Monday, June 21, 2010

Let Me Count The Ways

the MSM can get science wrong. I've been feeling fairly crabby lately because of the technical subjects in the news that reporters can't be bothered to understand. This one is so egregious, I have to work it over in detail.
Abnormal radiation was detected near the inter-Korean border days after North Korea claimed last month to have achieved a nuclear technology breakthrough, South Korea's Science Ministry said Monday.
The article, as happens so often in the MSM, treats radiation as a thing, somehow separate from the matter that must be present to emit the radiation.
The ministry said it failed to find the cause of the radiation but ruled out a possible underground nuclear test by North Korea. It cited no evidence of a strong earthquake that must follow an atomic explosion.
Actually, the cause of the radiation appears to have been found. Three paragraphs down:
On May 15, however, the atmospheric concentration of xenon - an inert gas released after a nuclear explosion or radioactive leakage from a nuclear power plant - on the South Korean side of the inter-Korean border was found to be eight times higher than normal, according to South Korea's Science Ministry.
Presumably this xenon was one of its radioactive isotopes, which are formed by fission. I say "presumably" because nowhere in the article is the connection between the xenon and the radiation it emits made explicit. However, the connection between North Korea's highly ambiguous claim of achieving nuclear fusion is made explicit in the article. The problem with this is that radioactive xenon isotopes are not a product of nuclear fusion. The one way they might be connected would be through a test of a boosted fission device. But the article says that no earthquake was detected, so no underground explosive test was done.

In somewhat better news, the New York Times today has a shockingly competent article on the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon rig. The Washington Post continues its metanarrative (and easier reporting target) of the lobbyists that the various companies involved in that disaster are acquiring.

I'm working on a longer post on the subject of science illiteracy, but it may not see the light of day. Even I have a limit to the crabbiness I am willing to inflict on our readers.

Update: Here's part of the problem. The reporters and editors don't know that they don't know.

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