Couple of days ago, I posted a link about the discovery of the oldest known Mayan astronomical charts dating back to 9th century AD, which pre-dates the previous oldest (Dresden codex) by around 400 years. I first came across this news in the Guardian website and then chased down their source to the National Geographic website, which I only skimmed briefly until I found that it linked to the real source - an article in the journal Science from the archaeologists who actually made this discovery. I’m lucky enough to have access to Science and immediately downloaded the full-text PDF of the article for my unadulterated reading pleasure and unhindered enlightenment. I consumed all five pages in the space of approximately one hour (give or take ten minutes) since it was inspiring, exhilarating, wonderful, awesome and just pure amazing to read about how the scientific method was so beautifully applied in a field like archaeology, disregarding what was discovered for the time being. It was a momentary bliss during an otherwise frustrating friday.
So that’s what I did during lunch time on 11th of May, 2012. A few hours later, as I entered the train station, I picked up the free tabloid for commuters from a random robot that hands out such exceptional toilet paper without ever considering to charge a cent or two. I find that quite odd, don’t you? Anyway, sometime later as I stood squeezed between chokingly hyper-perfumed Homo Sapiens of the female variety, I noticed the headline “Mayan doomsday debunked” accompanied by an imperative to not worry about the end of the world. There was no other mention of any relevant source, just a superficial assertion that the “end of the world” and “2012” were causally connected thanks to the so called “prophecy” made by the ancient Maya. Absolutely nothing registered in my mind as I had read the real source earlier. Besides, did I mention that I was squeezed in between chokingly hyper-perfumed Homo Sapiens of the female variety?
The next day, or yesterday, while waiting for my short black at a cafe, I flicked through a so called newspaper and promptly noticed an image of a faintly familiar painting under the headline - “Discovery puts dent on Mayan doomsaying”. Again, not much registered in my mind apart from a slight curiosity about a possible “formula” being used by journalists to write headlines that they think supposedly grab readers’ attention. Another day later, or today, I find myself exceedingly bored and shivering cold in the antarctic blizzard which is sweeping across Melbourne. Like any undeodorised Homo Sapien of the male variety, I took up the challenge of uncovering this formula to kill time. No more justification needed, and none shall be provided. Needless to say that there’s no mention whatsoever of “doomsday”, “doomsaying”, “prophecy”, “end of the world” etc. in the paper by Saturno et al. Thus, I came across the following list of five articles scatterred throughout the interweb in various news websites, and it only took a few seconds of typing some random characters at a website called Google (which appears quite useful actually, you should check it out sometime, especially if you are a journalist; in fact, I insist that you thoroughly learn to utilise it if you are a journalist).
Across four separate English speaking countries and seven separate news organisations, journalists have somehow conspired to produce the same nonsensical headline (or variations on the meaningless “doomsday” theme). How does such similarity occur in an industry that is diverse by definition? Admittedly, in this instance, I’m generalising from a specific example - which is unfair due to the inductive fallacy. But it also happens to be the latest instance in a never ending tradition of nonsense journalism that is nothing other than copy-paste sensationalism. How can these brain-dead idiots be allowed to get away with such preposterous distortion of the empirical facts reported by a scientific paper that took more than two years to compile in a painstaking expedition?
I realise that the archaeologists are getting fantastic temporary publicity for their work but it is blatantly obvious from their statements that they couldn’t be more frustrated from being linked to the ridiculously rubbish pursuit of debunking the Mayan “doomsday” prophecy. They never set out to do anything remotely that stupid! Why did their emphasis on archaeology fly completely over the heads of brainless journalists? What is so wrong with just literally portraying the bewildering satisfaction of discovering ancient paintings that shed light on our human heritage? Why is it so hard to leave behind faecal matter in a private toilet instead of putting them up for mass adoption somewhere public under the banner of news?
UPDATE: it appears that the supplementary materials corresponding to the original Science article by Saturno et al. are available freely to everyone. So checkout that link (PDF). Ultimately, it’s about the application of simple robust techniques to make inferences that anyone might find astonishing and inspiring and amazing and fascinating and any number of things. Only journalists are guaranteed to miss this simple point :( See it for yourself as to how the archaeologists scanned the painted walls in darkness and then adjusted the embedded contrast of the resulting image in order to bring out hidden hieroglyphs and paint strokes. Their images are available in that PDF link above. Isn’t it incredible what you can infer with a flat-bed scanner and Photoshop :P
UPDATE: there’s a fantastic podcast containing a conversation with the lead author, William Saturno, at this site.