The Loom

i-d2346a5ccb9fe9758e8b3f38bb5fccc0-grass.jpgHere’s a story that should be getting lots of press but apparently isn’t: a new study indicates that plants don’t release lots of methane gas.

You may perhaps recall a lot of attention paid to methane from plants back in January 2006. A team of scientists (mostly from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics)reported in Nature that they had found evidence that plants release huge amounts of the gas–perhaps accounting for ten to thirty percent of all the methane found in the atmosphere.

The result was big news for several reasons. It was a surprise just in terms of basic biology–scientists have been studying the gases released by plants for a long time, and so it was surprising that they could have missed such a giant belch. Making the matter of pressing interest was methane’s ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. Suddenly plants became a much bigger player in the global warming game.

Many news outlets covered the paper, and many made a muddle of it. Their wording implied that the scientists were claiming that plants, not humans, might be responsible for the recent rise in the global average temperature. The Max Planck Institute Society released a press release clarifying that plants are not to blame, and the Guardian and National Geographic published corrections.

Some pundits didn’t heed the scientists, though. At Foxnews.com, columnist Steven Milloy declared that deforestation ought to reduce global warming. “Our understanding of global climate system is woefully insufficient to support the rush-to-judgment advocated by celebrity-backed global warming alarmists,” he claimed. The folks from the Wall Street Journal editorial page declared that “this is causing big problems for the tree-huggers.” Rush Limbaugh sarcastically said, “Well, hot damn. God is to blame for global warming.”

Fast-forward eighteen months. A group of Dutch researchers put the Max Planck team’s conclusions to the test by tracing radioactive carbon isotopes through plants. Their conclusion: “There is no evidence for substantial aerobic methane emission by terrestrial plants.”

The paper went online today, published in the journal New Phytologist. (It’s free here.) The publisher sent out a press release, but my search has turned up almost no news coverage. There were three stories that were nothing more than cut-and-paste copies of the press release. I found just one piece of original reporting, at a site called Chemistry World, which I now intend to read regularly. The article casts the new paper as the first in a series of new publications that support both sides of this methane vs no-methane debate.

I do not expect that Rush Limbaugh will bother mentioning this paper. The world of punditry leaves me generally baffled. But as a science writer, I’m disappointed that this paper is not getting reported more in the press. If the original paper was so important that it should go on newswires and appear in newspapers and magazines, then what makes this new one less so?

Two forces are at play here. One is that the huge premium in the science writing world on stories about new ideas. It was such a shock to think that methane was churning out of plants, particularly with global warming becoming such a hot topic. The science writing machine is much worse at follow-up. Does the editorial unconscious say, “Hey, we’ve already written about that. Let’s move on”? Or perhaps it would look bad to say, “Remember that story with the big headline a while back? Well never mind, looks like it may have been wrong.” But ignoring these follow-up papers does a disservice to science. Science is not about single major discoveries, but about the flow of research, of debate and hypothesis-testing.

The other problem dwells, I’d suggest, within the scientific community. I like New Phytologist a lot, but it’s not a high-profile journal. The scientific community tends to present bold new claims in high-profile journals like Nature, while the essential follow-up ends up relegated to more specialized journals that attract less attention. I for one stumbled on this paper by chance. So scientists themselves may be contributing to the distorted view people have of the scientific process.

It’s always possible that I’m mistaken, and that the discovery of the missing methane will bubble up more into the mainstream media in the next few days. Prove me wrong, fellow scribes, and I’ll be happy.

Comments

  1. #1 Ed Yong
    April 27, 2007

    It’s hard to know what the right balance is when it comes to covering papers with contradictory views to big research.

    On the one hand, we might miss out on potentially important papers because of journalistic blind-spots and intellectual snobbery.

    But if more contradictory papers in small journals *are* reported, that may also lead to problems if the papers just aren’t very good. Journalists like to present opposing camps to give a ‘balanced debate’ even if one side is overwhelmingly strong. Much of the public resistance to anthropogenic climate change, the MMR vaccine and many other issues are based on minority viewpoints getting greater airplay.

    I can’t really think of a solution to this short of a massive revamp of the way science journalism is handled.

  2. #2 Carl Zimmer
    April 27, 2007

    Ed–Are papers in “small” journals more likely to be “not very good” than in big ones?

  3. #3 matthew
    April 27, 2007

    thanks for posting about this Carl

  4. #4 JYB
    April 28, 2007

    hmm…sounds like a framing problem.

