Friday, March 17, 2017

Propaganda Masquerading as News: The Incredible Shrinking Horse

I recently came across a news story which struck me as a good example of how to mislead people, probably for political purposes, without saying anything that was not actually true. The title was "Watch out: Mammals shrink when Earth heats up, study says." The story reported evidence that, at a period when global temperatures were high, a number of ancient mammals became smaller—by fourteen percent in one case, by four percent in another.

There were two things wrong with the story. The first was the repeated use of the term "shrinking." What it was actually describing was evolutionary change, probably over a period of several million years, but the story never said that. It made it sound as though  animals were actually shrinking, and that is how I would expect a casual reader without much scientific background to read it. How else would you interpret "At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled a bit in size."
At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled in a bit in size

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-03-mammals-earth.html#jCp
At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled in a bit in size

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-03-mammals-earth.html#jCp
At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled in a bit in size

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-03-mammals-earth.html#jCp

The second was the picture that accompanied the story. It shows a modern horse, a Morgan, contrasted with Sifrhippus sandrae. The visual impression is of enormous shrinkage, the modern horse being nearly a hundred times the weight of the ancestral horse. But that is totally irrelevant to the facts being reported, since all of this was happening many millions of years before there were any modern horses.

My conjecture, on which the title of this blog is based, is that the article was designed to mislead, to scare casual readers about the effects of global warming, to make them imagine that it would shrink them by a similar amount. It is possible that I am mistaken, that the author did not care about politics and was merely trying to write a story people would read. Shrinking from the size of a horse to the size of a cat is a much more dramatic story than evolutionary change from the size of a large cat to the size of a medium cat, which is what the story was actually describing.

On either interpretation, I see no plausible way of interpreting the story, in particular the picture, that does not make it a case of deliberately dishonest journalism.

14 Comments:

At 10:24 AM, March 17, 2017, Blogger Kevin said...

This was dredged up 5 years ago as well:

http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/article00195.html

 
At 12:16 PM, March 17, 2017, Blogger Jonathan said...

It does seem misleading, and I don't know why scientists would worry about this phenomenon. If large mammals shrink a bit to keep cool over a period of several million years, people are unlikely to notice, or to care much if they do notice. Will humanity still exist in any recognizable form in several million years? I wouldn't bet on it.

 
At 1:34 PM, March 17, 2017, Anonymous Hazel Meade said...

It's called "Click Bait". It's becoming increasingly common, probably for reasons of economics and human psychology, for websites to attempt to use misleading attention grabbing headlines to entice readers to click and read further. The economics of online journalism seems to demand it give razor thin profit margins and the decline of print media.


 
At 10:29 AM, March 18, 2017, Blogger John C. Webb said...

The value is in the title. Likely, 100 people will glance at the title without reading the article. The title serves to reaffirm the beliefs already held by the reader without any additional scrutiny.

 
At 8:27 PM, March 18, 2017, Blogger Power Child said...

@Hazel Meade:

I've seen lots of people claim Clickbait is becoming increasingly common, or other claims to that effect, but I don't see the evidence.

That Clickbait is common I don't dispute--in fact, I'd say Clickbait is a condensed description of what journalism essentially is, and what separates it from other forms of media. But when was this time when journalism was any different? Ever peruse NYT headlines from 100 years ago? They're at least as outrageous.

 
At 7:41 PM, March 19, 2017, Blogger Joseph said...

There appears to be a correlation between reading clickbait (at least clickbait with "Science" in the title) and taking CAGW seriously.

 
At 7:50 PM, March 19, 2017, Anonymous RKN said...

There were two things wrong with the story. The first was the repeated use of the term "shrinking." What it was actually describing was evolutionary change, probably over a period of several million years, but the story never said that.

Oops: "This latest work shows heating and shrinking are connected over millions of years."

I think the author of the report assumed readers understood that evolution is modulated by environment.

 
At 1:15 PM, March 23, 2017, Blogger Kurt Gödel said...

David, is there any further information I can find on your writings on physics? Did you decide to completely abandon research and loose all interest in physics after your post-doc? Is your PhD thesis published somewhere online?

 
At 4:01 AM, March 26, 2017, Blogger Susan J. said...

thanks for this interesting post. I suppose the title listed with your blog link ("Propaganda Masquerading as News") on your facebook page functioned as clickbait for me - I got to your facebook page because I saw you were fb friends with a friend whose posts I often find interesting, and I wondered whether he was friends with the US ambassador to Israel :-) So now the algorithms-that-be can connect a few more of my dots... sheesh... anyway, thanks!

 
At 12:47 PM, March 26, 2017, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kurt:

My thesis was published in Nuovo Cimento, but I don't know if it's webbed anywhere. I decided I was a better economist than a physicist and more interested in the subject, so pretty much abandoned physics.

 
At 7:38 AM, March 27, 2017, Blogger cbt141 said...

The article clearly states:
"This latest work shows heating and shrinking are connected over millions of years."

 
At 5:07 PM, March 27, 2017, Blogger Power Child said...

Hazel Meade, I wish you would answer my question. I've seen lots of people make some version of the claim "journalism is bad now but was good before" but I've never seen anyone substantiate it.

 
At 4:12 AM, October 22, 2017, Blogger Poldark-Jr said...

Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Perhaps this is worth wider consideration.
I'd suggest this reference for a shorter term environmental effect. I vaguely recall a miniature island deer population demonstrating a reduction in size due to overpopulation or the animal husbandry standard of "carrying capacity" but can't find the citation. My term is "compound misery".

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2390661/

 
At 5:04 AM, October 22, 2017, Blogger Poldark-Jr said...

This may be a duplicate attempt to Edit my original comment which seemed to be "hacked".
Please substitute this citation for my poor memory of dwarf island deer. Thanks

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-08820-2

 

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