Joe Palca should be ashamed of himself

for generating this report, and NPR should be ashamed of themselves for running it on their flagship news programĀ Morning Edition. For that matter, so should John Grotzinger, the NASA scientist interviewed in the segment.

Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something remarkable. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he says.

Grotzinger can see the pained look on my face as I wait, hoping he’ll tell me what the heck he’s found, but he’s not providing any more information.

So why doesn’t Grotzinger want to share his exciting news? The main reason is caution. Grotzinger and his team were almost stung once before. When SAM analyzed an air sample, it looked like there was methane in it, and at least here on Earth, some methane comes from living organisms.

Either they’ve got something amazing, in which case it’ll still be amazing once they’ve released it, or they don’t, in which case this is just a bit of hype that does a bit more to erode the credibility of scientists everywhere. There’s no scenario in which this report has any positive effect.


Published by

Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

4 thoughts on “Joe Palca should be ashamed of himself”

  1. I don’t agree that the whole report is damning to all individuals involved. In particular, this sentence (near the top of the report) does a decent job of explaining the role of caution in science in easy-to understand language:

    “They have some exciting new results from one of the rover’s instruments. On the one hand, they’d like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.”

    I do think that the NASA scientist who leaked this is doing something wrong; the data is obviously very preliminary, and the likelihood that conclusions will change is large enough that a significant percentage of the Curiosity collaboration does not feel comfortable releasing the information they’ve found. To put out a public statement is grandstanding on his part.

    In the case of the reporter, however, I tend to think he’s doing his job; they’re supposed to supply information as soon as they get it, and in this case he does that while trying to provide the appropriate context within the article–namely, that the science team is still trying to characterize all their systematics–in language understandable to the general population.

  2. Now the the full story has been revealed, and we know that Palca took some liberties with the phrasing of statements from his source at NASA, I retract my earlier statement.

  3. I meant to reply to this earlier, but it slipped my mind. Are you referring to something like what Emily Lakdawalla says ( )? If her description is right (and she seems to me to be a generally reliable source), then Palca behaved worse than I originally thought.

    Oh, and although you’ve retracted your earlier statement, I can’t resist pushing back on it a bit. It’s not true that a journalist is “supposed to supply [all] information as soon as they get it.” Their job is to exercise judgment, and even if what he put in his report was a completely fair summary of Grotzinger’s remarks, it still wouldn’t have cleared that bar.

  4. Yes, a statement of that sort is what I read.

    As for my first comment, I tend to think that utility often trumps ethics, and despite journalistic principle being to only report news you feel good standing behind, the drive to produce headlines means you report what you can as soon as possible, as long as reporting the story doesn’t harm your chances of getting a bigger story later by burning your source. Journalists are paid to provide content that brings readership, and so they’re going to act in a way to maximize their realization of that goal. However, since Palca is not providing a fair account (and NPR is not the Enquirer) he’s losing his target ‘readership’ and I blame him for doing a bad job at what he’s paid to do.

Comments are closed.