Note to media: “speculation” is not a synonym for “discovery”

I’m feeling a bit tetchy this week, and it’s not being helped by the fact that the media output from the AAAS conference, currently on in Chicago, is being dominated by stuff that one might charitably refer to as “somewhat speculative”. First-up was a talk by Dr. Alan Boss, which got headlines such as the BBC’s ‘Galaxy has ‘billions of Earths’:

So far, telescopes have been able to detect just over 300 planets outside our Solar System.

Very few of these would be capable of supporting life, however. Most are gas giants like our Jupiter, and many orbit so close to their parent stars that any microbes would have to survive roasting temperatures.

But, based on the limited numbers of planets found so far, Dr Boss has estimated that each Sun-like star has on average one “Earth-like” planet.

Erm… based on what, exactly? The preceding two paragraphs indicate that it’s certainly not the current census of extra-solar planets. You could argue that present trends towards the detection of smaller and/or less closely orbiting extra-solar planets indicate that what we’ve seen so far has been biased by the limitations of our technology, and therefore as soon as we get the ability to detect earth-like bodies there’s a good possibility we will indeed start finding them. There are some indications from a slightly longer write-up at PhysOrg that this was indeed what Dr. Boss was arguing (but note the equally breathlessly inaccurate headline). It’s an interesting discussion, and if I was forced to put some money down I’d be inclined to agree with his prediction, but I’m not particularly impressed with the failure to properly delineate between a possibility and an actual discovery.
Exhibit B was today’s reports that Alien life ‘may exist among us’:

Our planet may harbour forms of “weird life” unrelated to life as we know it, according to Professor Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University.

This “shadow life” may be hidden in toxic arsenic lakes or in boiling deep sea hydrothermal vents, he says.

He has called on scientists to launch a “mission to Earth” by trawling hostile environments for signs of bio-activity.

Weird life could even be living among us, in forms which we don’t yet recognise, he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago.

“We don’t have to go to other planets to find weird life.

“It could be right in front of our noses – or even in our noses,” said the physicist.

Again, another intriguing possibility, but as far as I know there is absolutely zero evidence for a “shadow biosphere”. On this one, I’d probably be with the doubters: could life independently pop up again on a planet where life has already developed (it’s hard to imagine metabolically useful chemicals being able to get their own chemistry going without being scavenged by microbes)? But it does bring up a lot of interesting questions about how you’d tell, which are also relevant to detecting life outside our planet. Nonetheless, when you get down to it, this is untethered speculation, and I’m not sure that the reporting really makes that clear.
Am I the only one who finds this a little annoying? It’s not that it isn’t interesting to hear about this stuff, but the blurring between data and informed (or not-so-informed) conjecture is somewhat maddening. Surely there are some actual scientific results being reported at the AAAS?

Categories: general science, planets, public science, ranting
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Comments (7)

  1. Bob O'H says:

    You know, I have a theory. My theory is that when physicists reach a particular professional level, their brains are removed and replaced with a quantum computer that is utterly incapable of understanding anything other than physics. “Why haven’t we discovered this already?”, you ask. Simple. We haven’t looked.

  2. Lockwood says:

    Am I the only one who finds this a little annoying? No, you most certainly are not. I too have seen several versions of the two stories you note above, and I agree that they are of interest, but are reported too assertively, with little to indicate just how speculative they are. For someone with a firm grounding in science, this has no real consequences other than irritation combined with passing interest. Unfortunatly, a huge number of people now undoubtedly believe that we’ve found a previously unknown form of life living up our noses, which can be cured with the right kinds of herbal supplements. Which are imported from several of the hundreds of billions of earth-like planets we have now discovered. The general public has no ability to approach this kind of reporting with appropriate skepticism. The press doesn’t care; it’s business is to entertain and advertise, not inform.

  3. Maria says:

    I think it’s not so much the failure to distinguish between data, solid models, and more speculative stats stuff that bothers me (although that is for sure sub-optimal) as the failure to tell us why this “news” is actually new and different from previous work. Doing that would, I think, force at least a partial explanation of the basis for the new discovery.
    Even in cases where the discovery in question is obviously the result of many thorough experiments, I am often left wondering – what, of all this, did we already know? Why did we need this particular effort to advance our understanding of science?
    And what’s really bad is when a technical talk leaves me with those same questions.

  4. guthrie says:

    I find it annoying as well, because all that most people will remember in a few years time are the headlines. Thus we end up with a public which feels cheated and confused when it finds out the actual state of play.

  5. Bee says:

    Evidence? Who cares whether there’s evidence? Fact or Fiction? – who cares as long as it sells!

  6. Lab Lemming says:

    I reckon that, among certain subsets of the exoplanetary community, there are some dick measuerers who are trying to come up with the highest probability.
    There’s also the selection effect which causes anyone who thinks the probability is low is going to study something else.
    So Maria, this is “news” because the last guy to make such a statement said “one in three”.
    The other thing is, what the fuck does “Earth-like” mean?
    Not only does that need to be defined, but everyone giving a probability estimate for Earth-like planets should also be asked about probability of new types of planet that nobody has observed yet. Thusfar, the new/expected (Earth or otherwise) ratio for planets is very large.
    So I see these high “Earth-like” numbers as a failure of imagination.

  7. Nick says:

    I don’t know. I get less annoyed by these examples than the human-interest tripe that dominates the New York Times science pages or the revamped NOVA on PBS.
    What’s a little more troubling is that these particular scientists are getting so much credit. After all, the Rare Earth Hypothesis vs. The Principle of Mediocrity for other Earth-like, life-supporting planets is ongoing, and should generally cite Drake, I suppose.
    Similarly, the concept that our biosphere needs more investigation and routinely produces new phyla (when we look) is well-established (and best articulated by Joe Cann, Leeds).