Cut That Crane

By Chris Mooney | October 5, 2009 12:58 pm

By Eugenie Samuel Reich

While paging through government science talks some time ago, I came across an amusing use of photo editing by science officials. The picture on the left appears in an April 6th 2006 presentation by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science Deputy Director, Patricia Dehmer. The picture on the right was used to illustrate a December 8th 2005 article on Nature.com. Both show the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) experiment at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in Tennessee. (Before going any further, I ought to disclose that I’m currently suing the DOE under the Freedom of Information Act for an investigation report into inappropriate data manipulation by ORNL scientists – a story I covered for The Boston Globe in 2006.)

800px-Spallation_Neutron_Source_arial02NaturePicture

The cloud formations in the sky look very similar, as if the two pictures were taken within minutes of each other from a slightly different angle by a circling helicopter. So how is it that the orange construction crane has vanished from the government’s version?

DOE’s press office had the answer: “Dr. Dehmer used a retouched photo provided by ORNL that showed a clearer view of the actual SNS buildings … a topic of the presentation.” DOE added that it was proud construction of the site had finished ahead of schedule, and under budget. Of course, faking the absence of a construction crane does make that message clearer.

I dropped the story at the time, but decided to blog about it after I noticed that the retouched photo was uploaded to illustrate the Wikipedia article about the SNS experiment. Dehmer also continues to host the presentation on the government site.

Am I the only one who feels slightly unsettled by the thought of government officials advertising science projects with photoshopped pictures? Or is it all in a day’s work in Washington D.C.?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Comments (23)

  1. Chris Mooney

    I, at least, find this sufficiently bizarre that it is well worth pointing out. It also fits well under the “what were they thinking?!?” category.

  2. Erasmussimo

    Um, I have to say, you seem to have phrased this article the wrong way. The big difference here is the replacement of all those orange dirt roads with green lawns. And I can’t find the crane. The picture on the right has no blowup. Or am I being completely obtuse here?

  3. It certainly would be a problem if done by a photojournalist, or by a scientist in a journal publication where it represented data.

    But would you be equally offended if a PR office (which I presume is the source of this picture) touched up a head shot of a scientist to remove red eye? A stray strand of hair? A pimple? Wrinkles? Isn’t this par for the course with a publicity shot, since long before photoshop?

    I agree that there would have been special desire to emphasize the timely completion. But there would also be a desire to make it look pretty, and a desire to capture the “permanent” aspects of the facility rather than transient features that could be taken to be irrelevant and distracting.

  4. Eugenie Samuel Reich

    If you page through the government presentation, you’ll find the photo was used by the government to indicate that the building work was over. The green lawns were airbrushed in too. I found pictures of how the site really looked linked from the ORNL photoarchive at https://iris.ornl.gov/R/QDQ5SE8RGML9HMNEYQU16JFKYX7U2GCCS31F4GD8X3JE7GKV7T-02772?func=collections&collection_id=2111

  5. JEM

    In terms of photo editing, I’ve seen things that I thought were much more egregious than this. An example would be editing out logos on equipment leaving the impression that it was located somewhere or owned by someone that it was not.

    To me the far more interesting and important story is the one involving scientific misconduct and the FOIA request. From the story it appears that there have been no consequences for what appears to be a pattern of behavior (at the very least a pattern of carelessness, at worst fraud). Unfortunately this does not surprise me. It seems that every year we come ever closer to the prime (perhaps only) scientific virtue being the ability to attract funding.

  6. Eugenie Samuel Reich

    I agree that it seems more serious when a scientist photoshops data than when a funding official uses a photoshopped picture. My question is whether the officials funding science ought to keep to high standards too?
    The photo on the right appears to originate in June 2005, here’s a deep link into the photoarchive.
    https://iris.ornl.gov/R/QDQ5SE8RGML9HMNEYQU16JFKYX7U2GCCS31F4GD8X3JE7GKV7T-08886?func=collections-result&collection_id=1815

  7. Eugenie Samuel Reich
  8. JEM

    Photo – not troubling – Don Monroe has this right. This is not to say that the line is never crossed by DOE.

    Boston Globe Article – troubling – Best of luck with your FOIA request – I think this is very important for science.

  9. Chris Mooney

    Folks,
    Just want to say, for those interested in Eugenie’s FOIA story, she is very welcome to blog on that too!

  10. Eugenie Samuel Reich

    In answer to Don’s question, if I discovered that a press office had airbrushed wrinkles off a scientist I reported on, I would be very amused!

  11. Gaythia

    I think this is a minor, yet significant example of photo editing. As to “What were they thinking?”, I believe they were thinking that having the site look more imposing and more in tune with the surrounding environment would give a positive impression. And anyone aware that they were doing construction work would assume that it had been completed or was having a negligible impact. Just like actors, actresses and politicians thinking that a wrinkle free face will make them look youthful, attractive, vibrant and possibly even more capable, this is designed to affect the audience.

    A more serious question would be, now that we know that this agency uses these methods in relatively minor ways, do we need to search for these techniques in more significant places?

    And, in general, how are we supposed to believe what we think we see?

  12. Marion Delgado

    This sort of thing came up on Deltoid, where Tim Lambert posted about the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change. A commenter posted, correctly, that nuclear-free Denmark was more than twice as efficient in GDP/tonne of carbon emissions as the United States. Which, frankly, it is. This was in the context of mostly-nuclear France being extremely carbon efficient, which everyone already knew.

