Overblown Statements in Press Releases Undermine Science
Scott Tremaine Institute for Advanced Study
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
In a recent column, AAS President David Helfand argued correctly that negative public messages about subfields within our own discipline, or even about other disciplines — “shooting inward at each other” — damage all of us.
Consider, then, the following public messages:
- from a major research university, a press release titled “Astronomers Discover Planet that Shouldn’t Be There,”
- from the European Southern Observatory, a press release titled “Turning Planetary Theory Upside Down,”
- from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a press release containing the quote, “Much of what we thought we understood about the physics of pulsars and neutron stars may be wrong,”
- from the Space Telescope Science Institute, a press release stating, “New observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope challenge 30 years of scientific theory about quasars,” and
- from a respected news organization, an interview with a prominent exoplanet researcher containing the quote, “Theory has struck out.”
The point is not whether these messages provide accurate characterizations of the state of theoretical understanding in their respective subject areas (though in most cases they do not). The point is that by belittling and trivializing the efforts of theoretical astrophysicists — who try to understand extremely complex processes in exotic environments, with limited clues from observations — they damage the public perception of the entire astronomy community. As just one example, statements from press releases such as those above are often repeated on creationist websites, where they carry extra weight because they have the imprimatur of NASA or a major observatory or university.
Advances in observational astronomy are spectacular enough to appeal to the public on their own merits, without “shooting inward” at efforts to understand these observations. Astronomers and press officers can provide a more realistic picture of the synergy between observation and theory, and in so doing would improve the public perception of astronomy research in particular and of the scientific enterprise more generally.