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Overblown Statements in Press Releases Undermine Science

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 - 14:10


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.

Scott D. Tremaine
Institute for Advanced Study

1 Comment

ncowan - Tuesday, February 4th, 2014 @ 4:01pm -

I agree with the title of Scott Tremaine's letter but disagree with its sentiment. Taking aim at theoretical predictions is entirely different from taking pot shots at other branches of astronomy. These headlines are taken out of context because the public is under the mistaken impression that science is an edifice of facts rather than a dynamic process.

Any theorist worth her salt strives to make falsifiable predictions, while an observer is not doing her job if her measurements do not rule out some models. Proving that a theory is incorrect does not imply that its developers are bad theorists.  On the contrary, they did their jobs by sticking their necks out and making specific predictions!

As a researcher who has worked on both sides of the aisle, I do not question the mutual respect of theorists and observers. What worries me is that the public expects us to have static answers, rather than an evolving view of the universe. Any time we revise or improve our models the public's faith in science is shaken rather than strengthened.  

Headlines are often over the top, in science as elsewhere. However, astronomers who get the public's attention should take the opportunity to explain that disproving theoretical predictions is science at work: an observer's job is to break models. Only by evolving in the face of new data can science live up to the promise of explaining nature. If we can relay this message in press briefings, interviews, and popular articles, then it will help establish an honest picture of how science is done and will make the public more robust to occasional overblown statements.

Nick Cowan