One of the things about the “arsenic story” that I’ve found incredibly compelling is how the conversation/debate on this paper has played out over the internet, in particular on blogs. Although this blog had not started, I had a history of blogging about sports, and was fascinated to see interactions with blogs from the “non-blog side” for the first time. This was also the biggest news story in my field in at least a decade, with a press conference called by the office I was (and still am) working in… which means I was professionally interested in both the science and the communication thereof. Finally, my interest in this is also personal. I know the lead author on the paper, Dr. Wolfe-Simon, more as “Felisa” because she is as much a “friend” as she is a “colleague.” It was difficult to see the tremendous pressure that was placed on her, and the demands on her were at times downright unfair. Furthermore, a co-author on the paper (Ariel) was a former advisor of mine, and is now a co-blogger. So I’m clearly biased, but I also think I have a fairly unique perspective. Read on to see my personal views on all of this, and to see where I think adaptations are needed to effectively communicate high-profile science in the current media environment.
When I was in college, a professor introduced me to the “24 hour news cycle,” created by cable news networks so that a story could be broken, covered, digested, and dispensed with all within a day. Even that rapid cycle is now outdated, as this can all happen over the course of mere hours with online networking and news aggregator tools. On balance, the increased communication speed is good. However, there are some potentially negative aspects we need to consider as scientists, and I think from start-to-finish, the attention garnered by this particular study brought many of them to light.
Lesson 1: The blogs are paying attention
Let’s start with the now-infamous press release. Many have criticized NASA for being intentionally misleading in this release. Here’s the controversial part:
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
If you’re an astrobiologist, you understand that the field encompasses much, much more than the search for life on other planets. But not everyone is aware of that; indeed part of the reason for holding a press conference on this discovery was to showcase the diversity of astrobiology research. (That’s also why the second sentence was in there.) But here’s the problem: now anyone can publicly speculate on these things. So while people in the field or in the know might figure things out ahead of time, the most provocative speculations will be the ones re-tweeted, facebook’ed, and eventually picked up by mainstream news organizations. Meanwhile, the authors of the paper and the science organizations involved are all still operating under embargo. So you can’t come out and say “Nope. THIS is what the paper is about.” Simple denial won’t work either, because then people could play “20 speculations:”
Aliens on Titan!
Aliens on Mars!
Something on Earth!
AHA! You found aliens ON EARTH!!!!
You found out something about Earth life!
AHA!! You found something about… Arsenic and life on Earth!!!
And so on… This isn’t a solution.
I can assure you there wasn’t an intentional leading on of the public here by the NASA/science community. The mistake was in not anticipating how the press release could have been misread by your average blogger. And that’s what has changed: science organizations now have to anticipate how non-scientists might misread announcements in a provocative way, lest those misinterpretations get picked up and inflated to the point of being a news story of their own. This means press releases have to be more explicit without giving too much away (embargo). Along those lines, a better statement might have been (emphasis on new qualification):
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding about Earth based-life that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
I think this small change solves the major issue. Then again, without repeating the experiment it’s hard to be sure. But the moral of the story is this: knowing your audience is a necessity when it comes to effective communication, and the audience for these press conference announcements has changed dramatically over the last decade (i.e., It ain’t just professional journalists reading and posting these anymore).
Lesson 2: Blogs are a public microphone, and people are listening.
The next batch of issues cropped up in the aftermath of the press conference. Real-time, detailed critique from professional scientists cropped up on facebook and on blogs. To me, this is outstanding as it will help the scientific community respond to the public’s expectation for immediate analysis of the story. However, in this particular case there were a few things that I think could have been done better. First, some critiques included personal attacks and unfounded speculations about the motivations of the people involved. Of these, the one that garnered the most attention was this post, which ended with the following speculation:
I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda. I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.
This paragraph is both inaccurate and unfounded. The author of this blog post (Dr. Rosie Redfield) followed a detailed technical critique with a slate of personal attacks, snark, and assumptions as to the motivations of the authors, NASA, and Science’s editors. And while I applaud Dr. Redfield’s broader efforts to increase the openness of science, I think in this particular case her approach and tone were both poor. To be fair, she did not expect her story to be so widely distributed. I also know from personal conversations with other “blog critics” that this was the case elsewhere. And in some way I sympathize with them, as it’s easy to get swept up in posting overly-harsh critiques. Snark is part of the zeitgeist of the blogosphere, and the higher-profile the research, the greater our scientific instinct to make sure the work is sound (extraordinary claims and all that jazz). So here’s a rule I try to blog by to avoid these issues: if you wouldn’t say something in public with a cast of reporters standing around taking notes… then don’t say it on a blog.
Lesson 3: “Don’t diss the media” now includes “don’t diss the blogs”
To get a sense of the scale of the coverage and attention this received, look at the Google trend for the search “NASA” in the year 2010. This was the biggest NASA story of the year, by a long shot. NASA was searched much more often during coverage of this than during shuttle flights or even during coverage of President Obama’s plan for the future of human spaceflight. This intense coverage came with an incredible demand for the authors’ time from media (including blogs). The strategy to deal with this was sound, in my opinion: the authors would reply to the most common critiques with an FAQ to be posted Dr. Wolfe-Simon’s webpage. The issue was again one of presentation:
He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.
The word “individual” was the key qualifier in what was said, but was not part of what was heard. Instead, the overall sentiment was that there would be no reply. So at the very same time people were collecting and binning blog/media critiques for the authors’ FAQ, the message that got out was that any such reply would be inappropriate. And once the “you dissed the blogs” mindset is in place, blogs have a tendency to hold onto it. This could make the FAQ seem at best a “backtrack” and at worst “a blog victory in their battle with NASA.” Scientists and science organizations should not even hint that blogs are an inappropriate place to discuss or debate science. We should instead welcome – and to the extent possible participate in – such debates, and while doing so provide clarity that the “gold standard” for scientific conversations is peer-reviewed journals.
Lesson 4: The speed of blogs is a platform for rapid evolution
This isn’t the last time things like this will get screwed up. We’re in uncharted waters here, so we’ll have to keep adjusting our course, and refining our communication techniques, just as we would in the lab. But there’s opportunity to be had on this frontier. We will learn lots of lessons, and in so doing become better at communicating on fairly short timescales. I think this is already happening. As I’ve been writing this piece, I’ve been browsing some of the reactions to the paper’s comments and reply. (Into the rabbit hole we go, as I am now discussing the reactions to the reply to the technical comments to the paper.) I earlier criticized a post by Dr. Redfield as being off in tone. Well, her reaction to the reply to comments is fair and level-headed. Even as she expresses concerns about the reply, she gives credit that the parts responding to her comment are “in some ways the most scientifically valid.” Good on ya, Dr. Redfield. If we can all adapt, we won’t have to fear new communication techniques, but instead will be able to leverage them to get more publicity for ourselves and our science… which is something we’ll all be better served by.