and “There is no plausible non-creation theory of origin for the Moon at this time”?! I agree with Blake…mind boggling.

  13. Space Cadet

    Does the announcement that we need a United Nations effort to divert the asteroid that has a 1 in 45,000 chance of hitting us on April 13, 2036 get special mention? Hey, 1 in 45,000 is a lot better than the odds of winning a lottery. I think it’s important that the UN handle this kind of catastrophy. They’re the ones who had the wisdom to put Lybia in charge of their Human Rights Commission. And isn’t their new General Secretary’s name is Moon? Coincidence? I wonder.

    Also: I always thought we were the only solar system, since the only star we call Sol is the one around which we orbit. Is this a Large S or Small S thing? I’m confused, as usual.

  14. dhtroy, wait a little while. I have something on that as well. :)

  15. Tim G

    dhtroy,

    Britney Shears!

    (Now we’re getting way off topic)

  16. Chip

    Over the years and into the present, I have noticed in various science stories reported in TV news outlets and cable channel documentaries two consistent and prominent errors:

    1. Assumption that “organic molecules” implies living things.
    2. Reference to a solar system as a “galaxy”.

    I know there’s more, but these two seem to reoccur periodically.

  17. I would have thought the “UN responsible for asteroid” (paraphrase) would have been a sillier story to poke fun at:

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/space/02/19/asteroid.deflector.reut/index.html

  18. Melusine
  19. skeptigirl

    Reporters don’t know the difference between virus and bacteria, between substantial evidence and someone’s wild speculation, between controversy and not really controversial, so why should we expect them to know the difference between an organic molecule and an organism? [sigh..]

  20. skeptigirl

    I bet between us there are a lot more we could come up with besides mine and Chip’s examples.

    Just sticking to the concrete examples:
    virus and bacteria
    galaxy and solar system
    organic molecules and organisms

    Anyone else?

  21. Michael

    Space Cadet: I’m by no means an astronomer or anything, but I always thought it was an “S” / “s” distinction. There is only one Solar System (which is the Sol system?), but there are many solar systems.

    Of course, NASA decided to use the term “sol” to describe a Martian day which I also think is silly, considering that the days of most big roundish objects within a few hundred AU (at least) of us are determined by the apparent position of Sol in the local sky. Besides, isn’t “sol” in this sense short for “solar day” (24 hours), as opposed to sidereal day (23:56)? “I’ve been on-planet for 10 sols” makes sense, but restricting such use to the planet Mars does not.

    That actually makes me wonder: if you’re on a Jovian or Saturniun (sp?) moon at a point in orbit where the Sun is opposite the parent planet, would “night” or “day” be brighter?

  22. Kullat Nunu

    Tip o’ the editor’s transparent green visor to Kullat Nunu for find this gem.

    I confess: I fetched the link from Greg Laughlin’s systemic blog entry (http://oklo.org/?p=191).

    Anyone interested in exoplanets should visit that blog. He’s a professional astronomer studying them, so he knows what he’s writing about.

    And, if you’ve got some spare time, you can spend it by searching for real extrasolar planets. The software required is available on the site.

  23. Kaptain K

    “I definitely need a spaceship…it’s not want anymore. There are too many psychos running around on Earth.”

    Beam me up Scotty. There’s no intelligent life on this planet!

  24. Irishman

    Melusine, on wiki anyone can edit, but all history is retained, and a revert can easily be done.

    Regarding astronomy category terms, there has always been an issue making generic names. The Solar System gets genericized to a solar system, which really should be a star system, but somehow that comes of as “science fictiony”. Galaxy is apparently the same – Galaxy means Milky Way.

  25. Chris Reed

    As a former copy editor, I used to compile instances like this into a weekly message to my fellow editors called “Copy Editor Nightmares.” …. but all it really is comes down to lazy headline writing.

    I saw this once in a while, and can tell you exactly how this happens… A copy editor, perhaps worried about deadlines, reads no more than the first paragraph

    This link has some other great, and funny, examples:
    http://www.forwardgarden.com/forward/406.html

  26. Melusine

    Melusine, on wiki anyone can edit, but all history is retained, and a revert can easily be done.

