8 December 2010
Akatsuki and Arsenic and AGU
Posted by Ryan Anderson
Hi folks. Sorry for the lack of activity here lately. The AGU is throwing a little get-together next week, which means I have been working on overdrive to finish a paper before putting together my poster.
In the meantime, the plot has thickened for the “arsenic life” story from last week. It is looking more and more like the results of the study were not as revolutionary as they claimed, and that there may have been some serious flaws in the study. I was hoping to find time to write something more coherent about this, but that probably won’t happen until after next week’s conference. At that point the story will be stale, so here are some sleep-deprived ramblings.
I think what happened was that the NASA press office seized on this research as a sexy and exciting result that, if spun correctly, could make the NASA astrobiology institute look good. So they worked up this exciting press conference and trumpeted the discovery of “arsenic-based life”. But now all that attention may be backfiring because a result like arsenic-based life is bound to draw a lot of criticism from other scientists, and since the story was so high-profile, so is the criticism.
All of this really has gotten me thinking about how the need to convince people that your science is worth funding can lead to exaggeration about the significance of research. You know how it goes. Every mars scientist is going to find little green men, or at least figure out where they all went. Everyone who studies asteroids is preparing to go all Bruce Willis when the doomsday rock appears, and every cosmologist is going to solve the equation for the universe. And of course press releases are the best at this. Every mundane result become a major step forward in curing cancer/understanding the universe/finding aliens/sending humans to mars.
The question is, does this all help or hurt? Does the benefit of getting people excited about scientific results outweigh the fact that maybe you exaggerated those results? Is there a ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect, causing people to tune out significant announcements because there are so many unnecessary ones? What do you think?
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t let you know that the Japanese mission to Venus, Akatsuki, apparently failed to enter orbit. I’ll admit, I haven’t been following it closely, so for more information, check out the Planetary Society Blog.
Obviously it depends on how it is presented. Personally, I’m getting tired of the number of times NASA has ‘discovered water on Mars’ and ‘the implications for extra-terrestrial life’ – or at least that is how it comes across.
I think that the Arsenic Life story has been handled badly, both pre-release and post-release and who ever is handling the PR on this story for NASA seriously needs to get a grip now.
We (as in the science community), however, I suspect are not the main target audience for the PR. It, of course, is primarily aimed at those that decide on their budget that NASA will be most interested in. It will be interesting to see who the Arsenic Life debacle plays with them. If the final message that comes across is that NASA is doing sloppy science and being sensationalist then I fear it will end in tears.
This brings to mind the sleeper effect which I just heard about. If you’re initially convinced by something only to have it discredited later that initial conviction sticks around and reappears after you’ve forgotten why it was discredited, exactly. It might not totally apply here, but it seems related. http://www.spring.org.uk/2010/11/persuasion-the-sleeper-effect.php http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeper_effect
Maybe NASA let the spin get out of control, but the research was still published in Science. The debate between the scientists is mostly focused on the paper, the quality of the methods and the validity of the conclusions the authors came to. Shouldn’t this stuff have come up in peer review?
Yeah, I agree that if there were issues this basic with the research, it should have come up in peer review. One of the blogs I linked above has an interesting theory on this though:
“I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.”