Ask Alan Boyle (science editor for your questions on science in mainstream media

As many Eruptions readers read, the headlines produced by MSNBC for their coverage of the recent Chilean earthquake raised my ire. To me, it represented the sensationalism of the events - but as with all things media-related, there is a lot of opinions on the matter.

We were lucky to have Alan Boyle, science editor for, comment on the fray and he has very kindly offered to take your questions about the coverage of science in the mainstream media. This is a unique opportunity for us to discuss how science is portrayed, the rationale for headlines and generally find out about how the mainstream media tries to give scientific information to the general public. If you have any questions for Mr. Boyle, email me at i-84cc6bc3cf2966742ba05c49f79ef53a-email.jpg. I will select questions to send off to Mr. Boyle and post the answers here on Eruptions.

I look forward to getting your questions! (You might even ask Mr. Boyle about how he survived a volcanic eruption.)

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OK Erik, I'll bite: So, Mr. Boyle, how did you survive a volcanic eruption?

By Barry Abel (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

Please ... call me Alan. Erik is welcome to ask me about the eruption again, but in case you can't wait for me to retell the tale, you can check out this reminiscence about my experience during the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980. I was actually on the other side of Washington state at the time, but it was an interesting few days nevertheless:

I still remember things like Jimmy Carter coming to the region during the aftermath (Spokane Mayor Ron Bair greeted him in a safari jacket, which set off quite a ruckus in the local press)...…

... I didn't actually get to Mount St. Helens until about a year afterward, when I took a helicopter flight over the mountain and felt glad that I wasn't that close to the volcano at the time.

And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can read the paper I worked on after St. Helens blew. I was an assistant city editor at the time, and I'm listed as a member of the "Volcano Squad" on page 9:

By Alan Boyle (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

What a great idea!

Thank you!

(I have often been annoyed over the coverage of the curse of Pele after one takes just a bit of volcanic rock from one of her precious volcanoes.)

I would love to know if Mr. Boyle feels we could postpone a major eruption by a sacrifice to Pele?

Just a little snark!

The Pink Flamingo

This first question is for Erik....I know that modern humans have lived in a relatively quiet time but the earth has experienced many times of heightened geological activity in the past. Why would it not be a valid question to ask if we were possibly heading toward one of those times? Isn't the past usually prologue when it comes to geology?

This second question is for Alan....I was just wondering how many emails you received about that headline?

Thank you both for answering my questions.

@Randall, I answered your question to me under the Chile leads, #115. I didn't know if you had seen it or not.

Thank yous to Alan and Erik for providing us a chance to ask questions and have dialog. This is going to be very interesting!

I've gained the impression from tv documentaries that the times of massive volcanic activity have been associated with periods in earth's history when there have been supercontinents.

Is that the case? And if so, why?

I have two questions:
1) How much interest would there be in a Documentary Series about Geology? Something a little deeper than just Yellowstone, St Helens and the San Andreas over and over. For instance, the 26 "supervolcanoes" in Colorado?

2) Does your network train your broadcasters at all in Disaster Presentation? It seems like every news channel has the same problem, after the first reports are given, confusion, stammering, repeating. Isnt there a canned set of questions and graphics to show for such repeatable events as quakes, crashes, and balloon joy rides?

Diane sorry I fell asleep early last night but I did see your answer the other day. It looks like they have more or less shut the 1872 mining law down since I had my patents back in the 80's and early 90's...too bad I was thinking about trying to patent another one.

@Randall, here in CA they have just about shut down everything! I was hoping Schwartzenegger woudl not sign the dredging bill, but he did. That will affect the econonmy in ways they don't realize and all because one tribe of Indians are worried about THEIR particular river and the salmon! So they shut down all the rivers. It is a major issue here.

There are those in Congress who want to shut down all mining in this country and where do they think they get their gold jewlery from?! Oh, you see, we can buy gold from other countries. Yeah, right! Anyway, I'd better quit now because when I get to talking about this stuff I can get pretty upset.

We can go to a few places where my DH can get to still. I can go where he can't as he is on oxygen now. But that is not going to stop us from going to the river when we can.

If you pattened another mine, where would it be? I think it is still possible, but it would take a lot of rigmarole to get it done. Do you get the California International Mining Journal? DH and I laught at some of the adds in there for "virgin" ground up by LaPorte. Ain't no such thing. He knows some of the guys that post adds in there and they are not to be trusted. You may know who I am talking about.

