Nature Watch

The journal takes on Darfur and The Simpsons--not at the same time

I couldn’t help of but think of the theatrical masks representing tragedy and comedy after reading two articles in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

The tragic mask emerged with the news that a large, ancient, sand-covered lake in northern Darfur, Sudan, might be bone dry. Boston University announced the lake’s discovery on June 18. The geologist in charge, Farouk El-Baz, also said that the lake would be the catalyst for “1,000 Wells for Darfur,” a humanitarian effort to bring fresh water to the drought-plagued and war-weary region.

The story took off immediately in the press, which widely heralded the lake as “hope” for assuaging the Sudan’s civil war, which some experts contend, too simplistically, is rooted in a fight for natural resources, particularly water. A number of diligent reporters, especially Lydia Polgreen at The New York Times, brought a more cautious perspective to their coverage, citing reasons why the conflict in Darfur runs deeper than an underground aquifer.

But no reporter stopped to ask, is there water in the lake?

As it turns out, there might not be. Geologists that spoke to Nature “dismissed the hype” that the ancient Sudanese lake would be a fount of peace. “The media’s portrayal of a lake that actually contains water now stems from the way the Boston group presented its claims, says Mohamed Abubuker, an official at the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources in Khartoum.”

It’s a valid point. The press release from Boston University, which focuses on the “1,000 Wells” initiative more than the lake’s discovery, gives reporters no reason to doubt that the lake might have viable aquifers. The press release also fails to mention another problem revealed in the Nature piece: some geologists claim El-Baz’s work does not count as a “discovery” because German scientists found and mapped the lake over a decade ago.

With so much in doubt, I wonder if reporters might have had the proverbial wool pulled over their eyes? Misleading, incomplete or overzealous press releases are a recurring problem in science journalism, and the story in Darfur is a reminder that we reporters can’t forego even the most obvious-seeming questions: “You’ve found a lake? Awesome. Is there water?”

Not surprisingly, the emptiness of the lake has not received nearly as much media attention as the idea that it could have saved one of the most pitiable places on Earth. Hope can be difficult thing to overcome, even for journalists.

The comedy mask, for those who read beyond the Sudanese lake story, was conjured by something that one does not see every day in this august publication. The long-awaited Simpsons movie opens in theaters around the U.S. this week, and to mark the occasion Nature has a Q&A with executive producer Al Jean. The rationale? “Part of The Simpsons’ greatness is a willingness to find the humour in absolutely everything - including science.” So Michael Hopkin asks Jean (who holds a degree in mathematics from Harvard) to discuss just how much that dorky enterprise turns up in the television series and movie. Jean’s answers are entertaining, but the real comic gem is Nature’s own list of the top ten science moments in The Simpsons.

Number one?

Perpetually funny: In ‘The PTA Disbands’, Lisa gets so bored by a lack of schooling she builds a perpetual motion machine. Homer is not pleased: ‘Lisa, in this house we OBEY the laws of thermodynamics.’

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.