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.


What #amazonfail says about Twitter

Paul Raven @ 16-04-2009

amazonfail logoTwitter has definitely made the transition from inexplicable geek tool to mass-media buzz phenomenon (as indicated by the plethora of recent posts about it, both here and elsewhere).

The rapidity of Twitter’s rise (and, arguably, its seeming innocuousness) has allowed it to get the jump on organisations unprepared for its power, speed and influence – as demonstrated by the #Amazonfail debacle over the easter weekend.

Jeremiah Tolbert takes a look at #amazonfail, and determines that Twitter is almost the ideal medium for that sort of emergent protest, as well as a warning to organisations big and small that they need to learn to respond to criticism on microblogging networks as quickly as possible:

In the information void that existed on the weekend, many intentions were invented to explain. Right-wingers had collaborated to manipulate the system via tags. Amazon had capitulated to right-wingers and dropped the titles. It was a programming error. A massive conspiracy of internet pranksters manufactured it so that they could feed on the outraged tears of twitter users. And so on.

Much like Nature abhors a vaccum, the internet ahbors an absence of information.

Amazon’s lack of immediate response allowed the controversy to build to unprecedented levels. Rarely have I seen the internet move in one angry direction so effectively. It never would have moved this quickly in the time before Twitter. Email, texts, none of them had the perfect assembly of features and usability that Twitter does.

Much as we were discussing with respect to the Moldovan Twitter revolution, there’s no implicit morality in this system; it gets used to express the hopes, prejudices and fears of its users. Spiraltwist at grinding.be makes the point:

Forget the bot networks. Forget the viruses. All you need is a massive follower list (or enough people to cross pollinate their twitter streams with your message) and people clicking to take down or disrupt websites for a bit. Click. Click. Click.

There must be dozens of technothriller authors across the planet chewing their pencils in frustration at having been pipped to the post by reality on a particularly pertinent Zeitgest plot device…