USA Today galaxy story should say what it means

It could be that I’m just tired after a week covering a science journalists’ conference in California, but I came across a bit of contradictory language in a USA Today article today that is worth spotlighting.

The story is about the discovery of some small galaxies that may help resolve problems with an existing model (related to the Big Bang theory) of the creation and growth of the universe. This model posits that most of the universe is made of invisible “cold dark matter” that accounts for most of the mass that exists therein.

A recent study found eight little galaxies made of this stuff. It’s all very interesting and, for the most part, well reported in USA Today. But here’s my problem: the article’s lead paragraph reads, “Small, ultrafaint ‘hobbit’ galaxies recently found hovering around our Milky Way are comprised almost entirely of dark matter, a new study confirms.”

The emphasis is mine, because reading on to a later paragraph we find this: “Members of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey team announced they had discovered eight small and extremely faint galaxies in our Local Group of galaxies that might belong to this bizarre class of “dark” galaxies.” Again, the emphasis is mine.

“Confirm” does not equal “might.” Sure, I’m nitpicking here, but science writers must be especially careful when employing language that is associated with degrees of certainty (or uncertainty as scientists refer to it). In USA Today, the reporter uses the word “confirm” again toward the bottom of the article, but with regard to confirmation that the galaxies are “among the smallest ever measured,” not that they contain dark matter.

According to the scientists, who will publish their study in the November 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal, it probably is dark matter, but the reporter would have been better off sticking with “might” for consistency throughout the story. It’s a minor quibble, I know, but these kinds of things can cause confusion among lay audiences.

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