The perils of science hyperbole

Paul Raven @ 13-12-2010

The fallout from the NASA paper on arsenic-eating critters has taught us a lot more about the life-cycle of exciting science stories than it has about the life-cycle of the critters themselves. Molecular biologist and super-sharp sf commentator Athena Andreadis does a post-mortem:

This is not the first or only time NASA administrators have been callously cavalier.  Yet even though the latest debacle didn’t claim lives like the Challenger incident did, it was just as damaging in every other way.  And whereas the Challenger disaster was partly instigated by pressure from the White House (Reagan needed an exclamation point for his State of the Union address), this time the hole in NASA’s credibility is entirely self-inflicted.  Something went wrong in the process, and all the gatekeeping functions failed disastrously.

[…]

NASA spokespeople, as well as Wolfe-Simon and Oremland, have stated that the only legitimate and acceptable critiques are those that will appear in peer-reviewed venues – and that others are welcome to do experiments to confirm or disprove their findings.

The former statement is remarkably arrogant and hypocritical, given the NASA publicity hyperdrive around the paper: embargoes, synchronized watches, melodramatic hints of “new life”, of a discovery with “major impact on astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life”.  This is called leading with your chin.  And if you live by PR, you cannot act shocked and dismayed when you die by PR.

As for duplicating the group’s experiments, the burden of proof lies with the original researchers. This burden increases if their claims are extraordinary.  The team that published the paper was being paid to do the work by a grant (or, possibly, by earmarked NASA money, which implies much less competition). For anyone else to confirm or disprove their findings, they will have to carve effort, time and money out of already committed funds — or apply for a grant specifically geared to this, and wait for at least a year (usually more) for the money to be awarded.  It’s essentially having to clean up someone else’s mess on your own time and dime.

Hyperbolic science PR is nothing new, of course, but it’s damaging and counter-productive in these politically-charged times:

By disbursing hype, NASA administrators handed ready-made ammunition to the already strong and growing anti-intellectual, anti-scientific groups in US society: to creationists and proponents of (un)intelligent design; to climate change denialists and young-earth biblical fundamentalists; to politicians who have been slashing everything “non-essential” (except, of course, war spending and capital gains income).  It jeopardized the still-struggling discipline of astrobiology.  And it jeopardized the future of a young scientist who is at least enthusiastic about her research even if her critical thinking needs a booster shot – or a more rigorous mentor.

There’s some sort of deep sad irony in here: our hunger for exciting new truths can jeopardise our chances of discovering them.

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One Response to “The perils of science hyperbole”

  1. Athena Andreadis says:

    Thanks for the signal boost, Paul! I sincerely wish I didn’t have to write this article — or that we could use Men in Black obliviation zaps (or time travel to December 2 and prevent NASA from holding that press conference).