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 28, 2007

    (1) “Science is not about single major discoveries, but about the flow of research, of debate and hypothesis-testing.”

    I strongly agree.

    (2) “The world of punditry leaves me generally baffled.”

    I am not baffled. I’ve done as many as 30 radio interviews in a given year, and appeared as an “expert” scientist on CBS-TV, NBC-TV, ABC-TV, PBS, and Fox. By my bringing the late Dr. Isaac Asimov on as my “guest of guest” on the NBC-TV Today Show, we were able to frame the relationship between science and science fiction as being important, fun, funny, and punny.

    (3) There are a number of important CH4 issues in public policy, also including methane hydrate on the continental shelf, and burp extinction events.

  6. #6 Ted Slack
    April 28, 2007

    Hmm.
    Your –does it or doesn’t it– piece on plants and methane was most interesting.

    I am a moderately-literate pseudo-intellectual, who reads the way that alcoholics booze. The way Global Whatever is going, I may join them.

    It is my impression that growing, living plants indeed do not emit methane, but on the other hand,decaying plants, as in melting tundra and swamps like the Great Dismal, do.

    Is there any chance you could enlighten me as to whether or not there is any validity to my suspicions? Or point me to what to click on?

    At the moment, I am uncertain as to who is Galileo and who is the Pope. We may not want to wait 500 years for a pardon for the perp. Thanks, Ted Slack

  7. #7 natural cynic
    April 28, 2007

    I am wondering why the original story got beyond the “sniff test” stage. Shouldn’t some skeptic have said that there always has been [at least in recent times] a relatively constant amount of plant biomass? If so, there shouldn’t have been any phytogenic global warming. The only thing that might upset this thinking would be that any possible increase of methane would be due to changes from low methane emitters to high methane emitters [i.e. changes from forests to cereal crops].

    As for pundits, they are more likely to take notice of a two car head-on crash than a two car fender bender. The WSJ eitorial page and Limbaugh are much more likely to grasp at straws that exonerate humankind from its role in GW than to say “uh, about that claim that plants were responsible for GW … never mind”.

  8. #8 romunov
    April 29, 2007

    Someone once followed a bunch of similar news and their follow-ups in the media. If I recall correctly, he came to a conclusion that media just doesn’t do follow-ups.

  9. #9 Library Diva
    April 29, 2007

    Along the same line, I was wondering whatever became of the Garbage Apocalypse. I remember this from junior high (c. 1988-1989), does anyone else? One day really soon, the landfills would all be full and there’d be no place for our trash to go? You don’t hear much about that anymore. The optimistic side of me remembers another factoid from a few years later, that something along the lines of 90% of Americans receycled, and hopes that we headed it off. The more cynical side says that it’s probably been eclipsed by global warming.

  10. #10 Stephen
    April 30, 2007

    I’m old enough to remember that whole phosphates in laundry soap deal. Removing it from detergent was supposed to keep our streams and ponds from clogging with algie. I was probably ten when it was in the news. I remember thinking that if phosphates make plants grow like crazy that it should be great for growing food. That was never mentioned. Not once. There was also no follow up story. What was the result?

    In the mid 80′s, i was at Purdue University. I asked an ag prof about it. He said that they’d told anyone who’d listen that it wasn’t going to make any difference. Detergent was 4 percent or less of the problem. The real problem was agriculture fertilizer runoff, as any ten year old with half a brain could have told you. So, the real issue is the environment vs. cost of food. Most of us will choose to eat, i think.

  11. #11 Timothy Chase
    April 30, 2007

    I will be sure to share this with the people at RealClimate.org – although they will probably pick it up anyway.

    Here is something which may be of interest to your readers who are following climate change…

    Real Climate (“Climate science from climate scientists”) will be going over the international climate change report IPCC AR4 chapter by chapter over the next few weeks. They have just started.

    To find out more about the people behind Real Climate, please see:

    Real Climate – Contributor Bios
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?cat=10

    They are just starting. This looks like an informal minicourse – and it is open to those who are interested…

    Please see:

    RealClimate
    http://www.realclimate.org

    The climate report itself is available for download.

