Fox News: volcanic coal kills off dinosaurs before they even evolved

A post by Chris RowanTwitter can be cruel sometimes. Without it, I never would have come across (via user @DoubleBeam) this aneurysm-inducing travesty on the Fox News website. I’ve italicised sentences of particular ‘interest’ in the first three paragraphs.

Cataclysm That Killed Dinos Still Taking Lives Today

Coal from China’s Xuan Wei County, widely used for cooking and heating, may contribute to unusually high rates of lung cancer among women in the region.

The tremendous volcanic eruption thought to be responsible for Earth’s largest mass extinction which killed more than 70 percent of plants and dinosaurs walking the planet 250 million years ago is still taking lives today.

Scientists investigating the high incidence of lung cancer in China’s Xuan Wei County in Yunnan Province conclude that the problem lies with the coal residents use to heat their homes. That coal was formed by the same 250-million-year-old giant volcanic eruption termed a supervolcano that was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. The high silica content of that coal is interacting with volatile organic matter in the soil to cause the unusually high rates of lung cancer.

That’s right. In just that second highlighted sentence, Fox News tells its readers that:

  • The dinosaurs were made extinct before they actually evolved (in reality they radiated after the Permian extinction killed off the mammal-like reptiles that were the dominant large land animals at the time0.

  • Volcanos erupt coal (if you read later in the article, this might just be clumsy wording – but I’m not sure that makes it any better).

My browsing of the various science news feeds indicates that the Fox News story was probably adapted from this press release. Compare the first sentence (my emphasis again) to the second paragraph of the Fox piece:

The volcanic eruptions thought responsible for Earth’s largest mass extinction — which killed more than 70 percent of plants and animals 250 million years ago — is still taking lives today.

So, the Fox reporter replaced ‘animals’ with ‘dinosaurs’. Because all extinct animals are dinosaurs, right?
Seriously, if you’re planning to actually expand on a press release for your story – a laudable aim, in principle – perhaps it might be best to fact-check your additions. I’d prefer churnalism to gratuitous insertion of wrong. On a more positive note, Alexis Madrigal wrote up what is actually quite an interesting story properly for Wired. It can be done, allowing us to ponder the actual point of the story – the potential impact of long-ago geological events on human health today – without having to grind our teeth to do so.
Update: The Volcanism Blog is also understandably perturbed about this story, and has a bit more on the actual research behind it.

Categories: general science, public science, ranting, science education

Comments (24)

  1. Bob O'H says:

    perhaps it might be best to fact-check your additions.

    Or at least get someone competent to do the changes.
    I suspect this is all part of the Right’s continuing war on science – they’re trying to kill off the scientists through exposure to Stupid.

  2. Ericb says:

    Be grateful for small favors, at least they didn’t “teach the controversy” and say that some people think the world is only 6000 years old.

  3. J-Dog says:

    It’s what you can expect from FAUX News – “Wrong and Unbalanced”.

  4. Stephen says:

    This article is as accurate as their political “reporting”, so this is consistent with their journalistic “standards” (AFAIK).

  5. BrianR says:

    [sigh] So good and so bad at the same time. I saw Wired’s story on it yesterday and was skeptical at first, but Alexis did a good job of presenting the uncertainties of the hypothesis.

  6. Chris Rowan says:

    That’s the really sad part, isn’t it? We could be talking about weird Permian geochemistry, and whether flood basalt-induced acid rain could dissolve silicate rocks, as is being proposed; instead, we’re talking about bad science reporting.

  7. zhaphod says:

    Fox reporters think Earth is more than 6000years old? That is a shocker.

  8. geodoc says:

    Laughable Fox story aside, the research really is interesting stuff- thanks Chris.

  9. Julia says:

    I’ve spent a significant amount of my teaching career trying to show people how not all extinct things are dinosaurs (and not all dinosaurs are extinct…), and articles like this kind of pull the rug out from underneath me!
    But as you said, the Stupid has dazzled us so much with its intensity that we’re not talking about the actual research.

  10. You know, when I saw your post I realized that I must have just glazed over anything FOX News had to say about volcanoes and dinosaurs. I think what FOX left out was the time machines the volcanoes employed to kill off the future dinosaurs.

