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Conservation of journalistic energy, cont'd

Remember the Toronto Star's story last month about Thane Heins, that college dropout from Almonte who juuuuuust might have rewritten the law of conservation of energy? Reporter Tyler Hamilton has revisited the subject under pressure from scientifically informed readers: in a Feb. 25 Star piece he is careful to note that "The story was the most read and emailed story on the Toronto Star website for most of the following week, and ranked as one of the most popular stories of the past year." You don't find out until quite late in the column that Heins' own scientific consultant was furious at being associated publicly with the concept of perpetual motion, decrying the content of the story as "foolishness". And in a separate defence of the piece Hamilton rightly comes in for a rocketing by a disappointed reader:

If you had any understanding of the rigour of the scientific method, you would recognize the folly of such half-baked claims as made by the inventor of this latest machine. Such articles add fuel to the religious fundamentalists who grossly misinterpret science to justify such monstrous ideas as 'intelligent design' and creationism. You have a degree in journalism, don't you? A story like this is more appropriate for an April 1st publication.

Hamilton's original piece reflected poor judgment (specifically because there have been thousands of people who thought they were onto perpetual motion, most of whom are no better trained in physics than Heins and none of whom have contributed anything useful to science or engineering once their five minutes of fame was up). His response to this accusation, however, might be worse, since it is actively misleading rather than just an underinformed waste of time:

The story was never presented as a science feature. It appeared in the business section as a profile of a man who is struggling to build a business out of an invention that nobody is able to clearly explain...

Star readers who were greeted with the headline "Turning physics on its ear" and read about Heins' "mysterious", "heretical" discovery must now be surprised to learn they weren't reading a science feature after all. It's in the business section of the print edition—hell, you can't trust half the crap that ends up in there, amiright? And if you read it on the Internet, where it was specifically presented as a "SCIENCE/TECH" story (with a URL of thestar.com/sciencetech/Technology/article/300042), well, you're probably just some sad obsessed nerd anyway, right?

Hamilton adds that

[Heins'] marriage is broken. He's strapped for cash. He's driven, with help from the University of Ottawa, to earn credibility for his invention and prove his skeptics wrong. Most of all, he's presented as a sympathetic figure up against a rigid world of scientific consensus.

I would love to read a really in-depth feature about the psychology, struggles, and marital problems of a delusional inventor. (These people are endlessly compelling.) Why doesn't Tyler Hamilton go back and write one? His piece contained one brief mention of Heins' "20-year obsession that has broken up his marriage and lost him custody of his two young daughters." Now, even though the rest of the article was mostly folderol about futuristic cars and letters to Al Gore, he's pretending to have been interested in the man's Byronic struggle against the establishment. Bullshit the reader once, shame on you. Bullshit him twice—and, well, he might stop reading newspapers, actually.


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