When journalists get science wrong

guthrie

paradox generator
Registered Senior Member
Prompted by another thread, I ask you all to post your best/ worst examples of journalists getting science wrong.

I remember a few years ago, reading a newspaper article, a business section puff of fuel cells, and they said fuel cells worked like batteries. No they f***** dont. In a battery, you have some chemicals, and get electricity out. In a fuel cell, you put chemicals in, in a continous throughput (mostly) and get reactants and electricity out. The key is that the battery keeps the reactants inside it, the fuel cell uses external ones. So a fuel cell is closer to an engine really. I remmeber about 4 1/2 years ago someone else in the same newspaper hashed up a report on fuel cells in an even worse manner, so I wrote to him complaining and saying how he was wrong. He wrote back asking who I was and why I knew it and stuff, but i'd just done my 4th year degree project on fuel cells, so I knew a fair bit. He never wrote back again, probably not interested in some newly graduated person.
 
I remember one where they were discussing a new "bug" that scientists had engineered could consume petroleum products, potentially to clean up oil spills. It was a bacterium that had been genetically engineered to eat process the oil. The writer basically translated "bug" into "insect" and the story came out about a new insect that was created by scientists.
 
My father is a PhD scientist working on fuel cells, he calls them batteries, too.
 
Naw, hes wrong. batteries store energy, fuel cells give it out after a reaction takes place inside them.
Anyone got any decent stories? There must be a few, I've forgotten a couple over the years.
 
My point is if an accomplished scientist with over 30 years of experience also calls a fuel cell a hydrogen battery, then that newspaper article was not "getting science wrong".

quote:
batteries store energy, fuel cells give it out after a reaction takes place inside them.

Um, fuel cells store energy, and batteries give energy out after a reaction takes place inside them, so what's the difference? Fuel cells on spaceships store all their energy inside, and rechargeable batteries rely on external sources of energy, so what's the difference?
 
No, fuel cells take in fuel, eg hydrogen and oxygen, convert it into waste, ie water, and take out some of the energy from that reaction, ie electricity. Like a car engine. You wouldnt call that a battery would you? It takes in reactants, gives out waste products, heat and energy to turn the crankshaft. The key is that a battery has all its reactants inside it already, it is a closed system, except for its output. A fuel cell you have to put something in before you can get anything out.
Sure, rechargeables need recharging, but in doing so they store the energy. Fuel cells dont, they give it out. What do fuel cells on spaceships store? I think there are one or two around that are sealed, and that would make them like a battery, but the vast majority of fuel cell systems, are used like generators or car engines. Theres been quite a few set ups installed as alternative power supplies for places like hospitals, for when the mains goes down.

Whilst its a fair point about someone with experience calling a fuel cell a battery, therefore why expect a journalist to get it right, I am getting somewhat pernickety.
 
I'm trying to think of some specific stories to offer to this thread since my rant is partially responsible for the thread.

However, right now all I have to say is that everything I've read posted on this site from The Observer is complete crap. It's as if they had ADD when they were conducting the interview so they story is a hodge podge of facts that don't make a coherent whole.
 
guthrie,
I found out the reason for his calling it a battery. It is actually a new design for a battery that uses similar principles as a fuel cell, but is rechargable with hydrogen. The hydrogen in this case is not delivered from a tank, but electrochemically "infused" into a matrix, the exact composition of which will have to remain secret.
 
journalists rarely, if ever, get it right. i can't stand the fact that there even is science reporting. worse is when people who should know better quote it or base an entire argument entirely on a newspaper article about a single study.
 
"It is actually a new design for a battery that uses similar principles as a fuel cell, but is rechargable with hydrogen. The hydrogen in this case is not delivered from a tank, but electrochemically "infused" into a matrix, the exact composition of which will have to remain secret."
OK, Ill let him off then. ;)
The matix sounds cool. Is it good enough at holding H or H2 to be used in cars? If it is, then we're cooking with gas for transportation.

About journalists and science, I have heard it said that one reason "scientific american" is better than "New Scientist" is that it uses articles written by the actual scientists, whereas New scientist is written by science journalists, often with related qualifications, but are journos nonetheless. Anyone else heard that?
 
SwedishFish said:
journalists rarely, if ever, get it right. i can't stand the fact that there even is science reporting. worse is when people who should know better quote it or base an entire argument entirely on a newspaper article about a single study.

I couldn't agree more. My pet peeve is threads starting with articles from The Observer. On the journalistic integrity scale, it's right up there with Weekly World News and The Enquirer.
 
I used to work with a bunch of Astronomers, after one of them made a discovery, the local press turned up to interview him. The bimbo reporter's first question? "Is is astronomy or astrology?". Then the article came out, and it didnt even make grammatical sense let alone scientific sense. It said one of our satellites had discovered an object previously discovered by another satellite (Huh?). NO! Our satellite had discovered an object that was missed by a satellite that cost 10x more, that was the frikking point!
 
SwedishFish said:
journalists rarely, if ever, get it right. i can't stand the fact that there even is science reporting. worse is when people who should know better quote it or base an entire argument entirely on a newspaper article about a single study.
Quoted for truth.

My submission is anything related to anything nuclear. Be it power production, research, or weapons, journalists (and other strains of attention whores) have never failed to demonize the power of the atom. It's unfortunate because we're a lot worse off for it these days.
 
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