Thursday, February 17, 2005

Life on Mars and cocktail party journalism

Do you publish a story overheard at a private meeting—or: is there life on Mars?
Feb. 17, 2005

Some science stories don’t really matter. Like, what if string theory is wrong and the strings are more like beads. See? Life on Mars? Unless they invade (see the movie coming out soon), does it matter much? It could raise some interesting journalistic questions, however. Two NASA researchers were overheard at a private meeting at the Ames Research Center in Mt. View, CA, describing their research findings. They didn’t actually say they found life, only the methane signatures that there might be life, something like what you would see in terrestrial caves. They said they had submitted their research to Science magazine, the esteemed peer review journal, but it had not gone through the review process yet. A reporter for space.com heard about it and put the article on the web site. It went from there to the wire services and out. Then again, does it matter? The same day, space.com also reported that other scientists found evidence of extensive water there. Their research had been reviewed and would appear in next week’s Science.

7 comments:

DLC said...

First of all, I wanted t let you know that I appreciate your efforts in creating this blog, and I look forward to checking in on it regularly. Thanks for doing it. (I came to it as an NASW member and list-mostly-lurker).
A few points on the Space.com story that you refer to in this item, which I do think crossed a few journalistic lines. One unfortunate consequence of that is that Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke's very interesting work at Rio Tinto, Spain, the subject of the leak from a conversation at a private dinner party (referred to in the space.com story as a meeting of NASA officials), has gotten an undeserved black eye.
Anyway, I just went to check, and the story has now been removed from the space.com site altogether! Nothing shows up in a search at all. They also removed their story from the following day, a more legitimate story about Vittorio Formisano's claim to have identified formaldehyde in the Mars atmosphere, which he says is indicative of life. (New Scientist's story on that, which I think got it right, is still available). A subsequent story by space.com's Leonard David, a very good piece, is the only thing on the subject still there.
It seems to me a little odd for a well-known website like space.com to remove two very high-profile stories, without comment or followup, as if they never happened. What do others think?
(Oh, a few minor details on the story: the dinner was in a suburb of Washington, DC, not in California, and their research only concerns previously unknown microbes on Earth, that seem to be a good match for known Mars conditions. I'm sure they made no claim to know anything about what is on Mars now, just what could be there. The space.com piece said they had sent a paper to Nature, which has been denied by both Stoker and Nature.)

DLC said...

One quick correction to my previous comment:
It turns out there is one other story still on Space.com, a followup story by the original reporter, Brian Berger, that came out after NASA issued its denial. That story is here.

DLC said...

And after further checking, it seems the original story is still there. Apparently the only thing that's changed is that it doesn't show up in a search of the site, looking for all stories that mention Mars, for example.

Steve LaBonne said...

Life on Mars, were it ever found, would matter a whole lot to anyone interested in molecular evolution and the origin of life. Which means it ought to matter to anyone endowed with any curiosity about where we came from.

Joel Shurkin said...

I think I phrased that unfortuntely. I think finding life on Mars would be stupendous. I don't think whether the story reported by space.com turns out accurate is not. My point, which I think still holds, is that reporters shouldn't report things they hear at cocktail parties. One famous science reporter got into serious trouble that way, and deserved it.

Steve LaBonne said...

I understand what you meant now, and as a former academic scientist (now a forensic scientist, and we probably have even more to worry about with respect to being misquoted these days!), I agree heartily with your cocktail-party point. I just wish all reporters were as responsible.

P.S. Great blog, I expect to be a regular reader!

Joel Shurkin said...

You know, on second thought, that's wrong. It does matter if there is life. I'll go back in a few days and change the wording. That sounds stupid. Thanks for pointing it out.