Having been gently prodded by Nereid in the comments to my previous post on the topic, I want to say a lot more about scientific reporting. The reason for the delay in this post, by the way, is probably obvious but the screenshot below – which shows the front page of CNN.com yesterday afternoon says it all.
First off, it’s wonderful that we’re getting a new wave of interest in Galaxy Zoo, which is bringing with it a new flood of people eager to start classifying galaxies. The timing is great; we’re hopefully just a week or so away from the launch of Zoo 2 (don’t hold me to that) when there will be plenty more work to go around. However, I feel very, very uneasy about writing about the Voorwerp now; the paper which describes it has only been submitted to the journal, and it doesn’t yet have the stamp of peer review. For some projects, it makes sense to talk about results at this stage; if you have a beautiful picture of a spiral galaxy then you might as well release the picture and leave the details to the experts. But here at least part of the story lies in what we think the object is, and until that gets accepted by the journal we could all end up with lots of egg on our collective face. If I were our friendly (but thorough – as they should be) referee I’d be more than slightly annoyed that the authors of the paper were talking to the press.
So why are we talking to anyone? Because the steady drip feed of stories from journalists who had read our blog (or – better – who were active members of the zoo) was growing into a torrent, particularly in the Dutch media who recognised a fantastic story in Hanny’s discovery, and that rush of attention meant that if we were ever going to talk about this object we had to do it straight away, or risk losing the media’s attention.
So why did we blog the results as we went along? It’s something we’ve tried to do as we’ve gone through the process of converting clicks on the Galaxy Zoo website into science (current scorecard : 2 papers accepted, 2 under discussion with referees, 1 awaiting a response, many more on the way). The reasons for this are at least threefold. Firstly, I’m serious when I talk about the users of our website as our scientific collaborators. What they do makes the science possible, and it’s a matter of simple courtesy to tell them what we’re doing with it, and to recognise their contributions. Secondly, we were very, very excited about the Voorwerp, and to be honest have probably been talking excitedly about it to everyone we’ve come in contact with.
Thirdly, I strongly believe that something that the media are bad at is showing science in progress. If you read mainstream news coverage of science you’ll see a string of discoveries and eureka moments, but this isn’t how things are in reality. The reality of doing science day to day involves talking and arguing and thinking, and it’s in those arguments that the scientific method lurks. If you can’t defend your idea with data, whether talking to a journal’s referee, to your colleagues in the office down the corridor or even to yourself, then it doesn’t survive.
You wouldn’t get that impression from reading the press, or from the science education that schoolchildren receive. In both, there seems to lurk an assumption that science has a big book of facts which we’re slowly adding to by sitting quietly in ivory towers or in the bath and thinking before announcing The Truth to awestruck colleagues and Nobel prize committees.
Not only is this assumption wrong, but it’s dangerous too. The result of the public never seeing scientific disagreement and debate are horrific. Without any understanding of how to question a scientific statement, is it any surprise that the public are confused when scientist A says ‘Vaccines are safe’ and scientist B says ‘they may cause autism’, or when scientist C says ‘Global warming is man made’ and scientist D blames the Sun. Both are speaking with the Voice of Science (TM), but how to distinguish? To me it’s obvious – ask about their data sets, ask what other studies exist, ask what other explanations they considered and how they ruled them out and so on and so on. The public, confused by the sight of scientific disagreement, tends to throw up its arms and conclude that Science has nothing to say on the subject regardless of what the true weight of evidence is.
That’s why I’m a huge admirer of the way that at least my part of science has been moving – toward having data and papers freely available. Want to do your own project with the data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey? Here you go. Want to see the images that the Phoenix spacecraft took yesterday on Mars? Their gallery is updated as the images hit the ground, for anyone who cares to take a look.
Mentioning Phoenix, of course, is what opened this can of worms in the first place. There’s a good summary over at the planetary society of what happens if you think you’ve discovered perchlorate on Mars. Scientist Tom Pike weighs in on his blog, too. I don’t have much to add to that specifically, beyond pointing out that for all the references to ‘internet speculation’ the root of this story was a journalist for a print magazine doing good, old-fashioned journalism.
It’s a storm in a teacup which will soon be forgotten by all except those involved, and, no doubt, a bunch of conspiracy theorists who will see this as a leak from NASA’s otherwise excellent smokescreen which excludes all evidence of little green men from the public eye. I, though, am still angry that NASA and the Phoenix team – who were so open and hospitable to us when we filmed there a month or two ago – had to publicly insist they weren’t hiding anything.
If I had my way, it would be possible to have our arguments about what percholorate means for life on Mars, about what Hanny’s Voorwerp is and everything else right in the public eye. To do that, though, we need to help teach people how to argue with scientists and to argue like scientists. I truly believe that in releasing data fast NASA is helping achieve that, and that by blogging Galaxy Zoo’s journey we can too. Even if we end up talking about things before we’re sure about them.