Boy Corrects NASA. Man bites dog. Science journalism fails.

In yet another international whoops for science journalism, a fantastic hoax has been spread around the globe thanks to Agence France-Presse getting their foot royally wedged in their mouth.

According to AFP, and parrotted around the world:

A 13-year-old German schoolboy corrected Nasa’s estimates on the chances of an asteroid colliding with the Earth, a German newspaper reported on Tuesday, after spotting the boffins had miscalculated.

Nico Marquardt used telescopic findings from the Institute of Astrophysics in Potsdam to calculate that there is a one-in-450 chance that the Apophis asteroid will collide with Earth, the Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten reported.

Nasa had previously estimated the chances at only one in 45 000, but told its sister organisation, the European Space Agency, that the young whizz kid had got it right.

Here’s NASA’s press release refuting the stupid story. And here’s a blogger who actually bothered to contact NASA’s NEO department, and the German scientist mentioned in the article. Yet again, the international press leaps at your typical ‘man bites dog’ story with gay abandon and a wanton disregard for the facts. Since when did it become ‘journalism’ to simply take whatever Reuters or Associated Press or AFP spits out of their papermill and repeate it verbatim as if you actually did some work? And how does a journalistic giant like AFP spew out such a pile of garbage without checking the facts themselves? Not a single person along this sad, sad trail of journalistic failure bothered to contact anyone involved, until the blogosphere up and schooled them yet again. 

I just have two words for every paper that perpetuated this ridiculous piece: EPIC FAIL.


10 Responses to “Boy Corrects NASA. Man bites dog. Science journalism fails.”

  1. Con-Tester Says:

    In similar news, the Afrikaans paper Rapport pitches a woofest of perpetual motion malarkey:

    19/04/2008 10:47 – (SA)
    Power crisis’ end in sight – and it’s free!
    Marthinus Koekemoer

    An irrigation engineer is busy designing a generator that runs on water and can supply free energy.

    Mr André de Beer was, like many South Africans, tired of power interruptions and decided to make a plan.

    “As an irrigation engineer I work with pumps and water systems,” says de Beer. “I have seen many turbine generators but I wanted to design a model that can reuse the water and is thus self-sustaining.”

    Put simply, the apparatus produces electricity when water from an overhead tank drives a turbine. Some of the power is used to run a pump to propel the water back to the tank.

    About 5 kW of power is delivered after the pump is powered. This is sufficient for an average home.

    “The system sounds fairly simple but there are so many variables that must be considered,” says de Beer. “The drop [vertical length] of the pipe, the pressure of the water and the volume all play a role.”

    The generator stands a metre high and is also about the same in length. It weighs just over 50 kg, is mounted on wheels and can be pushed around like a wheelbarrow, although it should be as near as possible to the water tank for optimal use.

    The cost per generator is anticipated at between R15,000 and R20,000, while a water tank costs around R5,000.

    “The initial cost is high but thereafter the electricity that is produced is completely free,” says de Beer. “Other generators consume fuel and on top of that are noisy too.”

    He hopes soon also to design a device that will generate power from a house’s [water] taps. This should be able to supply enough power for smaller household appliances.

    For more information phone de Beer on 082 824 3318 or 072 199 1738.

    André de Beer and Danie Krugel should get together. Maybe together they’ll be able to find a big fat hairy clue with De Beer’s contraption powering Krugel’s.

  2. Maybe Marthinus Koekemoer is related to Vernon Koekemoer.

  3. Unlikely. Vernon has credibility.

  4. Ah! But the media is mostly about entertainment now anyway. Any story is a good story if it sells. Few people care about the facts anymore, just whether or not it’s a good story. Look at Fox News. The story itself was certainly a good one, although just a fable.

  5. Con-Tester Says:

    It seems that every so often one can still bump into the occasional reporter with a head decently full of brains. Pity they’re in the minority, though.

  6. Anonamiss Says:

    But this one was true:

    “Is fifth-grader Kenton Stufflebeam smarter than the Smithsonian? The 11-year-old boy, who lives in Allegan but attends Alamo Elementary School near Kalamazoo, went with his family during winter break to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

    Since it opened in 1981, millions of people have paraded past the museum’s Tower of Time, a display involving prehistoric time. Not one visitor had reported anything amiss with the exhibit until Kenton noticed that a notation, in bold lettering, identified the Precambrian as an era.

    Kenton knew that was wrong. His fifth-grade teacher, John Chapman, had nearly made the same mistake in a classroom earth-science lesson before catching himself.”

  7. Science journalists are the bottom feeders of journalism. Most of them, judging from my first-hand experiences, know next to nothing about science, and are not strong enough writers or reporters to compete for the more lucrative jobs, usually in the hard news, celebrity, or gossip segments. And, again if my first-hands are any indication, they are paid next to nothing.

    By an industry that is itself struggling to pay itself, in part thanks to the blogosphere, its distribution of free content, and its theft of much of the media’s advertising market. Which reduces a reporter’s, or an editor’s, job to selecting which of the various press releases that fill up the email inbox will do least damage to the Nielsen ratings. Any actual investigation of the veracity of what’s in that press release typically, these days, costs more than the media source can afford – or what its accountants will let it pay for.

    The blogosphere does allow an individual to check the truth of a story. It only remains to train people to use that ability properly. And keep the moguls from shutting it down.

  8. I saw this story kicking about on Digg and I thought it stunk then. Honestly, quite apart from anything else, a 1 in 450 chance of hitting the Earth? Those are the kind of odds to spark panic.

    Anyway, I’m a scientist myself so I know how worthless reporting is these days; this story just confirms my prejudice.


  9. schrodingersgoldfish Says:

    There has been some discussion about the perpetual motion thing at Skeptic SA, as well as my own, and also at

    While the international media often falls for this type of crap, our local papers and shows like Carte Blanche really seem to be particularly bad at separating truth from fiction. While the Observer actually had the integrity to apologize for their Danie Krugel blunder, Rapport and Carte Blanche will probably never do the same. Every week, I make a point of sending Carte Blanche a story proposal about Danie Krugel, but so far not even a reply. Same goes for Rapport and the perpetual motion crap: I’ve sent a letter to two different editors, but so far no reply.

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