  11. Andrew Alden says:

    Another error in the story is that the VOCs supposedly interacting with the silica dust in the coal is “in the soil,” whereas it’s in the coal.
    And yet this whole story got lots of exposure because of its weepy hook: the cataclysm of ancient times reverberates today! The cycle of death is eternal! Some creative people found juice in this story, and I suppose we should be grateful that synergetic carcinogenesis AND authigenic silicification during coalification can be slipped into the media stream in any guise.

  12. MadScientist says:

    Volcanoes erupt coal? Damn, I just wasted the past year rebuilding an instrument to detect fine quartz particles and sulfur dioxide in the air. I’ll have to do my calculations all over again but using coal this time around.

  13. Nemo says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to know the difference between 65 and 250 million years ago, but I thought everyone knew by now (whether it’s true or not) that it was an asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs; so, even coming from Fox, this error surprises me.

  14. Mary says:

    All the news sources suffer from this affliction. It’s not a matter of right vs left – it’s just “gerbalism” at work. We don’t educate our students, they become journalists of all flavors and misreport many issues from science to the economy to the local news. The criticisms are valid – let’s not bury them with ideological biases.

  15. Doug C. says:

    The function of commercial media outlets is to sell advertising to generate profits for owners and or stockholders. Volcanic eruptions that kill dinosaurs 250 mllion years ago and residents of China today sure sounds like a good way to generate web-traffic, and would also be a very good “Hook” to keep someone tuned in for that next commercial on the broadcast side. It is not about journalism or accuracy, it is about advertising dollars!Another reason to listen to public radio…

  16. Mel says:

    @Nemo, there are still scientists who place more weight on volcanism for the dinosaurs (and also plenty of scientists who think impacts could have played a role in the Permian extinction). Plus it’s never a good idea to assume the average non-scientist knows something scientific, even when it’s about dinosaurs.

  17. Jason says:

    The entire article is based on a scientific study here: http://pubs.acs.org/stoken/presspac/presspac/full/10.1021/es902033j?cookieSet=1. Where does the writer get the idea that dinosaurs went extinct 250 million years ago?
    Looks like the writer tried to connect the dots. The study claims a volcanic eruption caused a mass extinction in the area:
    “and the late Permian atmosphere was considerably richer in CO2 and other acidic gases on account of the massive Siberian Trap Volcanism which is thought to have been a major contributing cause of the mass extinction at the PTB”
    Likely the writer had another source citing an eruption of that volcano 250 million years ago. Put the two together and you see how the writer made the (wrong) connection. Sloppy to be sure.
    But the writer is not guilty of the second accusation, he/she did not claim that the volcano erupted coal. They said that the eruption formed the coal. That conclusion is formed from the published study which said:
    “This creates the fascinating prospect that the environmental conditions that resulted in the extinction event may have produced particularly toxic coal chemistry that is affecting the people using it today.”
    So the accusation that Fox News suggested that the volcano erupted coal is just as wrong as Fox News was in referring to extinction 250 million years ago.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says:

    Expect the Fox Noise story to be updated later, once Rupert M decides whether killing off the dinosaurs was a Bad Thing or a Good Thing – after which it will be attributed respectively to Obama or Reagan.

  19. Jules says:

    Some of FauxNews fans and Creation Museum supporters will probably demand that the article be revised to reflect a young earth history and insist that the humans at that time who “rode on dinosuars” were the ones who really exterminated them…what “real” Americans like Sarah Palin do so well and with patriotic gusto.

  20. herr doktor bimler says:

    They said that the eruption formed the coal.
    Which is also wrong. If the press release is correct, the coal was already forming (in the form of peat bogs) when it was contaminated by rainwater containing dissolved silica. The eruptions can only be held responsible for the contamination.

  21. Jim Phelps says:

    OT: Following your mammal-like-reptile link:
    Thrinaxodon was a fox-sized cynodont. Pits in its skull show there were blood vessels and nerves for vibrissae (whiskers). This suggests that the animal had fur and was probably endothermic (absorbs energy in the form of heat).
    Oops.

  22. Benjamin says:

    Since the focus of the article is scientific accuracy, it’s probably worth pointing out that the term “mammal-like reptile” has largely been abandoned. What you should be referring to are Synapsids.

  23. I was shocked, just shocked, that FoxNews thought anything was alive 250 million years ago. That they confused the extinction of dinosaurs and the Permian extinction event was just a lack of maturity in their science education, since they probably still believe that the earth is 6000 years old.
    Maybe Sarah Palin can help with their fact checking.