Monday, January 12, 2009

More journalism news: A cup of Google tea with your Brazilian Second Life avatar?

I first learned via Wired Campus that Alex Wissner-Gross, a physicist at Harvard, supposedly claimed that conducting two Google searches produces the same amount of carbon dioxide as bringing a kettle of water to a full boil. Since this was published in the United Kingdom's The Sunday Times (not to be confused with high quality journalism if you're unfamiliar with the UK), I guess they went with the tea aspect to appeal to their audience despite the fact that Harvard's up the road from the Boston Tea Party. Has anyone done an environmental impact study on that one?

I digress. I'll do that a lot with this particular entry, but it's to make a point about the authenticity of journalism when it comes to scientific research. Google replied via their blog that this wasn't the case, a single Google search only generates .2 grams of carbon dioxide.

According to Technology News, Mr. Wissner-Gross spent the majority of Monday trying to state the facts about his research study and how it was reported in The Sunday Times, among them these

One problem: the study's author, Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, says he never mentions Google in the study. "For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google," Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld. "Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site."

And the example involving tea kettles? "They did that. I have no idea where they got those statistics," Wissner-Gross said.

Why Google in particular? I think Mr. Wissner-Gross nailed it on the head:

The short answer is, it's a really easy way to sell papers. Google is a very successful company and it's a very easy way to get readership by making grandiose claims about them.
A closer look at the Sunday Times article brings up a familiar hodgepodge journalism style I've had issues with before at Pew Internet: citing research from a respected authority source, then bringing in components of a completely different story and blending it all together as one. The Sunday Times' additional claims:

Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch, Rewiring the World, has calculated that maintaining a character (known as an avatar) in the Second Life virtual reality game, requires 1,752 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That is almost as much used by the average Brazilian.

“It’s not an unreasonable comparison,” said Liam Newcombe, an expert on data centres at the British Computer Society. “It tells us how much energy westerners use on entertainment versus the energy poverty in some countries.”

Though energy consumption by computers is growing - and the rate of growth is increasing - Newcombe argues that what matters most is the type of usage.

If your internet use is in place of more energy-intensive activities, such as driving your car to the shops, that’s good. But if it is adding activities and energy consumption that would not otherwise happen, that may pose problems.

Newcombe cites Second Life and Twitter, a rapidly growing website whose 3m users post millions of messages a month.

Personally, I'm surprised they didn't go after the #1 online bandwidth, energy and productivity-sucker there is according to my completely unscientific research and observation of my colleagues: checking out a suggested YouTube video then nonchalantly surfing the Related Videos that pop up after it.

My apologies if YouTube is blocked at your particular location due to those who have gone before you; and my suggestion on a quick way to make donuts per the embedded video below:

Where did you end up after that, if not at Krispy Kreme or trying not to sing 'b0rk b0rk b0rk' aloud while flinging pens at your colleagues?

Bottom line: Study the original research study publication whenever possible, especially if the soundbite you're picking up via a retweet on Twitter or an RSS headline news blurb is too catchy to be true, and question the credibility of all parties involved.