The Science Behind the Press Release

Every morning I receive the most up-to-the-minute NASA press releases. Being an astrobiologist, I got particularly excited when the press release headline read:

NASA’s Kepler Confirms Its First Planet In Habitable Zone

I immediately posted to Facebook that we had found an earth-like planet in habitable zone and that this was the beginning of host of such discoveries.

However, by the end of the day, my mailbox was full of analyses from my research group about how this planet was a little too big to be an Earth twin and since it was also a little closer to the star, it was probably more like a Venus twin, and that we didn’t know the cloud cover or composition so making claims about habitability was really premature. And so on.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, my colleagues and I are heaving a collective heavy sigh because we are all a little tired of the press releases that promise such amazing discoveries, that, in the end, turn out to be not quite what we were looking for. While Kepler-22B is the closest thing yet, I’m thinking of the dust-up around the unconfirmed (and likely nonexistent) Gliese 581 g, but there have been others in the extrasolar planetary science community.

The funny bit? On closer reading of the press release, the researchers are very clear that they did not find an Earth-like planet, only a planet that was nearly the size of the Earth in the habitable zone.  They make no claims about habitability, only stating, as Kepler program scientist Douglas Hudgins did, that “this is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin.”

But who reads the press release in detail? I certainly didn’t and I immediately told Facebook, my friends, and my doctor that Kepler had just discovered its first Earth-like planet in habitable zone. Because I am enthusiastic like that.

I am also pretty sure the general public didn’t read the press release. And, judging by a list of recent headlines…

New planet Kepler22b could already be inhabited with lifeform

US military pays SETI to check Kepler22b for aliens

Newly discovered planet ‘Kepler22b‘ is eerily similar to Earth, NASA says 

…the bloggers and the press didn’t either.

But the “press release as scientific dissemination tool” is a growing phenomenon, especially when communicating science to the general public. NASA, to its credit,  has very solid press releases that are based on scientific evidence, recent images, or published papers or proceedings. But often, there is also a layer of enthusiasm that cynics would call “hype”. Why? Because the scientists are very excited about what they find, especially if it is new or controversial.

A nearly ancient example, from my students’ perspective, is the findings by David McKay and his team of evidence for ancient life in the martian meteorite ALH84001. To be sure, this was a published and solid peer-reviewed piece of scientific work by McKay and his co-authors. They had discovered three pieces of evidence indicated the possibility that microbial life had inhabited the rock. They outlined their methods and findings in a peer-reviewed journal, and invited the scientific community to weigh in on the issue.

The real problem? The press conference was announced by The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and his address was so full of hyperbole they used some of it for the announcement that SETI had found evidence for an intelligent signal from space in the movie Contact.

The NASA press conference announcing arsenic loving bacteria is a more recent example. NASA followed the same pattern of presenting scientific results from peer-reviewed work, even going so far as to dedicate nearly half of the press conference to a scientist who didn’t believe the conclusions of the authors. But, again, the hyperbole of the press release caused a backlash from scientists condemning the work, and the authors, for shoddy science.

Not that such condemnation shouldn’t take place. I have received some bitter rebuttals to some of my published work, but those have come in the form of referees’ comments or, more commonly, new papers that dispassionately refute my findings. Such is the way of science.

But the press release deluge piped directly into an eager blogosphere is creating a climate where even scientists forget that peer review for publication is but the first thin veneer of scientific review. Papers, even bad ones, even ones that contain shoddy lab work or crummy models, get published. They should get published. How else is the scientific community going to get a crack at tearing them apart or building up supporting evidence?

This idea that publication is the first and last line of scientific review even leads people I respect, like Joel Salatin, to condemn scientific studies as containing the biases of the researchers and, thus, should not be trusted.  Of course scientific studies are biased by the ideas of the researchers. Of course they should not be trusted. That is why they invented journal clubs for grad students, where we learn to tear apart peer-reviewed and published scientific papers for the utter dreck that most of them are. I only need to go back and read a small collection of my own work to find cringe-worthy errors that have later been pointed out to me after publication in a peer reviewed journal. To my credit, we’ve published a fair number of our our such rebuttals. What goes around comes around.

But I know why my fellow scientists get so outraged when a press release results in news stories that mislead the public. We have one of the least scientifically literate populations on the planet and the really funny part is this: most of them read a lot of science news! My students eat up space related stories on the web. My dentist, after recounting an accurate analysis of special relativity he’d read about online, went on to tell me how Einstein’s ideas proved that you could invent the universe just by thinking about it.

What should we do about this? We have a primed engine, in the form of public relations officers, who routinely write accurate press releases for NASA and other university research groups. We have a skilled scientific community who are not interested in misleading anyone, let alone the public. And, I believe, we have a talented press corp and nascent group of science bloggers who are intelligent, thorough, and interested in communicating the wonders of science to the world.

And yet half of my students think the space shuttle (still) routinely visits the Moon and the other half believe we never put men on the Moon in the first place.

But at least they are pretty sure there is an Earth-like twin orbiting a sun-like star in the galaxy. And someday we might actually find it.

2 responses to “The Science Behind the Press Release

  1. Pingback: 新聞稿背後的科學 | PanSci 泛科學

  2. Pingback: 新聞稿背後的科學 | PanSci 泛科學

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