Diane Yeah they have almost shut us little guys down. I have a little small honey hole I go to up in Roxana Alabama. It is a very small creek that cuts through several large faults. The area with gold only runs for about 200ft and it seems to re-seed itself every year so there must be a small vein close by but I haven't found it yet. I usually get about 1/2 to at most one ounce of gold there each year with about 3 days of running my sluice hard for 8 hours a day. The area is on timber company land and they don't have a problem with panning or using a sluice as long as you don't bother their trees but anything more than that and they will shut you down. Also the area is very hard to reach and all equipment has to be packed in about 4 miles from any road, through thick pines, briars, fallen timber and kudzu. During the summer it is rattlesnake and cottonmouth heaven...I have heard cottonmouths drop off the banks and into the creek I was standing in, looked down and watched them swim past me without even biting. The really weird part about this place is that it isn't in any of the actual Alabama gold belts, with the closest one being about 20 miles away just outside of Dadeville Alabama, it really shouldn't be there but it is;) I also have a spot outside of Rockford Alabama which is also on timber company land but it can easily be accessed from a road so I go there a lot more often. It doesn't produce the quantity of gold that the other does but it has some decent wire gold which make great micromounts. Would you believe that there is a little gold mining shop in Rockford and they don't even have a clue as to where my place is, even though the creek crosses the highway about 3 miles outside of town....this place is also about 5 miles out of the main goldbelt;)

@Randall, don't ever tell them! ;-D

Where we go is to an area that cannot be claimed, but you can dig as long as it is in the river or where the river has flooded to. There is one crevess I like to dig out and each time there is gold in it, but there seems to be less and less. The funny thing is last summer there was a guy with a 2" dredge (before shut down) and he nearly cleaned it out, but he didn't get it all. (grin grin) In that area the is a little hole that is deeper than it looks and it takes a bit to dig out, but every time I have I have at least gotten a flake or two. It is a fun place to dig at because the rock in the area makes a great place to sit and pan. With my feet and legs in the river, I keep cool.

The hydrolic pit gets HOT! It can be 100 there, though most of the the time it is in the 90s, but very little shade anywhere. It is the area that has a lot of white quartz and some kind of hot rock that has a lot of junk in it. I mentioned it before and it looks to me like a lava flow that ran into some river rock and all stuck together. I just may be from a hot mud flow or pyroclastic stuff that hit the gravel like stuff and it all stuck together. I know it will make a metal detector sing sometimes. I have found three different kinds of clay there, too; redish orange, tan, and whiteish. There is gold there and also a caved in tunnel, which I haven't trudged over to. It is hard walking in there.

BTW, a couple of the GoldHounds found a very large rock that didn't move no matter how much the river flooded. It had been there a good while (years)and they decided to detect it. It was full of gold! They had a heck of a time breaking it up and hiking it out. They also found a piece of quartz with a gold wire on it and they got $4500 for it. I got to see it before they sold it. It was really neat. Some of the gold wire can be worth more for specimen value than even jewlery value so watch what you get. It may be worth a lot to somebody who is collecting.

Alan, I feel as though there is not much science in the media unless it is pertaining to something like an earthquake or volcanic eruption. I wish there was more but it seems that whenever it gets out there is a lot of debate. For example, climate change. Do networks purposely put out stories that are going to cause a debate? Also, when it comes to science I personally know that there are many big confusing words that some people may not understand. I think that if networks took some more time to broadcast about science and explain these terms more people would be able to understand what is going on. Any thoughts on that?
I also have a quick question about volcanoes. If the Yellowstone Caldera were to erupt would the effects to the United States be similar to those of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted? Is there any way of predicting when the Yellowstone Caldera may erupt?
Thank you

Hello Alan,
I was just wondering what types of pressures you feel in editing for a source that so many look to in order to form their opinions on current events, especially in the area of the sciences and technology, and how you deal with them?

Hi Alan,
My name is Amy and i'm a college student taking a course on how to write popular science articles. I am just curious about who are the main readers of popular science articles? Are the readers a certain age, gender, or profession? Do popular science writers target a specific reader?

By Amy Hollenkamp (not verified) on 07 Mar 2010 #permalink

Hello Alan,

I am also a college student taking a course on popular science writing and I often find it hard to incorporate everything I read in original research articles because there is a lot of jargon that the popular media probably would not appreciate. What I have learned is that whatever the students find interesting the popular media will also find interesting but I often feel that I am not giving all the necessary information for the subject. Is there any reading strategies that you would suggest for these research articles?

By Samir Gupta (not verified) on 09 Mar 2010 #permalink

My question for Alan:

is the media aware of the role of cognitive biases in altering perceptions of the world?

If so, what role can media play in educating its audience about the effects of, say, the recency bias, in altering perceptions of unrelated events. From that perspective, stringing the Haiti and Chilean earthquakes together into a headline about nature out of control is understandable. It's not science, but it is human nature.

If not, how can 'the media' be 'learned' about such things?

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