Mother Nature Network twists the science to be scary

Here is another site you might wish to mark off your list of clicks: Mother Nature Network (MNN). This is a site that takes science stories and rewrites them, [possibly] getting them wrong in the process. Yesterday, they posted this story:

Massive river of molten iron found flowing between Russia and Canada
A river as hot as the sun’s surface has been flowing beneath our feet — and it’s now moving faster.

The MNN writer adds scary details that misinterpret and sensationalize the original article making it seem like a raging, “scalding” river of doom just under the surface is a signal that the earth’s magnetic field will soon flip. Add the keywords “Russia” and “Canada” and you have one of those read-the-headline-and-gasp stories. If you read the whole thing, you’ll find this mystery mongering:

Here’s where the mystery deepens: Scientists believe the molten river is actually moving faster than it used to, and that its pace is accelerating. Though it’s unclear why this acceleration is taking place, it’s likely signaling major changes in the magnetic field. The flow of iron around the core is part of what generates the magnetic field, and the magnetic field, in turn, affects the flow of the river. The fact that the river is speeding up probably means there’s an imbalance with this intricate dance.

One theory is that the Earth’s magnetic field might be getting ready to flip, with a reversal of the North and South poles.

Nope. We already knew the earth has a molten outer core of iron (and nickel) and that molten parts of the mantle and core flow. A cursory read by the audience of MNN would leave them thinking that a catastrophe is imminent. The MNN piece admits their source was New Scientist magazine who got their information from the actual paper in Nature Geosciences. The New Scientist version was closer to the truth but still contained headers and keywords that probably led the MNN writer to exaggerate. The original research paper titled “An accelerating high-latitude jet in Earth’s core” is much more sober. Here is the abstract:

Observations of the change in Earth’s magnetic field—the secular variation—provide information about the motion of liquid metal within the core that is responsible for the magnetic field’s generation. High-resolution observations from the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellite mission show intense field change at high latitude, localized in a distinctive circular daisy-chain configuration centred on the north geographic pole. Here we show that this feature can be explained by a localized, non-axisymmetric, westward jet of 420 km width on the tangent cylinder, the cylinder of fluid within the core that is aligned with the rotation axis and tangent to the solid inner core. We find that the jet has increased in magnitude by a factor of three over the period 2000–2016 to about 40 km yr−1, and is now much stronger than typical large-scale flows inferred for the core. We suggest that the current accelerating phase may be part of a longer-term fluctuation of the jet causing both eastward and westward movement of magnetic features over historical periods, and may contribute to recent changes in torsional-wave activity and the rotation direction of the inner core.

It’s a curious anomaly that scientists have noted and will need to examine more to see how it fits in with what we know about movement of core material and how this translates to the earth’s magnetic field. Nothing about flipping poles. Nothing about scary rivers of scalding magma.

MNN has many stories that I would qualify as click bait. They say they make their articles “in-depth” and “easy to understand”. But by oversimplifying the scientific research findings, the meaning can change. I strongly suggest, if you find the story compelling, try to find the original article they are referencing or reproducing. Seek out more than one source using keywords. It’s pretty easy to Google.

Hmm… if people are used to reading exaggerated fodder based on a kernel of truth from these clickbaity sites, maybe it’s no wonder they don’t trust the scientists. Since people don’t have access to the journal articles, would not read them and could not really comprehend them anyway due to their technical jargon, and we have fewer good sources of science news to trust, perhaps this, in conjunction with other pressures in society, causes many to really believe that the world is collapsing and the scientists aren’t being straight with us…

It all rolls back to the value of critical thinking skills, which are becoming more scarce.

Thanks to Willy B who messaged me about this “stinker”.

Addition: Sarah Hicks the Managing editor of Mother Nature Network objected to my allegation that MNN stories are clickbait and designed for revenue. She says:

We write quicker files on the site and we also write more in-depth material because our audience likes both kinds of files. I welcome you to check out more of the website than you have so far. Will everything there be Pulitzer-worthy? No. Like you, we run this website with a limited staff that sometimes moves too quickly. But there are plenty of good stories on the site that don’t deserve that kind of broad brush treatment.

Fair enough. So, I edited my comments above. But I also went back and looked at the content and found a considerable number of “listicle” type articles that some people may consider entertaining but such pieces are not generally reliable or newsworthy, consist of anecdotes or factoids, and are an example of “clickbait”. Examples:

  • 10 health-related uses for petroleum jelly
  • 11 healthy things to do between Christmas and New Year’s
  • 5 surprising benefits of going braless
  • 8 of the coldest places in the world to live

and another piece from the author as the molten river story with the same tone:

  • A whole other star is on a crash course with our solar system: The rogue star is headed straight for us and could seriously disrupt the orbits of countless bodies

And a similarly-styled story:

  • Italy’s deadly supervolcano is readying itself for another eruption

They are not winning me over with this fluff stuff.

Out of thousands of posts, I’m certain not all of them are bad, most will be just fine, but not great. Here’s the rub: we all have limited time to read articles so if you are looking for accurate science news, you might wish to choose more reliable sources to maximize your value. Options include going to sources that pull directly from journals:

Or seek out reporting from major outlets like the New York Times, The Guardian or BBC News which are more likely fact-checked, less sensationalized and just as easy to understand. MNN is a world-leading for-profit environmental sustainability, though that does not shine through on their front page. There are no traditional ads, but have a content marketing, sponsorship-oriented model.


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