When volcanoes are overblown

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Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of geosciences

Here’s what happened: Late last year, a scientific journal published a paper on a magma surge at Yellowstone. Sounds scary, right? Sure, volcanoes are scary.

There was a lot of sophisticated monitoring going on, and the hard science didn’t indicate a looming disaster. But, if you were listening to the media, you got quite a different picture.

Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist and assistant professor of geosciences, pays attention to such things. He keeps track of volcanic activity—and media activity—on his blog, “Eruptions.” It’s a fascinating site—chock full of facts and stats, but it’s also incredibly readable.

And, for Klemetti, credibility counts. He called one sensationalized CNN report, “one of the worst interviews about Yellowstone I’ve ever seen,” and wondered aloud why they would ask a physicist, rather than a volcanologist or a geologist, for predictions. The resulting interview was predictable: doom, gloom, boom.

Mt. Baker in the North Cascades of Washington State received the same sort of treatment in February. Soon after the media caught wind of a scientific journal publication about Mt. Baker, some reporters goaded the public into thinking that the volcano was “overdue.”

Klemetti once again kept his cool. Always wary of hype, the volcanologist first did his own research. And then posted on his blog that the media sensationalism about Mt. Baker was “a lot like a game of ‘telephone,’ where the message becomes convoluted along the way.”

Klemetti’s blog is an effective tool in the fight against media sensationalism. Originally launched in 2008, it allows geology pros and amateur enthusiasts to swap scientific insights, and it gets more than 150,000 visits a month—even more when a potential natural disaster steals the headlines. For instance, at the height of the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull in May 2010, “Eruptions” got 700,000 visits.

During that event, Klemetti and his group of “citizen scientists,” many of whom were merely geology enthusiasts with limited official training, updated their blogs with legitimate facts faster than the media did. The real-time speed of blogging allowed the readers to make constant updates.

Still, despite the easy availability of factual information on sites like Klemetti’s, hype often reigns in the international press, so, on numerous occasions, he has criticized the media for “taking something benign and focusing on the negative aspects,” such as their exaggerations of the Mt. Baker and Yellowstone situations.

Good news, though. Recently, MSNBC picked up on Klemetti’s attempts to combat sensationalism. MSNBC.com science editor Alan Boyle offered to take questions from Klemetti’s readers about the scientific media and clarify the facts. Klemetti’s readers sent him questions that Boyle responded to on the blog.

Klemetti gave credit where it was due—with a caveat. “The media is paying attention to people who are trying to be reasonable,” he said, noting at the same time, however, that these are for-profit companies with a specific agenda.

Klemetti has now turned first-year students in his FYS 102 course on to blogging as well. Students post entries about what they learn in class—the grooming process for a new generation of citizen scientists, perhaps?

Outside observers certainly seem to approve. As one anonymous commenter observed: “I have been looking through the class contributions and enjoyed ALL of them.”

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5:49 PM February 16, 2012

KELSE wrote:

You look exactly like my Science Teacher!

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2:29 AM March 13, 2011

Henrik wrote:

A very good effort indeed; clear, concise, factual and (with possibly the exception of the colloquialism “sure” instead of “certainly”, although arguments can be made for its retention) excellent and economic use of language to convey the opinions of the authour in a polite and convincing manner.

Henrik Lovén (MA Eng linguistics)

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