The Washington Post refuses to correct scientific errors

January 7, 2020 • 11:30 am

Two days ago I analyzed an article about hybrid parrots that had just appeared in the Washington Post. It was grossly misleading in assuming that two parrots of different “species” (they weren’t—one was a hybrid) had mated and produced, lo, a parrot of another “new species” (also wrong). I tweeted my correction to the Washington Post, but, to be sure they saw it, I also contacted the author of the post and her editor through another editor, pointing them to my correction.

In the meantime, I made a bet with a reader (you know who you are!) that they would not correct the errors. The reader said that they would.

I figured I’d let two days go by before looking for a correction or update, and that is now. And there is no correction, as you can see by clicking on the screenshot below.

Now granted, the story was by a local-issues journalist with no apparent scientific training, but it still contains scientific claims—claims that are wrong. And their responsibility is to correct them. As it is now, many readers think that a hybrid is the same thing as a new species, even though a single individual cannot be a new species (later there were two, but of course both were hybrids in an aviary).

What’s heartening is that many of the article’s 265 comments so far point out to reporter Vargas that the parrot chicks are not a new species but simply hybrids, and that breeders regularly produce hybrid parrots that they call “hybrids” and not “new species.”  But even all those comments on top of a post by a petulant biologist won’t force the Post to admit its errors. FAKE NEWS, FOLKS!

And. . . I win my bet!

25 thoughts on “The Washington Post refuses to correct scientific errors

  1. I suspect the word “may” in the headline gets the WP off the hook. But perhaps both WP and author are guilty of wasting everyone’s time and energy on a whimsical claim and deception.

    1. The NY Times (like I assume the WP) has gotten worse about inserting the likes of “may” and “might” and “could” and “seems” (and “unlikely” and “odd” and “signals”) in headlines and putatively objective reporting. What can’t one presume to speculate, conjecture, hypothesize once those words are inserted, especially “seems”? Maybe the parrot “seemed” like a new species. Apparently anything is so if one thinks so.

  2. I’m a retired newspaper editor, and I think I can explain what happened. The staff of the newspaper contains no experts on biology, and has no idea whether they actually made a mistake, whether you are a authority, or whether any such mistake is of any importance. Newspapers are constantly being told they were wrong, often by fanatics or crackpots. The “corrections” are almost always nonsense. They simply don’t have the time or resources to determine who’s right or whether it matters. Anyone with specific scientific knowledge would not be working for a newspaper, as they have not paid a living wage in decades.

    1. Perhaps, but I signed my email with my title, and the article says that I wrote the book on Speciation, which I did (with Allen Orr). Five seconds of Googling will tell them that yes, I have expertise on this issue. Plus there are a lot of smart people in the comments that agree with me. Are newspapers so lazy that they can’t do a check on who criticizes them. (After all, I did write an email that was conveyed to both the writer and to the writer’s editor.)

      1. I’m firmly of the opinion that nobody on the editorial staff of news web sites ever reads the comments on stories unless maybe they were the person who wrote the story. Even then, their colleagues probably discourage such “stupidity” on the grounds that dissenters frequently include people whose main tactics are abuse and physical threats.

        I’m also sceptical that anybody reads the emails. The WaPo’s email address probably gets thousands of emails every day, most of which are trash. If anybody goes through them, it’s probably an intern (studying the arts because they want to be a journalist) who wouldn’t know the difference between an esteemed professor of science and a steaming pile of…

        I think John’s narrative is right, basically.

    2. Please correct my typo: “a authority.” As someone who has spent much of his life correcting others’ grammatical errors, I have no excuse for such an atrocity.

  3. Newspaper employees aren’t lazy — quite the opposite. With staff cuts in recent years, they are wildly overworked. Taking a few minutes to judge whether you are an authority is a luxury they cannot afford. I realize your ego must be bruised, but newsroom employees work at a pace that must be seen to be believed. There is simply nothing else like it. The phrase one hears in the industry is working “like the building is on fire.”

    1. But they have time to print other corrections, such as misspelling someone’s name. IMO is much more important. But of course parrots don’t read newspapers so they can’t complain; people do and people take great umbrage when their names are misspelled.

      1. “IMO is much more important.” I was referring to the correction PCCE pointed out and inadvertently left out the reference.

  4. The Post should definitely add a correction to the online story, simply as part of any responsible newspaper’s adherence to accurate journalism.

    In the UK, The Observer published a claim last year by author Katherine Rundell that Philip Pullman had created the name “Lyra” in a similar way to J. M. Barrie and “Wendy”. I wrote to the Readers’ Editor, who deals with such matters, pointing out that Lyra McKee, a Northern Irish journalist sadly murdered earlier in 2019, had been born before Pullman’s first book featuring the name had been published and that in any case the New Zealand lawyer Lyra Taylor was born in 1894! I only received an automated reply and no correction was published.

    Actually, it turns out that the name “Wendy” also predates Barrie’s Peter Pan, too. Along with many others, I had fallen for the myth that the name hadn’t existed before his character, which makes it all the more important that these things are corrected.

    For what it’s worth, I have nothing against Katherine Rundell – indeed, by a strange coincidence I created her (admittedly not very good, and probably hopelessly out-of-date now) Wikipedia article a couple of years ago.

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