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When Good Science Gets Badly Communicated

February 4, 2015

Last week provides a cautionary tale of what happens when a string of miscommunications turns good science into bad journalism.

MIT Study Could Deflate Hopes For Coal Plant Carbon Capture And Storage reads the January 30 headline from Forbes. The story states: “a leading university reveals that the earth’s belly can’t stomach as much carbon dioxide as previously thought.”

This is serious stuff. The earth’s belly is suffering from CO2-induced indigestion. Coal plant sequestration hopes are deflated- just like the other “big” story of last week involving New England Patriots’ footballs.

Who would have guessed? Well, probably not the editors at Royal Society Publishing. They published Mechanisms for Trapping Geologically Sequestered Carbon Dioxide, the scholarly article from MIT researchers Yossi Cohen and Daniel Rothman that stands at the center of the controversy.

The journal article is a thoughtful piece that uses computer models to simulate how CO2 is turned to a solid through mineralization, a process that can take thousands of years. The MIT researchers suggest that mineralization process may trap some of the CO2, converting only a small amount of it into a solid mineral. The rest stays either trapped in its original form or dissolved in water.

The Cohen/Rothman journal article makes no claims about the CO2 leaking up to the surface. Not one. It never mentions coal plants. Here’s the only opinion the journal article offers about CCS: “The sequestration of CO2 in geological formations is widely considered to be an important approach for mitigating the rise of atmospheric CO2 levels.”

So how did this seemingly innocuous article turn into warnings about CCS? Here’s a surprise. It’s not really the journalist’s fault. The blame rests squarely on the MIT communications team in charge of publicizing the Cohen/Rothman paper and also with the MIT researchers themselves.

MIT’s web release publicizing the Cohen/Rothman article begins with the headline, “Sequestration on Shaky Ground.” But it gets worse. The web site shows a seemingly lifelike graphic of CO2 bubbling up from a rock face, presumably heading toward the earth’s surface.

I can only guess at the chain of miscommunication within MIT that led to this headline and graphic. But I suspect it went like this: the MIT communications team, seeking to find a way to explain the paper to a lay audience, gets a quote from Dr. Cohen that then appears in the release. “If it turns into rock, it’s stable and will remain there permanently. However, if it stays in its gaseous or liquid phase, it remains mobile and it can possibly return back to the atmosphere.” Not exactly damning, but with work, the MIT communications team can make it more sensational.

And soon after, a misleading web release about “Sequestration on Shaky Ground,” complete with a very misleading graphic, appears on MIT’s web site ready to lure otherwise innocent journalists into writing stories about the death of CCS, the problems with coal plants, and even the earth’s belly.

Now, CATF contacted Dr. Rothman, pointing out how the MIT release would likely be misused. He and Dr. Cohen did post a clarification, which is reproduced below:

Postscript to “Mechanisms for mechanical trapping of geologically sequestered carbon dioxide,” Proceedings of the Royal Society A 20140853 (2015).

To aid the interested lay reader, we provide the following clarifications:

  • Our paper addresses the long time scales associated with the conversion of CO2 to solid minerals.
  • We show how this mineralization process can act to trap unmineralized CO2 and prevent its further mineralization.
  • The ultimate fate of the unmineralized CO2 is an unresolved question that is not addressed in our paper.

The problem of course, is that neither the “clarification” nor the web release accurately describes the significance of the journal article. It’s definitely not about leakage, as my colleague Bruce Hill describes in the accompanying technical response.

But as a result of the bad MIT web posting, countless thousands of people are reading stories about how this study shows “sequestration on shaky ground,” including policy makers who must figure out how to address global warming.

The damage from such misleading stories is real. It harms public understanding of an important tool in combatting climate change, and it may outweigh whatever scientific worth the original journal article has.

And the damage from such misleading articles isn’t confined to CCS. It hurts all scientists’ credibility too. Last week the news also featured a PEW poll that concluded, among other things, that scientists are viewed slightly more negatively than five years ago.

So what lessons should we draw from this cautionary tale? When researchers choose to communicate their work to a lay audience, they need to spend as much time “getting the lay story right” as they did getting the calculations right in the actual journal article. That didn’t happen here.

If the MIT communications team is toasting the fact that Forbes picked up their web story, they should put their glasses down. Maybe that looks good to MIT donors. But this story is no cause for celebration. It’s an embarrassment. It’s damaging. It’s a disservice to journalism and to science.

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