More press release journalism,
this time about sunspots


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Did you hear the news? Scientists have solved the mystery of the missing sunspots!

You didn’t? Well, here’s some headlines and stories that surely prove it:

The trouble is that every one of these headlines is 100 percent wrong. The research, based on computer models, only found that when the plasma flow from the equator to the poles beneath the Sun’s surface slows down, the number of sunspots declines.

Unfortunately, no one knows why the speed in this meridional flow changes. As the space.com article above admitted, “It remains uncertain what induced these meridional flows to change speeds that caused the sunspot drought.”

Moreover, there remains significant disagreement among solar scientists about the conclusions of this research. Back about five years ago, when the last solar maximum was ramping down, other researchers measured the meridional flow and found it to be faster than expected, In fact, their data was exactly the opposite of what the above computer model predicted they should find. These scientists then predicted — using the actual data — that the next solar maximum would be short, and that the next maximum would be very active and violent. Unfortunately for them, their predictions turned out wrong. However, their data is correct, which raises significant questions about the model itself.

Thus, any journalist who claims that this research has “solved” the mystery of the missing sunspots is writing total bunkum.

If you look at the list of articles above closely, you will note that the first four are by journalists, while the last three are press releases from the various research organizations that did the research. Though it makes perfect sense for the press releases to tout and oversell the results of their researchers, it is quite sad that four major news organizations were so willing to accept these claims, without question. (In fairness to Wired, its headline at least framed the story in a more skeptical manner, and the article itself actually gave considerable room to the questions and doubts that still remain.)

Only one article published in response to the above press releases captured the real story behind the press releases, and that article was written by Ron Cowan at Science News: Sun’s doldrums likely to last. Cowan’s article not only focused properly on the disagreements between scientists over these most recent results, he also noted that despite these disagreements the scientists all generally believe that the next solar maximum will be very weak, possibly the weakest in centuries.

And that is really the heart of the matter, as a weak maximum probably means a dimmer Sun, which for us here on Earth could mean colder weather.

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