Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Big BIG News? No, Just Hyperbole.

National Public Radio got nerds like myself all keyed up a week ago when they published a story title “Big News from Mars? Rover Scientists Mum for Now.” It included the following titillating tidbit:

[John] Grotzinger [principal investigator for the Curiosity rover mission] 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.

That, of course, sent the Intertubes and science geeks ablaze with speculation that NASA had discovered something on Mars – a pretty interesting feat for Curiosity, seeing as this was one of the first samples put through the rover’s testing apparatus.

But it appears this is less an announcement that they’ve discovered some fascinating bit of evidence of life on Mars and more like a reporter simply jumping to conclusions and not asking the right kinds of follow-up questions, because the only big announcement that came from NASA yesterday is backpedaling.

Slate credits Mashable for doing the legwork to reveal the misunderstanding, but Mashable gets a critical part of the story wrong.

The quote heard around the world came shortly after Grotzinger explained that NASA had just received the initial data from Curiosity’s first soil experiment using a new Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is capable of identifying organic compounds.

Naturally, the public assumed that this meant Curiosity had discovered a complex organic molecule. But while NASA does have the latest soil samples, the mission team tells Mashable that researchers haven’t determined that particular groundbreaking discovery. In fact the rover drove away from the location just five days later, taking more samples along the way.

Mashable puts the blame squarely on the eager geek public, drooling for an announcement of some big, big discovery on Mars – when the true misunderstanding occurred not with public interpretation of Grotzinger’s quote, but with how NPR presented the quote in the first place and on how subsequent media outlets reported not the news, but NPR’s version of the news.

Slate reveals another problem that better fits Mashable’s interpretation of a gullible, eager-to-find-Martians public: NASA tried to correct the story by responding to subsequent news outlets requesting information saying the quote was taken a bit out of context and by turning to their own social media outlets. Problem is the announcements got lost over a long holiday weekend.

Additionally, if they made any effort to contact NPR to correct the original source of the trouble, there’s no evidence of it. Writer Joe Palca’s story, complete with breathtaking announcement, is still intact at the NPR website.

I’m less inclined to think this whole situation is similar to an announcement by NASA earlier this year that they’d discovered bacteria in California that were using arsenic rather than phosphorus in their metabolism (a finding that fell apart pretty quickly as other molecular biologists got wind of the story and poked holes in it quite rapidly) and more of a situation where a reporter eager for a scoop and a source prone to hyperbole met up and mutually misunderstood each other.

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