    Another commenter denounced him vigorously. To make a long story short, the actual result comes from taking the US DOE’s carbon division’s figures (for 2007, since that was the last year the mix of figures was available for) for Denmark and the US and dividing it by the IMF’s GDP for them.

    The person trying to discredit that result was citing, essentially, the public relations branch of the DOE.. In their formulation, the efficiency of the US and of Denmark came out with Denmark not even half again as efficient, just a little bit more. But in normal times, the same agency wouldn’t give conflicting results to the same question.

    What made 2001-early 2009 not normal: for the second result, the carbon was probably roughly the same – the carbon division was specific and the PR branch wasn’t, about sources. But the PR branch was straightforward in a footnote about the GDP in dollars issue – they scrapped it, and the IMF, in favor of a right-wing think-tank’s “carbon equivalents” measure of “efficiency.” They gave GDP not in dollars but their own measure. If you read the footnote, you realized that this was a pretty transparent attempt to game the information given to the public to make the US look better. And given the Bush administration was heavily invested in expanding nuclear power, including as their version of a hydrogen economy, probably to make that look more effective than it really is as well.

  13. Much ado about nothing.

  14. Gaythia

    A cursory glance at the CV of this blog poster, Eugenie Samuel Reich, (by clicking on her name above), reveals that she has much experience with fraud, falsification and other issues. I’d like to learn more about issues more serious than the one she describes here as “an amusing use of photo editing”.

    At the same time, I’d like to ask those above who think that this is “much ado about nothing” or “not troubling”, where exactly they would draw the line. Is there a division between acting with integrity and places where a little waffling is acceptable?

    When should the public have reason to believe that a photo is real?

  15. Gaythia,

    You honestly mean to tell me that removing a crane from a unofficial “official” picture, is cause for serious alarm? Feeling slightly unsettled, as if its some grand government conspiracy, that someone dared remove a crane from a picture, and then some random stranger used it for Wikipedia, is patently absurd.

    I’ll tell you what I think it is … a huge waste of time. Unsettling … get a grip.

  16. JEM

    I see nothing nefarious here in that the picture is in my view somewhat equivalent to an architectural drawing. A picture of building is just a picture of a building – very little information of relevance to the context in which is was presented is conveyed. I guess one could stretch things and imagine a context wherein this change could be misused, but even that is tough; maybe something along the lines of dating the photo and claiming it was complete when it wasn’t.

    When should you question the use of a photo? When it matters of course. When it is used to support extraordinary claims, build support for causes, or claimed to support facts that don’t directly follow from the photo, to name a few. For example, if this building was labelled “biological weapons factory” you might want a little more proof.

    As an aside for Eugenie, It is amusing, but I’d be shocked if some of those you’ve reported on haven’t had their photos doctored. It’s almost a certainty if they have ever gone through their organizations “media relations” folks. After all, scientists and their organizations are still human and retain most of what goes along with that.

  17. Gaythia

    I) I think that our time would be better spent encouraging Eugine Samuel Reich to post on some more serious fraud and misrepresentation issues, about which she seems to be well informed.

    II) I think as a matter of high integrity protocol, the public should have a right to expect that a photograph is an accurate representation of the item depicted.

    The ongoing construction may not have been relevant to the original use of the photo, and a short disclaimer might have sufficed. An architectural drawing might have been a better choice here. The fact that construction was still ongoing, as indicated by more than just the crane may be significant information to some. They may have been ahead of schedule, but not by as much as DOE apparently wanted to imply. Denoting this would also be an aid to those who might want to use such a photo subsequently.

    I do not believe that the above is “cause for serious alarm” , I simply believe that you can’t have standards for integrity under which you say a little bit of dishonesty is ok.

  18. Gaythia

    If the official giving the original presentation wanted to convey a message of how this project was coming in ahead of schedule and on budget, a crane’s eye view, muddy mess and all, would probably have been much more effective!

  19. Gaythia,

    Architectural drawings cost money. Much more money than photoshopping out a crane and making the ground a little bit greener. Besides, I’d bet dollars to donuts that had been the case, we’d be reading “Oh noes! Look at the government waste! Architectural drawings. Why didn’t they just clip the crane from the picture instead? Much cheaper.” The picture is certainly accurate. The building was not erroneously expanded, given an extra wing, or ten more floors.

    All this “the crane was probably important to someone” is a load of crap. Important to whom? Why?

  20. Gaythia

    Why? Because honesty is the best policy. Especially if you want credibility in the future.

    Even if the only consequence here might be about questioning landscaping expenses after the date of the photo, given that the lawn looks perfectly fine as depicted.

    I assume (and would certainly hope) that before they built the building somebody made architectural drawings.

    As I tried to point out in #18, the real photo might have been best.

    And using this photo with a simple disclaimer would suffice.

  21. JEM

    @17

    1) agree I would encourage more posting of the experience in investigating scientific fraud/misrepresenation

    2) since we are beating this dead horse – I wonder if a filter was used to make the sky more beautiful than it would have appeared otherwise? Would it matter? Of course not. It is not without reason that photography is considered an artistic endeavor. The mere act of framing an image is an “editorial/artistic” decision.

    Off topic, but if you are interested, I recommend a trip to bagnewsnotes – they specialize in posting and analyzing news photography. Not something I know much about, but I appreciate their work.

  22. Especially if you want credibility in the future.

    So by cropping a crane from a photo, ORNL suddenly becomes less credible? For reals?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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