Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post manages to entirely mangle a discussion of helium, and what’s worse they do so in a column specifically directed at children to aid them in understanding science. We do grasp that simplifying matters can be difficult while still retaining the information content. Actually, there’s a good story about this – a boy whose father was an atmospheric scientist once asked “Papa, why is the sky blue?” and realized that it was only when he had his own Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences that he understood the answer.

Simplification is difficult. This is why we have this concept of “lies to children.” Educational explanations which we all know are wrong but fit inside small heads. They might have to be extracted and relearned as education proceeds – it’s not that unusual for the answer to the same question to change every couple of years of education – but the restriction is still not to actually get the answer wrong.

That’s the test failed here. Talking about why there is much less helium here than up there in the stars:

This is true for a few reasons. For example, helium atoms don’t like to make bonds with other elements or even themselves. This results in them having a very low density — much lower than the density of the particles that make up air, Toledo said.

Ouch, no. Helium atoms are light – have low density, not exactly the same thing but lies to children, correct at this level – because they’re very small. Helium is two protons, two electrons and that’s it. That’s why it’s light, not dense. Gold also doesn’t react with other elements, but that’s dense (79 protons, electrons and then more neutrons) and that’s what makes each atom heavy.

So, it’s not the reacting or not with other elements that leads to the low density. It’s the essential – even elemental (that’s a bad joke BTW) – feature of what helium is that makes it light.

The Washington Post is, of course, one the major national newspapers. It ranks at No. 8 in media outlets, and gains some 160 million visits a month just to the website plus the print distribution.

But this specific column is “about science for kids and adults.” Yes, simplification, even to the point of teaching something that might need to be relearned later, that’s appropriate for kids. But actually getting the basics of the density of elements wrong is just going too far.




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