Press Releases

Universities love to release press releases when scientists get a paper published. Unfortunately they usually have the press release written by their PR folk, typically English Majors!

Why is this bad? Mostly because typical English majors stay as far away from science classes as they can. As a result, press releases written by them have tendency to mislead readers. Case in point, today a press release was put out by University of Alberta informing the public that researchers there had shown that "Mobile Animals Could Have Evolved Much Earlier Than Previously Thought."

So far, so good... but then the lead paragraph went on to say:
A University of Alberta-led research team has discovered that billions of years before life evolved in the oceans, thin layers of microbial matter in shallow water produced enough oxygen to support tiny, mobile life forms.

Now forgive me for being picky but how can microbial matter exist billions of years before life evolved? Isn't microbial matter alive? That's rhetorical---microbes are indeed alive.

Now in the actual article, Possible evolution of mobile animals in association with microbial mats, written by scientists and published online in N Geoscience (May 15, 2011), the language is a little more accurate:
Complex animals first evolved during the Ediacaran period, between 635 and 542 million years ago, when the oceans were just becoming fully oxygenated. In situ fossils of the mobile forms of these animals are associated with microbial sedimentary structures and the animal’s trace fossils generally were formed parallel to the surface of the seabed, at or below the sediment–water interface. This evidence suggests the earliest mobile animals inhabited settings with high microbial populations, and may have mined microbially bound sediments for food resources.

The science article isn't as pithy as Brian Murphy's press release, Life gets a little older, but it's a lot less idiotic. And I like that. They really need to have intelligent people look over those publicity blurbs before they're released to the press.


Jan said…
On behalf of English majors, may I suggest that press releases are more often written by journalism majors. These are people who like to read and write but can do neither.
kenju said…
Jan is right! They want it to fit the space, and to hell with the truth.
srp said…
Well, my daughter is both and English and Science (geology) major and has a masters in meteorology and is working on her doctorate in earth science. She writes well and recognizes that writing for the English department and for a scientific publication is totally different. The English major... and the fact that in the elementary school she went to... not public... they taught the third graders the correct way to write a term paper... from references to outlines to first drafts to final drafts to summaries....all of this has helped her in the concise writing she has to do in science.

Personally, I think it speaks volumes about the state of public education and the lack of parental involvement in children's education when most universities now have to offer "remedial reading and math" courses for the entering Freshmen. If you can't read by the time you are ready for college... you really shouldn't be there.

OK... that's my soap box for the day.

utenzi said…
I've been hanging out at the lab, my house, and my girlfriend Carrie's place, Roxanne. Not much posting even on Facebook and nothing here on Utenzi for 3 months. Facebook really changed blogging.

What gets me about the PR piece isn't the writing, it's the thinking. How could anyone say that life started billions of years before life started? That's just setting up an infinite regression.
Tommy said…
nifty little blog!
kenju said…
Are you ever coming back? YOu aren't on FB much either.

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