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Readers as Editors: CNN Continues to Embarrass Itself

by Brian Dunning

August 13, 2013

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Donate A few years ago, to much fanfare, dissolved its science department and replaced it with The Belief Blog and The Empowered Patient. In effect, this was to eliminate the costs of needing anyone to review anything they wanted to publish to make sure it was accurate; belief blogs and alternative medicine have no standards to be held to.

The last 24 hours have been a banner period for CNN science reporting, so painfully showcasing the results of such a change. Two particular articles today, one discussing Elon Musk's description of his plan for a Hyperloop transportation system, and the other talking about Formula 1's plan to reintroduce turbocharged engines, struggled pitiably under the assault of science literate commenters. The fun was almost magical, watching these articles be continually corrected and updated throughout the day as the comment threads grew longer and longer.

The Formula 1 article attempted to explain how an engine works. Among its explanations was that a "belt" run off the crankshaft turns the wheels. Really? I'd like to see that F1 car. (I presume this writer saw a reference to a 1971/72Ford BDE [Belt Drive E-Type] engine and misunderstood what it meant.)

And turbochargers, in case you didn't know, are powered by steam. They create large clouds of steam around the vehicle. This was astounding. (I can't even guess where they got this idea. Water vapor is a product of an internal combustion engine, but going from that to steam-powered turbochargers would be quite a leap.)

Even better, the original version of the story on the Hyperloop praised it as a maglev innovation. In fact, Elon Musk's whole point was that it does not use magnetic levitation, it uses air bearings. My only guess is that this writer either did not actually read or hear any part of Musk's announcement, or was hopeless technologically illiterate.

Both stories were gradually corrected. Watching the hilarious comments and the corrections try to keep up with each other was a bloodbath, but a comical one, if bloodbaths can be comical.

The new trend of using readers as tech editors is really disturbing. Just publish anything off the top of your head, and then keep an eye on the comments for the first half hour to see what readers correct. Apparently that must save time compared to doing the research and getting it right yourself.

by Brian Dunning

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