A Lot Of Things Happen While You're Riding A Swan Boat

By Carl Zimmer | July 20, 2009 11:38 am

swanride220good.jpgI spent the past week riding swan boats, roller coasters, and horse-drawn carriages. Every time I come back from a vacation, there’s a lot of catching up to do, but I was struck this time around by just how absolutely hopeless it has become to go back and review all the information that piled up while I was gone. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to answer all the questions from editors who puzzled over my inscrutable articles while I was gone. I’ll probably be able to get back to everyone who have been helping arrange talks for the fall. But I probably won’t be able to wade through all the press releases that showed up, or the tables of contents from new issues of scientific journals. Facebook? Twitter? I’ll just have to pretend the past week never happened. The Internet never takes a vacation, I’m discovering.

This morning I’m updating a few posts on the Loom to take into account a few interesting developments that happened last week:

1. The disappearing news remains disappeared.  On July 10, I described how a wretched article about sex seemingly vanished from a newspaper’s archives after blogger/columnist/gadfly Ben Goldacre showed just how wretched it was. Goldacre now tells us that on July 13 the Telegraph published a very odd correction:

Owing to an editing error, our report “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists” (June 23) wrongly stated that research presented at the recent BPS conference by Sophia Shaw found that women who drink alcohol are more likely to be raped. In fact, the research found the opposite. We apologise for our error. 

Wow. Speaking from my own experience, I can say it’s bad enough to have a newspaper run a correction on an article of mine for a misspelled name or a figure with an extra zero tacked on the end. But turning around the result of a study to its precise opposite–that’s truly embarrassing.

It is good that the Telegraph posted a correction. It’s odd that it took three weeks for them to do so, though–especially since Goldacre nailed them in the Guardian back on July 4, interviewing Sophie Shaw to show how wrong the article was. I have to agree with Goldacre that the correction, as stark as it is, actually only scratches the surface of all that was wrong with the story. At least, I think it does. I can’t actually read the original article on the Telegraph web site. As I blogged pre-swan-ride, the Telegraph had yanked the story, although they hadn’t yanked the title from its search engine results. (Screen grab) Now you can’t even find the title. So now the newspaper has published a correction to a story that, on the Internet at least, no longer exists.

I think that newspapers should not follow this example if they want to thrive in the 21st century. Newspapers will have to find ways to distinguish themselves from other sources of information online. While they may have to set aside some of the traditional defining features (like ink), there are many things that will translate well into the future. One of them is a clear, reliable paper trail. But to preserve that trail, newspapers will have to resist the urge to hit the delete key.

2. Firefly Folk: Last month I wrote a piece about sex and death among fireflies in the New York Times. I got an email from the folksinger Christine Lavin, explaining how the article inspired her to write a song, “A Firefly’s Life,” which will appear on her next album. I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting a few lines from the song (she sent me a recording of the song, but I don’t know if it’s kosher for me to post that too…):

There’s 2,000 species of fireflies
That have been discovered so far
You can tell by the pattern of our blinky butts
Exactly what species we are
There’s Pyractomena Angulata
Photinus Ignatus
And my my gang Photinus Greeni
I’m a flirty Photi girl waiting for
that special flashy fun guy

Greeni and fun guy do indeed rhyme.

3. Synthetic Biology Meets Big Oil: In January I wrote an article for Yale Environment 360 about getting fuel from engineered microbes instead of the ground. Advocates for synthetic biology-derived fuel claim that it will be better for the environment than ordinary gasoline, although, as I reported, there’s very little research on that question and there are good reasons to be concerned (such as the impact of sugar farming on water). One of the people I interviewed was human genome pioneer Craig Venter, who was leading an effort to grow fuel-rich algae. Last week Venter’s Synthetic Genomics entered into a major deal with Exxon potentially worth $600 million to develop these sun-loving bugs.

This deal is, of course, no guarantee that synthbio fuels will scale up as hoped, or that they will have be an environmental panacea. And it’s worth bearing in mind that other petro-giants like Shell and British Petroleum also made a lot of noise about getting into the business of alternative energy, only to drop out in recent months. So the news is not a development in itself, but just another item to track.

4. Link Love For Science Tattoos: Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish took note of the science tattoo emporium while I was gone, which triggered a tsunami of email from scientists, grad students, and science afficianadoes aficionados, all showing off tattoos of their own. August 6 will be the two-year anniversary of my initial call for science tattoos, and there seems to be no sign of the response ending soon.


Comments (4)

  1. Dennis

    [stickler] –Carl, better get that black ink out one more time; ’tis spelled ‘afficionado’, so it is, aye, to be sure [/stickler]

  2. Dennis–Thanks. Fixed. It’s so weird that the word lost an f on its way from Latin affectio- through Spanish to English. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aficionado

  3. Bruce

    Mmmm, Storyland. Hope you were able to avoid the Conway traffic.

  4. I was shocked by that case of the disappearing news – I’m a subscriber to Bad Science so I came across it before… I completely agree – a newspaper blog should still follow the rules that a newspaper has to – like a clear paper trail (possibly adding in features like a link to the retraction, or the retraction printed at the top). The whole thing feels like 1984.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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