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If you’ve ever wondered whether to take the Daily Mail seriously as a news source…

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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…consider this:

You might think, on reading this story, that myrmecologists had made a significant new discovery. But you’d be wrong.

That’s because this isn’t a news story. There is no breaking research paper, or even a press release. Rather, this is a YouTube clip extracted from an 8-year old nature documentary called Ants: Nature’s Secret Power (watch on Hulu). It’s been on the internet for years. The only story here is that Julian Gavaghan, the Daily Mail writer, apparently noticed the video just now and mistook it for news. Gavaghan makes no effort to track down the source of the clip, crediting it simply- and incorrectly- as “©”.

Then there is this:

After a month, scientists, led by professor Luis Forgi, began digging and revealed the incredible city described as the ‘ant equivalent of the Great Wall of China’.

Who is Luis Forgi? I’ve got no idea. Luiz C. Forti is the ant scientist you find if you actually look up the technical literature on leafcutter ants. But Luis Forgi is what you get if your background research consists entirely of mishearing a youtube clip.

Science journalism has a pecking order. At the high end, there are carefully researched pieces that report scientific discoveries in the context of the field. Think Carl Zimmer.  At the low end is “churnalism”- largely automated algorithms that re-broadcast press releases. Think PhysOrg. And then, lower than the reprinted press release and simply making shit up, is the Daily Mail.


Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. khwakaxoro 3:49 am 02/10/2012

    thanks! this popped up on the tubes the other day, and I was trying to find out who the researcher was, but could only find a load of versions of the above, with variations of Louis/Luis/Louise Forgge/Forgi &c.

    now I have a couple of nest-architecture papers to read, so, cheers :)

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