Alien Microbes Attack! Dangers Of Science News That Isn't Science Or News

It could have been the science story of a lifetime.

A NASA researcher publishes an article claiming to discover fossilized bacteria in a chunk of comet found on Earth. The implications are stunning — life exists not only on planets but even on ancient building blocks of solar systems. Yup, story of a lifetime.

If only it were true.

But it's most likely not true and now the research isn't even the real story any more. Instead the story has become how a marginal scientific journal managed to hook multiple news outlets into jumping feet first into a discovery that wasn't.

We astronomers gained wind that something was brewing on Friday morning. On Saturday, big outlets like CBS and Reuters published breathless articles on the story. By Monday, it was recognized that there was really nothing substantial going on. During those three days it was possible to see what is wrong and right about science in the popular press these days.

For example, from a Fox News "Exclusive" story a reader would have swooned with the sense that something extraordinary had just occurred:

We are not alone in the universe — and alien life forms may have a lot more in common with life on Earth than we had previously thought. That's the stunning conclusion one NASA scientist has come to, releasing his groundbreaking revelations in a new study in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology.

How could they have been so wrong? It's hard to say without being in the newsroom but one question to ask is, "Was a veteran science reporter working the story?"

One of the great tragedies of the last decade is the decline in science reporting as a specialty (a "beat" as they say in the newsroom). Many news organizations have reduced, or completely eliminated, their science reporting staff (CNN doesn't even have a "Science" section on their webpage). That is not a good thing for the rest of us.

Any good reporter who works a beat spends years getting to know her subject, learning who to trust and who to avoid. This is doubly true for science reporting where just knowing which scientific journals are reputable requires a lot of time in the trenches. The Journal of Cosmology where the meteor microbe article appears is not the place where major discoveries are usually announced in science. Just a little digging shows it's more than a little marginal. And while Richard Hoover is a reputable reseacher doing honest work, it's doubtful that a publication higher on the food chain would have made such a circus out of his paper.

It would be easy to compare and contrast Fox's inability to see the scientific holes in this story with their editorial penchant for dismissing climate science. Drawing that connection, however, would miss the broader point. Any science reporter will tell you science reporting in America is a woeful state. You don't need to be a member of the National Association of Science Writers to see the danger in this situation.

There has never been a moment in our democracy when the demand for a scientifically literate public was higher. We cannot have meaningful public debates on climate change or energy resource depletion without someone explaining the science behind these issues to the public. That job falls to well-informed, independent science journalists and they are becoming an endangered species.

By Monday (and earlier) you could see experieced science journalists picking up the story and separating wheat from chaff. That was heartening. The system can work when good people are there to work it. The role of bloggers in sniffing out the hype in the Journal of Cosmology's handling of the Hoover paper was also noteworthy. The role of science blogging in the media-o-sphere is still relatively new and in this case one can see it exerting a positive influence. But bloggers (myself included) are not replacements for investigative journalism.

Thus as the smoke clears on meteor-microbe story we learn, surprisingly, that the real issue wasn't life in space but intelligence on Earth.



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