  12. #12 John
    April 30, 2007

    Stephen,

    This is of course pretty far off topic but I felt the need to comment. A big part of the problem here (besides the fact that fields are overfertilized and runoff is insufficiently controlled or more often not controlled) is the fact that most (70 – 75%) acreage on farms is devoted to growing animal feed. We could feed far more people with far less acreage (and this far less fertilizer) if we weren’t so fixated as a culture on eating meat with practically every meal.
    We’d also be healthier if we didn’t consume so much saturated fat but that’s even further off topic.
    I admit I’m part of the problem here but my wife and I are trying to change our eating habits…

  13. #13 Syd
    April 30, 2007

    I have a bone to pick with Stephen. Lets talk about Phosphorus for just a second. The problem of eutrophication was drastically improved when some of these point sources of P were addressed. It only takes more then 0.05 mg/L to cause a problem. Here where I am writing this 50% of the P load in the Red River is coming from Manitoba. Of that 50% only 15% is from ag. Significant yes but not the only player. Human waste is also a problem. It is also the farmers growing high valued veggies that are more likely to pound on the fertilizer as it costs them less for a larger reward. Read some more before you start to spout of stats.

    But back to the article, I agree that coming up with a “negative” result is just as important as a “positive” one but the ones that say there is nothing here are not as sexy.

  14. #14 lindsay
    May 1, 2007

    Thoughts about solving the non-high-profile journal problem- it seems to me that the internet could be a great way for Nature and such “high-profile” journals to publish papers that are follow-ups to papers they’ve published and meet their standards, but they don’t want to waste space in the journal with research that isn’t new or possibly ground-breaking. I envision a column in the journal with short summaries of follow-ups, and “see nature.com for more details.” It’s not a solution to how follow-ups and dissent is handled in the media, but at least it would serve to alert people about contradictory but valid papers, which could only further the cause of ideal science.

  15. #15 Peter Erwin
    May 1, 2007

    A small, ultra-picky correction: the authors of the original paper are (mostly) at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics; the press release came from the Max Planck Society, the parent organization of the various Institutes. (There are about 80 different Max Planck Institutes, not just one.)

  16. #16 John Faughnan
    May 3, 2007

    I don’t recall the original story getting that much play in the rational world. Did the Economist make a big deal of it? Did you write about it?

    I assume the rational world thought it was very odd and unlikely to hold up, but that it was worth investigating further.

    That leaves the whackos like Fox, Limbaugh, etc. I don’t see why you have trouble understanding what they write about. They operate in a non-logic bound world of emotion, faith, and the dopamine hits of alpha-ape eructations. If you think of them as non-sentient primates, it will all make much more sense.

  17. #17 Ian Forrester
    May 4, 2007

    Keppler seems to have his own agenda as to what areas he does research in. Checking out his recent publications he seems to spend a lot of time on “proving” that some environmental pollutants are in fact produced naturally. I’m not surprised that his work did not stand up to critical scrutiny.

    Methane production is limited to a very narrow group of bacteria (the methanogens) which belong in a very ancient group called the Archaebacteria. If plants did have the genetic makeup to make methane then there should be lots of micro-organism between the Archaebacteria and plants which should also be able to. None have been found.

    Ian Forrester

  18. #18 Bryan
    May 17, 2007

    Unfortunately, scientific reporting in the mass media is poor, at best. Aside from inaccuracies, retractions and contradictory evidence are usually not bothered with at all. For example, a study pub’d in 2002 was covered by most major news media in the US & Canada. This showed that recreational doses of ecstasy (MDMA) caused massive amounts of cell death in a particular primate species. Not only was this study carried internationally, but it was explicitly cited by American policy-makers with respect to drug laws.
    Some time later, there was a retraction: turned out the pharma lab had screwed up and put methamphetamine in the container, NOT MDMA. That particular dose of meth has been known to cause widespread cell death in MANY species for some time, so the publishing authors retracted the paper. Of course, the media reporting of that retraction was found in one paper as a by-line on page 14, and never discussed publicly.
    Even telling non-scientifically trained reporters quite explicitly what to say or not to say often goes awry. Again, at a presentation to media, one scientist who had recently reported an association between a particular gene allele and alcohol abuse made it quite clear to those in attendance that this was NOT a gene for alcoholism: anyone who reported as such would be lying, etc. Sure enough, several of those reporters had headlines the next day heralding the discovery of “The Alcoholism Gene.”
    I wish it was better, but even scientific coverage has to improve the bottom line. A contradictory study simply doesn’t have the shock or valence in the general population to arouse editors…