Bad Science Journalism Attacks Mars

November 28th, 2012

A few days ago I posted about possible exciting news about Mars and Bigfoot, and was skeptical about the bigfoot news and optimistically patient about the Mars news…

I placed half my bets in the wrong column.

The news from Mars, which sounded like it would be about organic molecules and life, was a misunderstanding.

When Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger told NPR last week that the Mars rover had found something that “is gonna be one for the history books,” speculation about the possibly discovery of evidence of organic life quickly went into overdrive.

Less remarked upon was a rather cryptic tweet from the Curiosity team after the interview:

What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission “one for the history books” …

Wills figured the statement was a rather, well, curious one to make for a science team that was supposedly preparing to announce a groundbreaking Mars discovery in early December. She took the matter up with NASA social media manager Veronica McGregor, who described the tweet as an effort to “quell” a runaway rumor.

“It’s always difficult to quell rumors like this one. But at the same time it’s great to see so many people are excited and interested in what the rover might find,” McGregor told Mashable.

It seems that the misunderstanding between Grotzinger and NPR came about because the NASA scientist was discussing Curiosity’s mission and findings in general terms as “historic,” while the public radio programmer interpreted his words as a reference to a specific and recent discovery made by the surface probe.

So Grotzinger’s reference to a recent Curiosity soil sample-collecting foray that the mission’s “science team is busily chewing away on” was simply a description of the scientific process the team uses rather than a hint at a specific finding by the rover in the Martian soil, according to Wills.

Scientists need to be careful what they say during interviews, but ultimately journalists have to be careful not to jump to conclusions — especially unintended ones. I’m sure there will be people who blame NASA, somehow, for overhyping their results, because haters going to be haters.

Still skeptical about the Bigfoot DNA results. I want to believe, but I’m going to be disappointed in this case, I have little doubt…

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