August 28, 2004

Transmutation of wood chips at the BBC

This is a new low in BBC science and technology reporting. Actually, in may be a new low in science reporting in any medium above the level of supermarket tabloids. In an unsigned story dated August 24, BBC News tells us that a "new timber power plant" in Northern Ireland will "make high energy wood pellets from surplus sawdust and woodchips". The beauty part is that "[t]he pellets can be burned in industrial and domestic heating boilers without creating carbon dioxide, which causes global warming." As Ben Goldacre observed in the August 26 Guardian, "For lo, they have cracked the secret of alchemy, reworked the very structure of the atom, and converted long-chain molecules containing carbon into pure hydrogen. Why not gold?"

Never again will I complain about the Beeb's reporting on telepathic parrots, translation difficulty contests, artificially intelligent child guardians, and so on. Well, perhaps that's going too far. Whenever in the future I might say something a bit negative about their language-related reporting, I'll add that at least it doesn't involve transmutation.

I'm glad this didn't appear in a major American news outlet. That's not because of patriotic sensibility, but because I believe that the American educational system needs to to be strengthened in areas related to language. If the New York Times or CBS News were routinely telling us about things like pellets made from wood chips that can be burned without creating CO2, I'd be hard pressed to argue that language is any worse off than any other area. In fact, though, I think that the extent and quality of instruction with respect to linguistics is now a great deal lower than in areas like physics, chemistry, biology and computer science.

[Link via Ray Girvan at the Apothecary's Drawer Weblog, who offers a charitable interpretation -- what the reporter (or one of the sources) really meant was that "carbon dioxide released when the wood is burnt is matched by that absorbed when the next crop is growing".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 28, 2004 09:59 PM