Researchers who published findings on a warm oceanic spring called Pythia’s Oasis discovered along the Cascadia subduction zone have clarified misinformation disseminated in tabloid media about their work. It’s not common for this to happen even thought it’s extremely common for non-scientific sources to mischaracterize scientists’ work.

The real story, found here, is that Univ. of Washington scientists were surprised when they found “warm, chemically distinct fluid gushing from the seafloor sediment” in a location about 50 miles off the coast of Newport, Oregon. Dubbed Pythia’s Oasis, the discovery suggests that fluid is coming from the plate boundary and can give insight into the stress buildup that could signal a quake.

What did ridiculous click-bait sites do? They called it “a leak” or a “crack” that could be “raising earthquake risk” or could “cause a magnitude 9 earthquake”.

The worst culprits:

  • news
  • Yahoo news
  • IFLScience*

*I avoid clicking on this site for anything. It’s awful.

In response, the researchers involved edited their U of Washington press release to say:

  • Scientists are not alarmed at discovering this geologic feature, which does not trigger earthquakes but may regulate friction in the fault zone
  • This discovery does not change the current risk of a large earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

It’s extremely common for media sites to exaggerate or misrepresent scientific research, particularly when they can create a scary headline. As with transmission of “urban legends” or “social warnings”, it could be that the sources think they are helping by giving attention to the hazards that people should take seriously. But they aren’t helping. They are promoting misinformation that could lead to unwarranted or dangerous outcomes and unnecessary panic.

It’s more critical than ever to be media savvy about scientific news. Learn what sources are reliable and accurate quote experts. And, for serious information, seek out the original source or check multiple, reliable sources that aren’t news aggregators.

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