Science, and rumors of science

By Phil Plait | August 3, 2010 2:19 pm

Dennis Overbye of the New York Times has a good article on rumors in science: how they get started, and how they propagate. As someone who stamps flat about a dozen or more of these every year, I appreciated Overbye’s take on it… especially as I’ve been too busy to look into the latest ones, like the foofooraw over a misunderstanding about how the Kepler mission has found hundreds of Earthlike planets. It hasn’t, and happily the NYT article covers that terrestrial tempest in a teapot pretty well.

I try not to report astronomy news here until it’s officially released, and even then I always try to read the journal paper affiliated with it, if there is one. I’ve skipped a lot of press releases after reading the paper and finding the PR was inaccurate, or the news incremental (in other words, a step in the right direction to understanding something, which is important in science but not always newsworthy), or that the work has been done before. I’m surprised at how often that last bit happens; in science new observations confirming previous results are important, but again, newsworthiness has different criteria.

Anyway, even if you read something here, I’m not asking you to believe it. I do my best to look into these things when they occur, but it’s not always possible to be 100% accurate. Take everything you read with a grain of salt. You’ll be a lot less likely to get fooled that way.

Tip o’ the printing press to Sarah Anderson.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Debunking, Science

Comments (30)

  1. Jeffersonian

    I’ve learned to believe just about nothing the press says that contains elements of science, tech, or programming (even op systems). But what really annoys me is that any article that addresses atomic power will shift the subject to nuclear weapons within a few paragraphs. This is the cause of permanent confusion amongst Americans.

    Editors stick to idiotic formulas, shy away from anything not already established as in-the-box, publish only articles published elsewhere with slight tweaks, and, increasingly, lift opinions from blogs and report them as fact.

  2. Editors stick to idiotic formulas because they know their readers are idiots.

    There, I fixed it for you. 😛

  3. Jeff in Tucson

    The internet LIED to me?!?!? I want my money back!

  4. Mad Non-Practicing Scientist

    I imagine Phil, that another big difference between you and most other sources of science news is that if you did find out that you had made an error you would go out of your way to correct it.
    Oh and Jeffersonian, I don’t know what US press is like, but here in Australia it’s a good rule of thumb to take what the press says with a HUGE grain of salt for any topic, not just science and tech.

  5. Jeff

    ” like the foofooraw over a misunderstanding about how the Kepler mission has found hundreds of Earthlike planets. It hasn’t, and happily the NYT article covers that terrestrial tempest in a teapot pretty well.”

    True, but it is inevitable that this will happen.

    I spent my career in science, and have come up with a few of my own conclusions: get rid of the ivory-tower tenure system, and just open up science to the general public, with the internet. I have a lot more fun reading these blogs than the word-salad tomes of science journals. In my opinion,, scientists themselves do their share of “guess-work” in their papers , too these days. I mean, a century ago, there were a lot of new frontiers, today, there still are, but they are maxing out with experimental observations. What are scientists afraid of, that they’ll lose their jobs?

    Anyway, I’ve been there, so I can earn a right to my opinion.

  6. gopher65

    Jeffersonian said:
    But what really annoys me is that any article that addresses atomic power will shift the subject to nuclear weapons within a few paragraphs.

    I spend a good deal of time on Wikinews, and I’ve found that a Wikinews article that is 150 words long can often contain the same amount of information that is relevant to the story at hand as a 3 page long CNN article.

    Example: Article about NASA probe heading toward Pluto. Wikinews article will say, “Probe hit midpoint in its journey toward Pluto”, and then have a couple lines of pertinent background information. CNN article will say the exact same thing, then talk about the Challenger disaster, then talk about Columbia, then talk about the moon landings, then ramble on about a hypersonic aircraft that NASA is developing.

    It’s clear from CNN (and Fox, and MSNBC, and BBC) that they have a NASA template that they copy and paste onto every article in order to pad it out. They don’t actually write any of that crap themselves, they just ctrl + v it onto an article that includes the word “NASA” (my guess would be that it’s via a bot or macro that does a keyword search&paste). Then they chop the padded out article into 3 pages and hope that people will click their way through.

    It’s sad.

  7. Take everything you read with a grain of salt. You’ll be a lot less likely to get fooled that way.

    I don’t believe you.

  8. VisionEngineer

    “I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human being than someone who doesn’t believe anything.”

    David St. Hubbins

  9. Tyler Durden

    The sad thing about the media’s sensationalism and utter lack of fact-checking is that when we *do* discover a truly Earthlike planet (2 Earth radii or less, in its star’s habitable zone, with habitable atmosphere confirmed through spectroscopy) the vast majority of people will shrug and say either, “What else is new?” or “They must have got it wrong again.”

    It’s a pretty sad “boy who cried wolf” story. Potentially the greatest discovery of this century, and it’s bound to get buried on the back pages of the newspaper because the shoddy reporting has ruined it before the discovery even happened.

