An arsenic bacteria postmortem: NASA responds, tries to pit blogs vs. “credible media organizations”
Last week, in the first of my posts on the NASA-Science-arsenic-non-alien-bacteria fiasco, AAAS director of public programs Ginger Pinholster left what I found to be an extremely thoughtful comment. In it, she reports on the findings of her team’s post-mortem (AAAS publishes Science). She concludes:
In hindsight, what would I have done differently? First, NASA had routed a review copy of their media advisory to us in advance, and we should have flagged the “extra-terrestrial” line, but I’m afraid the abbreviated holiday week meant many of us were preoccupied with deadlines. (As the saying goes, the darned thing about people is, they’re human.) Second, in reviewing the sequence of coverage, I can see that the research (as opposed to teaser stories) had entered the public domain prior to the reporter phone call that ultimately triggered the embargo lift.
That NASA release, to remind you, read:
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.
I’d call Pinholster’s comments wonderfully refreshing, and I really appreciated them. We are, indeed, all human — although some might wonder about the proprietor of Embargo Watch; do vampires count as human? — and some degree of imperfections are to be expected. It’s the ability to take a look back and consider alternatives, in a non-defensive way, that’s how we make progress.
So I asked NASA if they had any postmortem comments, and whether they regretted using the phrase “extra-terrestrial” in their initial press release, something to which Pinholster called attention. Dwayne Brown, senior public affairs officer in the office of communications of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, responded:
It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback. However, the statement was accurate.
The real issue is that the reporting world has changed because of the Internet/bloggers/social media, etc. A “buzz” term like ET will have anyone with a computer put out anything they want or feel. NASA DID NOT HYPE anything – others did. Credible media organizations have not questioned NASA about any text. Bloggers and social media have……..it’s what makes our country great—FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
The discussion now is about the science and next steps.
Before I deconstruct that response, take a moment to compare and contrast Pinholster and Brown.
“Credible media organizations have not questioned NASA about any text.” Carl Zimmer may not be an “organization,” but he certainly writes for enough of them, including some upstart newspaper called The New York Times. In short, he’s basically the dean of my generation of science writers, so I’d say he’s “credible media.”
Well, Zimmer didn’t exactly praise NASA’s press release today in Slate, calling it “Sphinxlike” and putting it at the start of a misinformation cascade:
On Monday, NASA released a Sphinxlike press release: “NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Like a virulent strain of bacteria, speculation exploded over the next three days. “Did NASA Discover Life on One of Saturn’s Moons?” asked Gawker, a Web site that does not often ask questions about astrobiology.
And I think Ginger Pinholster is at a credible media organization. In fact, it’s the one that published the NASA study Brown is holding up as solid.
So is it really true that no one outside of bloggers in their pajamas — to quote a trope that I thought we’d abandoned years ago — is questioning that press release language? (Boy, I must really have identity issues. I work at a “credible media organization” and I have two blogs!)
But they’re not only questioning the press release, and NASA isn’t only going to ignore bloggers, it turns out:
“The discussion now is about the science and next steps.” Well, that discussion hasn’t exactly been going well for the NASA finding. Zimmer spoke to a dozen scientists about the paper, and none was very complimentary. One provided his Slate headline: “This Paper Should Not Have Been Published.” (That makes me wonder whether this study will find its way over to Retraction Watch.)
But Brown is consistent. He blames the blogosphere for getting this story wrong, and NASA has decided not to respond to any of those pesky blogger critiques of the paper, according to a story in the CBC, via David Dobbs. In fact, NASA scientists aren’t going to respond to criticisms in “credible media organizations” either:
When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.
You know, why should NASA respond to the critique from Rosie Redfield, some random blogger? Wait, you mean Redfield is a scientist who runs a
zoology microbiology lab in the University of British Columbia’s zoology department?
Obviously, I think NASA should take any criticisms seriously, be they from bloggers or credible media organizations, whatever false distinctions those are nowadays. Scientists should welcome challenges so they get the chance to prove they’re right. So should press officers.
After all, bloggers do. Jason Kottke, who may have started it all with this post, was quick to add an update when Alexis Madrigal said the finding wasn’t ET after all.
It’s worth noting that Brown cited freedom of speech, given that NASA last week did the scientific communication equivalent of falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that was unconstitutional.
Please see a new post on whether NASA followed its own code of conduct with this announcement.