The Snowman from Hell

We’ve come to believe that climate science is a bit of an aberration, and that science journalism is likewise a rare perversion of what news reporting is supposed to be about. Elsewhere in the academic world, we imagine, scientists are still pursuing knowledge for its own sake, ever ready to admit their errors and own up to the gaps in their knowledge, all under the critical eye of science correspondents on the lookout for a story. But I’m not so sure.

Take a couple of reports of NASA’s “New Horizons” flyby of Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt. The BBC’s science correspondent reports that the tiny object “looks like a snowman,” and helpfully provides a drawing of a snowman for readers who’ve never seen one. The photo shows two reddish brown gobs of muck that have collided and become fused.

(According to the Guardian

the flyby… had proceeded smoothly… At such terrific speed, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could have spelt disaster for the probe.

leading the NASA scientists to nickname the small gob “Rice” and the big gob “Ken.”)

The dark red hue of much of the surface is thought to be due to the effects of space radiation on exotic ices on the surface” says the Guardian, while the BBC adds: “Essentially, its surface has been ‘burnt’ over the eons by the high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays that flood space.

The Guardian continues:

Kuiper belt objects are thought to have occupied their distant positions since the earliest days of the solar system and may look the same today as they did back then.

While the BBC explains that:

It’s very sedate in the Kuiper belt. Unlike in the inner Solar System, there are probably very few collisions between objects. The Kuiper belt hasn’t been stirred up.

Right. So the very first object we encounter in the “sedate” Kuiper Belt where there are very few collisions is the result of a collision, spinning “like a propellor on an axis that points towards Earth” (yet stuck together by gravity) and pitted and scarred by “the high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays that flood space.

Finally, the Guardian sums up:

Kuiper belt objects are thought to have occupied their distant positions since the earliest days of the solar system and may look the same today as they did back then.

OK. We went looking for pristine objects from the beginning of time and we found a rusty pock-marked snowman spinning like a propellor on an axis pointing back at the solar system, which probably looks just like it did when the solar system was born. And the journalists have no comment to make.

Look, the science correspondents at the Guardian and the BBC are just doing a job. This is science, right? So stop asking questions and leave the experts alone to work out a consensus.


  1. +10
    It took a lot if dumbing down to allow “climate change” to become the consensus of the intellectual and communication elites.
    Why would dumbness about climate not metastasize into other areas of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is remarkable how crap science reporting in the Guardian has become compared with how good and extensive it used to be. How long ago was it that The Guardian published a weekly multipage pullout devoted to science, and the paper was one to consult when looking for academic positions in science? Yet only this week, a news item on a refurbished dinosaur exhibit was illustrated partly with a photograph of what looked like Titanothere skeletons (definitely mammalian). Pitiful!
    Some years ago I visited about 17 US universities and was surprised how popular classes in science journalism were. Does this have any impact on science reporting or is it just a mechanism to allow Arts Majors a way of doing some science modules for credit, and visa versa? Once done, never used.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Thing of the past – scientists on a warming planet search the outer solar system to find a real snowman” 😛
    (Imagined but all too plausible Guardian- or Indy-esque headline).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am sure it looked clean and pristine before the Industrial Revolution, a crucial fact omitted by the science experts from both the BBC and The Guardian

    Liked by 1 person

  5. HUNTER (3 Jan 19, 11.41am)

    Why would dumbness about climate not metastasize into other areas of life?

    Good question, but it’s important to establish the direction of the metastasis in order to determine its cause. Curiosity about science and scepticism about the consensus view used to be the default position among intelligent laypeople. Think of Big Bang versus steady state; the mysteries surrounding the Pyramids, Stonehenge etc.; even potty theories were listened to. In the fifties and sixties Velikovsky’s theories of cosmological catastrophe were the subject of attempts at censorship by publishers and scientific organisations, and the censorship was itself censured, with the likes of Carl Sagan taking the time to refute Velikovsky with logical arguments (not always fairly.) As far as I know, climate science was the first scientific consensus to call in the thought police, and I still don’t know why or how it happened.


  6. @Alan –
    “Yet only this week, a news item on a refurbished dinosaur exhibit was illustrated partly with a photograph of what looked like Titanothere skeletons (definitely mammalian). Pitiful!”

    Funny you should mention that, just read a book (yea again) which talks about how few bones for most
    dinosaurs are the real thing (real fossil bones,about 10-15% maybe?) with the rest of the skeleton being plaster bones & a best guess/reconstruction.

    just shows what’s needed to capture the public imagination/interest.


    Although many mounted dinosaur skeletons may contain reconstructed (i.e plaster) bones, I would be surprised if they were as high a percentage as you (your book?) were suggesting. Cope and Marsh made extraordinary discoveries of near complete skeletons. Plaster copies of these were made and sent to European museums (Dino which dominated the Natural History Museum Main Hall and currently is touring the UK, is such a cast).
    The chances of finding a complete skeleton of a fossilized terrestrial animal are low. They constitute a food source and so most carcasses will be eaten, including the bones. Only quick burial out of the reach of scavengers will suffice. For a large dinosaur only a deep swamp or a point bar of a large torrential river will usually do. Yet there are sites where dozens of near complete skeletons have been found. Some people have a knack of finding them (I have known such a person). The other reason fossil skeletons are uncommon is that the rocks containing them have to be exposed by erosion and weathering which means that at least part of the fossil is likely to have been lost. I have been fossil hunting with a well known dinosaur hunter in some of Saskatchewan’s badlands. You search gully bottoms for disturbed fossil bones and then hope to find the rest of a skeleton still in place on the gully walls – in other words it’s already incomplete. Furthermore, recognition of the potential of a near complete fossil requires the find be made by an expert with the resources to make a full excavation. Near complete skeletons are still being found and offered for sale at enormous prices. (Several million dollars) .
    I suspect many complete skeletons are composite with bones coming from several specimens. Sometimes errors are made as when a diplodocus skull was incorrectly attached to a brontosaurus skeleton. (This happened to the Natural History Museum cast. I believe even the replacement cast is not a Brontosaur scull (which I believe is still unknown) but comes from an Apiosaur. )
    Furthermore, since all land-dwelling vertebrates are bilaterally symmetrical, fully one half of a dinosaur skeleton can be missing and confidently reconstructed using plaster. Even large parts of the skull can be restored.
    I don’t believe that a skeleton containing a large proportion of reconstructed bones is necessarily fanciful, although in the 19th century, mistakes were made. Iguanodon (the first dinosaur to be recognized) has a forelimb with a prominent bony spike, which was initially and mistakenly identified as a nose spike.


  8. Geoff yes indeed. You may like to know that this concrete representation was hollow and a dinner for scientific bigwigs was held in its innards.
    As to what they thought, there was a raging controversy as to whether Iguanaon was bipedal or quadropedal. The British specimens are now known as Mantellodon after Gideon Mantell, a victorian dentist who first identified the fossil.


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