Friday, October 29, 2010

Science and the media: why you shouldn't believe everything your read

A month ago, I blogged about a newly-discovered planet, Gliese 581g, that may or may not be suitable for life.  Since that time, considerable controversy has arisen.  A competing team of planet hunters has claimed that they cannot find the same planet in their data.  After trumpeting an amazing discovery, many of the same media outlets are publishing stories decrying the (possibly) false result.  Confused?  You have a right to be.  Some of the blame for this confusion lies with scientists on both teams, but much lies at the feet of the science media who are reporting the story.  (I'll share in that blame since I didn't question the reality of the planet in my original post, though I did discuss our lack of knowledge about what this planet is truly like).

Today, a friend posted this opinion piece from Marty Robbins published online by the Guardian, which I think does a superb job of summarizing where the reporting went wrong.  To summarize Robbins's summary, the scientists and press releases by both teams clearly state (though sometimes bury) that their discovery / refutation of Gleise 581g is preliminary, and needs to be confirmed by additional data.  In other words, both groups have admitted that they might be wrong in their assessments.  But those cautions are not discussed or only tangentially discussed in most of the media coverage, so the public thinks a preliminary reporting is solid fact.

Scientists, in general, are a cautious bunch, especially near the boundaries of science when we are pushing instruments and methods to their limits.  We try to calculate how likely we are to be right or wrong, but those calculations are themselves dependent on assumptions that can be wrong.  For this reason, exciting new discoveries are often found, later, to be incorrect.  Whether it be planets, dark matter, or medical breakthroughs, we scientists get it wrong.  Sometimes we think we made a mistake, only to find out we were mistaken about the mistake and actually correct in the first place.

Some of my students have gotten upset when I can't answer their insightful questions about topics we've covered in our astronomy class.  They want to know answers, but science doesn't know the answer yet.  I'm trying to help them to realize that science is the process of learning the answers, so a lack of knowledge is not a failure.  It's just a sign we have more work to do.

Science is a human endeavour.  As such, there will be failures, debates, bitter arguments, and oversized egos involved, and there always have been.  It is crucial for the public to realize that these "bad" things are healthy and necessary parts of science, if we want science to advance.  Stridently competing claims such as those surrounding Gliese 581g do not mean that the scientists involved are idiots who deserve to have their funding cut; it means that we are exploring new frontiers.  Astronomy conferences where five teams with five competing claims erupting into shouting matches do not mean that that frontier is hopeless to study, but that there are lots of people who find it interesting, exciting, and important enough to pour their work and emotion into exploring it.

So, when you see competing claims in the media about a new scientific discovery, don't be frustrated and angry by our lack of ability to instantly know all the answers.  If all you want to know is what the right answer is, then tune science out, come back in 50 years and we can tell you.  But if you like the thrill of the chase and the excitement of discovery, competing claims are a call to sit up and pay attention, because some exciting work is going on.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Loss of another great astronomer

This past weekend I learned that Dr. John Huchra, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, passed away of a heart attack.  An obituary detailing Huchra and his contributions has appeared in the New York Times.

Huchra's death has had a profound impact on many astronomers.  Part of it is certainly that his passing was unexpected.  But much larger part is that he was an outstanding human being who was not only passionate about science, but also cared deeply for those around him.  I've seen several moving tributes by friends and colleagues on Facebook and by email.  There is clearly a profound sense of loss among the worldwide astronomical community; we lost a dear member of our family.

(Edited to correct Huchra's affiliation)