    Irishman, I don’t know why my message disappeared up there, but I was basically repeating the same thing, which is that I know how Wikipedia edits are done, the discussions, how to look at the history, yada, yada. And believe me, poor lead (as in Pb) and Benedict Arnold have been vandalized and fixed within minutes. Anyway, looking at this again:

    Our solar system is one of the few that has only one sun. Only one sun and only one moon: this uniqueness may reflect the existence of only one God.

    That is just not how I would word a sentence even if I believed such a loony (ha ha) thing. That’s what editing for. So, it’s either biased idiocy or parody, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s real – but Andrew Schlafly is real in life is unfortunately real.

    I noticed that conservapedia looks to me like: conservative + vapid + encyclopedia. But I’m afraid JR Keller will lob a rocket this way if it seems like I’m denigrating conservatives. :-)

  27. Melusine

    That’s what editing is for. So, it’s either biased idiocy or parody, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s real – but Andrew Schlafly is real in life, unfortunatley

    Error corrections. Chris Reed…funny:

    “Enraged cow injures farmer with ax”

    Gotta watch out for those ax-wielding cows – they can get quite mad.
    (-8~

  28. Stuart

    Melusine:
    Gotta watch out for those ax-wielding cows – they can get quite mad.

    Yeah, they’re a real headache. And there’re hordes of them. Plus, the rewards for killing them are really not worth the effort.

    For all the work you have to do to get to the Secret Cow Level, it simply isn’t worth it.

  29. Stuart

    BTW, why would anybody need an encyclopedia with a specific and open political bias? Is this to “balance” the Liberal Bias that pervades the Mainstream Media, Wikipedia, and Reality?

  30. Melusine

    Stuart Says:

    Melusine:
    Gotta watch out for those ax-wielding cows – they can get quite mad.

    Yeah, they’re a real headache. And there’re hordes of them. Plus, the rewards for killing them are really not worth the effort.

    For all the work you have to do to get to the Secret Cow Level, it simply isn’t worth it.

    Secret Cow Level? Liberal bias? Stuart, with all due respect, are you familiar with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?

    Moo.

  31. Gary Ansorge

    Kaptain K:” Au contraire, Scotty, the intelligent life has been Blogging with the BA.”

    We need a big moon to keep earth from tipping over?

    Gee, I guess that means that MArs will become VERY wobbly soon, as it has two little, tiny moons that can’t possible have a significant effect on its inclination,,,

    I believe it was Adolph Hitler that said, ” Tell a big enough lie, loud enough and long enough and everyone will believe it,,,”

    I guess that explains the creationist non sense,,,

    Gary 7

  32. Ken G

    My main beef with that headline is, what would the headline be if they detect the signature of molecular oxygen? (Which isn’t an organic molecule!) In 30 years, when O2 is seen, they’ll use the same headline (but mean it), and people will think “that’s old hat– I saw the same headline 30 years ago. This is news?”

  33. Gary Ansorge

    Blake: That figure of 150,000 miles is wrong as well. Roches Limit is five planatary diameters, as I recall, so that should read,”,,,40,000 miles,,,” not 150,000.

    GAry 7

  34. RZ

    skeptigirl:

    astronomy/astrology

  35. Ken G

    Gary:
    Wikipedia has it at more like 2.5 radii, not 5 diameters, so we’re talking maybe 15,000 km, not 150,000 miles. I think the fools added a zero and changed units. Hey, it sure makes their point, though don’t it?

  36. Stuart

    Melusine: That got a giggle out of me, thanks.

    The Secret Cow Level is a hidden level in the game Diablo II. It contains lots of bipedal cows, with axes. Pole-axes, to be specific.

    And “Reality has a liberal bias” is a classic Stephen Colbert line.

    On the other hand, maybe BSE would explain why nobody understands me. :-)

  37. Stuart

    Gary Ansorge: I did read somewhere reputable that the Moon does exert a moderating influence on the seasons, by reducing the wobble in Earth’s retation. Without that, life would be more difficult on Earth.

    I’m guessing someone read that, understood none of it, and exaggerated the whole story for ideological purposes.

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