Accuracy in Media

Vice wants us to believe that the climate change problem is entirely solved. Sadly, they only believe this because they’re a billion times out in their calculations. Which is, if we’re fair about it, missing the target by quite a lot.

It’s true that Vice doesn’t claim climate change is solved, the point is that if what they do claim is true then climate change would be solved.

The background is some new research that shows that temperature differences can be used to generate electricity. Sort of – almost exactly not in fact but sorta – like an anti-solar panel. OK, that’s great, but then this:

“The team tested the device at a temperature differential of 12.5°C on a photodiode emitting close to 4.7 micrometers of infrared radiation and generated 2.26 megawatts per square meter, a volume they predict could increase to up to 19.4 megawatts per square meter under different conditions.”

If that’s true then climate change is solved. Because 19.4 megawatts is a lot of electricity. That much for an hour is about $4,000 worth (prices differ all over the place but 20 cents per kWh is a reasonable average guess). If we can make that much electricity from just one square meter of this new panel then we just don’t have a climate change problem anymore. For who would bother to use anything other than this new method which also works at night?

Except, checking the report they’re working from, we find this:

“At a temperature differential of only 12.5 °C, we measure a peak thermoradiative electrical power density of 2.26 mW/m2 for a photodiode emitting near 4.7 ?m, with an estimated radiative efficiency of 1.8%,” the piece says.

A mW is different from a MW.  Milliwatt is one-thousandth of a watt. A megawatt is one million watts. Vice has read one-thousandth as one thousand. This is why the estimations are so wildly out of whack with reality – a billion times out in fact.

Yes, sure, this is a typo. But we deliberately left it a few days before writing this up to see whether any of Vice’s layers of editors, or even their readers, note this little mistake. No one has. This is where the problem is – not that mistakes get made, but that the journalistic classes, including those layers of editors and so on, don’t know enough to know that a mistake has been made. They’ll know that Polish people polish their shoes because that’s about letters and words. But the difference between a mW and a MW is something they don’t even notice.

All those people who got their educations in journalism school have a problem with numbers that is. This means we’ve got a problem with any journalism about numbers.

Vox makes a related mistake about energy. A refrigerator, air/con, they use electricity. Sure. But then:

“Let’s spell this out. In any given year, the average refrigerator or air conditioner in the U.S. consumes much more energy than an average person in dozens of countries around the world consumes for all purposes over an entire year.”

No. The average refrigerator uses more electricity than the average person in many countries, not more energy than. For example, the average Indian is using 988 kWhs of electricity a year, about two American refrigerator’s worth. That’s true. But the average Indian is using more like the equivalent of 7,000, maybe 8,000, kWhs of energy a year (the usual measurement is in kilos of oil equivalent but that’s close to what it works out as).

Yes, this matters, for as Vox goes on to say:

“The energy gap shown in the chart above is one of the starkest examples of global economic inequality. Energy poverty is a major cause of health issues because of indoor air pollution from burning coal or biomass instead of electricity or gas for stoves — there are an estimated 3.8 million premature deaths each year due to indoor air pollution — and an impediment to economic growth.”

But they’ve not shown the energy gap, they’ve shown the electricity gap. The importance being that yes, people are using coal, wood, dung even, to cook with. Something that kills many who do it too. What the poor countries need is more electricity therefore to replace those other forms of dirtier and more dangerous energy.

This isn’t a catastrophic error but as with the example from Vice above it’s a symptom. Most American journalists have no scientific – or numerical, often enough – training. Which means that they can’t even see when they’re making, or being fed, scientific or numerical errors. They’re real hot on dangling participles and incomplete sentences but that might not make up for being a billion times out on energy production.

Vox markets itself as “explaining the news” and gains some 20 million visits a month from doing so. It’s just inside the top 100 media sites by the usual listings. Vice has a cable TV channel that reaches 60 million American homes, the magazine has a 900,000 distribution and the site gets 25 million or so visits. These are important parts of the modern media landscape.

American journalism doesn’t deal well with numbers or science simply because the journalists tend not to have any education in either of those fields. That means that we can’t really trust American journalism on those subjects – the people who produce it just don’t have the necessary toolkit to be able to sift through and critique all of the relevant claims. This is a big problem when we come to the discussion of things like climate change, poverty, inequality, the economy as a whole even. Because facility with numbers and science is an important part of being able to report on those matters – they pretty much are all science and numbers.

This could well be why journalism about climate and the economy gets things quite so wrong. They simply don’t know what they’re doing.

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