Environment

Cut That Crane

By Chris MooneyOct 5, 2009 4:58 PM

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By Eugenie Samuel Reich

While paging through government science talks some time ago, I came across an amusing use of photo editing by science officials. The picture on the left appears in an April 6th 2006 presentation by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science Deputy Director, Patricia Dehmer. The picture on the right was used to illustrate a December 8th 2005 article on Nature.com. Both show the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) experiment at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in Tennessee. (Before going any further, I ought to disclose that I’m currently suing the DOE under the Freedom of Information Act for an investigation report into inappropriate data manipulation by ORNL scientists – a story I covered for The Boston Globe in 2006.)

The cloud formations in the sky look very similar, as if the two pictures were taken within minutes of each other from a slightly different angle by a circling helicopter. So how is it that the orange construction crane has vanished from the government’s version?

DOE’s press office had the answer: “Dr. Dehmer used a retouched photo provided by ORNL that showed a clearer view of the actual SNS buildings ... a topic of the presentation.” DOE added that it was proud construction of the site had finished ahead of schedule, and under budget. Of course, faking the absence of a construction crane does make that message clearer.

I dropped the story at the time, but decided to blog about it after I noticed that the retouched photo was uploaded to illustrate the Wikipedia article about the SNS experiment. Dehmer also continues to host the presentation on the government site.

Am I the only one who feels slightly unsettled by the thought of government officials advertising science projects with photoshopped pictures? Or is it all in a day’s work in Washington D.C.?

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