Sensationalism in Science, Part II
By Gabrielle Rabinowitz, @GabrielleRab
In Part I of this post I explained the harm that can result from over-hyped science reporting. But what if scientists’ own enthusiasm for their work is what sparks the hype? As Rob O’ Sullivan of Dar-winning pointed out in a comment on Part I, scientists in poorly funded fields sometimes rely on hype to raise funds. As science funding is increasingly threatened by federal cutbacks, scientists need to reach out to the public to explain why their research is exciting and important. As we reach out, we need to be careful that our sincere enthusiasm doesn’t feed the hype machine. Every scientist needs to consider the consequences of their words.
Hype on Mars
No one knows better about shrinking funds and the need to excite the public than NASA. I’ve already mentioned the “arsenic life” incident of 2010, where NASA scientists did nothing to stop the overexcited press from exaggerating their findings. Last November a much more cautious NASA research team unwittingly let their enthusiasm become the source of hype. The senior scientist from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, John Grotzinger, told NPR that he and his team had discovered something in a soil sample from Curiosity that was “gonna be one for the history books.” Joe Palca, NPR’s science correspondent added that according to his sneak peek at some of the data, the finding was “earth shaking.”
Inevitably, people started to get curious. What had NASA found? Was it a fossil? Organic molecules? Life?
But the scientists wouldn’t talk. Having learned their lesson from the “arsenic life” fiasco, Grotzinger and his team waited until their data was confirmed before they made an official statement.# In the meantime, the media ran wild with speculation. When the official announcement finally came, people were shocked to discover… that the Curiosity rover was fully functional. That was it. The rover had found perchlorate, an oxygen and chlorine compound which formed organic compounds when heated in the analysis chamber. But as the press release was careful to express, “We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point.”
So what happened to the “earth shaking” finding? Well, this result was very exciting to the NASA scientists. It was the first time a rover had ever scooped and analyzed a Martian soil sample. But, as is often the case with science, the data were inconclusive and required further study. Maybe Grotzinger shouldn’t have said “one for the history books,” but “one for the history of science textbooks.”
Some think that John Grotzinger should have just kept silent until the official announcement. For example, Jeffrey Kluger over at Time believes that the “verbal high-fiving” shown by Grotzinger “might have been better shared with other scientists who understand the limitations of the finding… The lesson for JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratories] and NASA is straightforward: scientists should be circumspect when outsiders are present.”
Kluger paints a bleak picture of the current state of scientific communication in the public sphere. Not only does he think that scientists should suppress their excitement to avoid overreactions, but he reinforces the stereotype of science as a secret club that is inaccessible to non-academic “outsiders.”
I strongly disagree.
We need clear, enthusiastic discourse between scientists and the public in order to increase scientific literacy, raise support for research, and inspire the next generation. If people cannot “understand the limitations” of a scientist’s research, it is the duty of that scientist (and the journalist who conducts the interview) to equip them with the knowledge necessary to do so.
So how can scientists start the discourse? In blogs and on Twitter, some scientists are already engaged in direct communication with the public. They are PhD educated science writers, researchers looking for funding, or just scientists interested in sharing their knowledge and passion. They aren’t free of the threat of hype. Any one of them could accidentally be the next John Grotzinger. But they are willing to take that risk in the name of open communication. Curious as to how different scientists navigated those risks, I turned to Twitter to hear from them directly.
Have your own question for scientists? As always, feel free to contact any of us at The Incubator, but also check out this list of scientists on Twitter. Talk to them about their research, your ideas, or anything else. It’s a lot harder to be mislead by hype when you can directly follow up on the science news yourself.
 Although the team at NASA subjected their results to their own critical analysis, the results have yet to be published.
These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or endorsed by The Rockefeller University.
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