Is There Anything Science Reporters Don't Know?

One week after the Washington Post called us nuts for believing that airborne transmission of Ebola might be possible, the Washington Post reports that airborne transmission of Ebola is “very likely.”

Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for the Washington Post. His article, Why science is so hard to believe, was published in the opinion pages of the WaPo February 12. Here is one paragraph from that article.

“The world crackles with real and imaginary hazards, and distinguishing the former from the latter isn’t easy. Should we be afraid that the Ebola virus, which is spread only by direct contact with bodily fluids, will mutate into an airborne super-plague? The scientific consensus says that’s extremely unlikely: No virus has ever been observed to completely change its mode of transmission in humans, and there’s zero evidence that the latest strain of Ebola is any different. But Google “airborne Ebola” and you’ll enter a dystopia where this virus has almost supernatural powers, including the power to kill us all.”

Got that? Ebola is spread only by direct contact, not by airborne transmission. And if you believe otherwise – snark, snark, supernatural powers, zero evidence – you come from some dystopian corner of the internet world.

OK, let’s go back to the Washington Post, to an article published exactly one week after Achenbach’s opinion piece. This time the article, Limited airborne transmission of Ebola is ‘very likely,’ new analysis says, was published as regular news in the WaPo’s To Your Health section. Here’s the lede.

“A team of prominent researchers suggested Thursday that limited airborne transmission of the Ebola virus is "very likely," a hypothesis that could reignite the debate that started last fall after one of the scientists offered the same opinion.”

Did that team of prominent researchers come from some dystopian corner of the internet? Nope. That research was peer-reviewed and published by the American Society of Microbiology. The lead author is an epidemiologist at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. It’s all there in the Washington Post. You can look it up. By the way, Achebach’s college degree is a 1982 baccalaureate in Politics, if we can believe the dystopian Wikipedia. That almost makes Bill Nye’s baccalaureate in mechanical engineering sound impressive. Not that anything’s wrong with not having a college degree in science, or not having any college degree at all. But something does seem a little off when guys like Achenbach (BA Politics), Nye (BS Mechanical Engineering) and Al Gore (BA Government) lecture real scientists like Richard Lindzen (BA Physics, PhD Applied Mathematics, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT) and William Happer (PhD Physics, Cyrus Fogg Brackett[3] Professor of Physics at Princeton University) on climate.

Randall Hoven can be followed on Twitter, for now.