  10. Dean

    I’d just assumed that the article writer that simply gotten confused between ‘earth sized’ and ‘earth like’. Being familiar with the Kepler project, I knew there was no way those ‘earth like’ planets were actually like Earth.

    But even then I was really excited…even if a large proportion of those candidate planets turn out to be false positives, there are a LOT of them. And this doesn’t even include candidates with longer orbital periods.

  11. Joshmo

    This always miffs me when I read blogs of people I highly respect online: if we were to take everything a person (the one we respect), one who ostensibly does their best to hold themselves to high standards, with a grain salt, why on Earth would we be reading you instead of some schmuck?

    This is why I tend to take most news organizations, since it’s very well known they do not hold themselves to even the standards of average bloggers when it comes to science, with a grain of salt, and why I <3 Phil.

  12. LSandman24

    I had to explain to my astronomy class that the Kepler mission (that they, too, had blown out of proportion) was akin to looking through your dirty clothes hamper. Kepler will show you all the dirty laundry (potential Earth-like planets) that could potentially be your favorite pair of jeans (THE Earth-like planet), but if you want them you’re going to have to start digging (digging through information from multitudes of other data sources).

    It’s bad enough that my instructor is mostly absent and I’m left discussing Dr. Plait’s blogs with my classmates so that they may actually learn something. 😀

  13. Cairnos

    One of the things I like about having at least basic knowledge of astronomy is that back when I first heard about it I knew enough to think “Wow, they’ve detected non-jovians, that’s so cool!”

  14. Brian

    Tyler Durden@9: Actually, I don’t think that’s true. Look at how many times the media has made headlines out of scientists finding water on Mars. (And there’ll probably be at least one more in the future.) I fully expect that every incremental increase in knowledge about Earthlike exoplanets will be heralded in the mainstream media as The One Big Breakthrough.

  15. Speaking of scientific rumors, there’s a solar flare on the way that’s going to wipe us out anyway.

  16. Astrofiend

    Quite simply, the media has a horrendous time with science because there are so few positions available for dedicated science writers. This means that journos bring their own pre-conceived notions of what scientists actually do along for the ride, and you’re left with articles that include words like ‘Eureka!’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘proved’ and other words that the public seem to think scientists use on a daily basis but in reality never do…

  17. KC

    Press releases directly from universities are probably worst as the PR people are desperately trying to make theirs look like the Greatest Institution of Higher Learning that has ever existed – the science be damned.

  18. Skeptikor

    Astrofiend: Quite right. This is the unfortunate side-effect of rabid cost-cutting among all media. Any news-gathering organization, if faced with a choice between holding an experienced (read “pricey”) business, political or science reporter on staff will, in almost every case choose one of the first two and not even consider the third.

  19. MadScientist

    Uh oh. I can see how that one’ll morph: The BA told me not to believe Global Warming.

  20. KC@17 – I agree, I have seen research with completely mixed results or a minor correlation picked up by university PR and made to sound like they found undeniable evidence that everything you thought is wrong.

  21. jcm

    Probably this is a good place to mention that usually when science news are reported scientists are lumped together and usually never bother to identify the field of expertise.

  22. gss_000

    Let’s not just blame “the media,” a lot of what happened here was because of “new media” too that spread rumors and one side without actually doing reporting. A lot of bloggers do nothing more than repeat press releases with hardly any changes, or propagate misinformation. The NYTimes article came days after other “reporting” from online sources and that really pushed the story. Not to say the media is perfect, but let’s not blame one without looking at the other.

  23. Therophin

    I have learned that you have to skim all of the news (not just science) now with a fine tooth comb just to figure out what is fact and what the news organization wants you to know. It’s sad that the media has more on it’s agenda then just reporting fact.

  24. Bertrum

    “Nothing seemed further from everyday reality once upon a time than Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the warped space-time theory of gravity, but now it is at the heart of the GPS system”

    Huh? in what way?

  25. @Bertrum,

    The precise clocks. They actually take into account factors that we only know as a result of the warping of spacetime. Otherwise the GPS position you receive would drift over time.

  26. “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny … “ – Isaac Asimov

  27. John Nouveaux

    “Take everything you read with a grain of salt. You’ll be a lot less likely to get fooled that way.”

    Now that’s my kind of skeptic! :-)

  28. Does NEAR have sufficient resolution to spot Russel’s teapot? Jest askin’ 😉

  29. Tribeca Mike

    I thought Mr. Overbye’s op-ed was interesting, though it seemed a bit patronizing (how many gullible scientists are we talking about here?), but I was disappointed there wasn’t a comments section. Who knows how the Times on-line decides which articles will have one. Anyway, your last two sentences above were exactly what I would have written.

  30. I always thought the Higgs bison was a breed of buffalo.


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