Science and press conferences: Seeing our own shadow


I hadn't realized (until checked my news feed this morning) that today was Groundhog Day, the annual holiday celebrated in the United States and Canada where a chubby, furry rodent—a groundhog—is made to emerge from its burrow, and then given a choice: Either stay out, or go back in. The story goes that if the groundhog emerges under cloudy skies, it will hang around outside, and wintry weather will soon cease. If the groundhog comes out into sun, it will retreat, and winter will endure for six more weeks. The crux of the rite is whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow.

It makes me smile, wondering whether the scientists and administrators for NASA's Kepler mission knowingly chose today for their next data release based on its tenuous resonance with a bizarre cultural tradition. What we will see later this afternoon at NASA's 1pm EST press conference is fairly similar in its essentials. Researchers, of course, play the groundhogs. Bright-and-bleary-eyed from excitement mixed with lack of sleep and too many hours burrowing into their light curves and RV plots on computer monitors, they will emerge from their isolation and tell the world whether they saw shadows, silhouettes of alien worlds transiting distant suns. The biggest difference is that the more shadows they see, and the smaller they are, the more likely a spring awakening will occur in exoplanetology.

This is because Kepler's primary goal is not, despite frequent misleading statements to the contrary, to discover Earth-like planets—living worlds. Rather, its official mission is to provide a good estimate of the frequency of all varieties of planets and planetary systems that may exist in our galaxy. Planets like ours, places like home, will be equivalent to cherries atop Kepler's far larger smorgasbord of discoveries that astronomers and the interested public will devour.

The point, from the very beginning, has been to leave everyone hungry for more. Kepler alone cannot tell us whether we live in a crowded, living universe. For that, astronomers unavoidably need more, and more expensive, telescopes on the ground and in space. They need people to care about the question they're trying to answer, and to believe that answering the question is possible. They need public support and interest. Otherwise there is scant hope that the costly hardware required to take the next bold steps will be built, and the goal of finding life beyond the solar system may slip beyond our lifetimes.

Which, at risk of running my cultural comparison into the ground, brings me back to Groundhog Day—not the holiday per se, but the excellent Bill Murray film, where he plays a jaded newscaster who cycles endlessly through a closed loop of time, experiencing the same events over, and over, and over.

The Kepler conference hasn't even happened yet, but I already have the worrisome gut feeling that I've seen this show before. It happened in 1996, with the premature declaration of Martian life in an ancient meteorite. It happened in 2004 with controversial detections and interpretations of methane, a potential biosignature, in the Martian atmosphere. It happened in 2010 with the sensationalized announcement of arsenic-munching bacteria, and with the disputed discovery of a habitable planet, Gliese 581 g, thought to orbit a nearby red dwarf star. There are many other lower-profile examples.

I'm not rejecting these previous claims as necessarily false, but I am questioning the wisdom of the manner in which they were often communicated to the public. It is irresponsible and inherently self-defeating for scientists, press officers, and journalists to not highlight key uncertainties when revealing scientific results on a topic as explosively profound as the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. The truth is, at least until we can actually go off-planet to farflung places for first-hand investigations, the quest for extraterrestrial life is an asymptotic frontier, approaching, but never reaching, certainty that someplace else is just like home, that something else lives or thinks just like we do. Evidence will accrue, conclusions and rebuttals will battle, and progress will be made, but there are limitations to our knowledge that must be acknowledged rather than dismissed.

I hope I'm wrong, and that the Kepler press conference comes off without a hitch. But until the mics have been turned off and the cameras turned away, I'll be holding my breath, praying I'm not reliving my own private Groundhog Day.


  1. I recently wrote a bio for Franz J. Ingelfinger:

    He was very influential in trying to tone down the hype about scientific (especially medical) findings. The Ingelfinger Rule is named after him, and it remains a good way for scientists to conduct themselves when conveying new information to the press.

    The press, by training, is going to latch onto the most sensationalistic or startling part of any scientific finding, because the press is primarily interested in generating viewership or readership. When scientists do the same, they often undermine the benefits of peer review and scientific method. Getting laypeople interested and engaged in science is important, but doing so through press conferences runs the risk of making scientists look like the boy who cried “Wolf!” Announcing “OMG we discovered this amazing thing!” followed by “Oh, wait, nevermind” does more damage to any scientific endeavor than leaving the publicity-seeking to publicists. Science and famewhoring are a very bad combination, but it’s been lucrative for enough people that some will always stoop to that level.

  2. OMFG! I just realised Groundhog Day isn’t the sequel to Caddyshack.
    srsly tho; You want to inspire the quest for answers? Maaaasive Engineering Project for many countries: Aitken Basin Observatory.

  3. Since I like the Hollywood account of Groundhog Day much better, I’d formally like to request a renaming of the holiday to:

    Temporal Anomaly Day

  4. Hi again, Lee.

    A quick disclaimer: in a moment of internet irony, *I* can’t actually watch the press conference myself as the feed won’t load. I would imagine you are currently in the process of digesting what you’ve heard, but I’d like to comment on your pre-press release post.

    First off, a word about the timing of these releases– I know you’re mostly kidding about us choosing Groundhog Day, but I think sometimes the timing does look mysterious to the public, so let me explain a little. The timing of the press release is actually set by the data release schedule– because NASA missions are publicly funded, we set schedules way ahead of time that determine when data will be available to the community as a whole. Sometimes these schedules don’t work all that well with how the real-world operation of the mission evolves– a case in point being the delayed release of our first quarter of data. We ended up sequestering a subset of our planet candidates because, once the launch date for the mission slipped, the original release schedule didn’t give us a full observing season to follow them up (a little further explanation here– although Kepler operates 24/7 because it’s in space, almost all the additional data we gather uses telescopes here on Earth. Unfortunately, that means that we have to deal with pesky “daytime” getting in the way of seeing our stars, so we can only gather more data during part of the year– kinda makes for a bottleneck in confirming planet candidates). The short of it is that while we indeed emerge from our research burrows today, sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed, much like the groundhog we’re actually doing so on our own schedule.

    As to your main point about certain sensationalized results over the past few years, I have to say what I liked about your Gl 581g coverage was that you pointed out that slapping a flashy but scientifically questionable headline on a new result may bring attention, but takes away from what is often a more subtle (yet still interesting) discovery by misrepresenting its certitude. In the cases you mention, I think both the scientists and the press were equally culpable for the ensuing confusion– and ultimately the *disappointment*– that results from overzealous promotion and the subsequent attempts to unring the bell. No one likes to see something like that happen– most responsible scientists try really hard to provide the public with accurate descriptions of their findings, but often the subtlety gets lost in the excitement, which benefits no one.

    I can’t speak to the other cases you mentioned, but I can speak to the work we’re doing with Kepler, and assure you that we regularly discuss, as a team, how we represent our results– right down to the word choices we use. As an example, in conjunction with this release we talked at length about which definition of “habitable zone” we should use– the one we are using essentially expresses whether the temperature of a planet at that distance from the star would be within the range where water would be liquid. *However*, whether a planet has liquid water or not is dependent on a number of factors– for example, whether the planet has an atmosphere, and how much heat that atmosphere traps. To understand the distinction, think of Earth and Venus, which are more or less sister planets– here on Earth we have a temperate climate and plenty of nice beaches, whereas is a smothering hell of several hundred degree carbon dioxide. Habitability is a complicated issue, and relies largely on knowing things about these planets that we just can’t know yet for lack of additional data. So, we try to say what we can say, with the information that we have.

    All that said, we don’t always get it right– so perhaps you’ll have criticisms of the release, and that’s fair. I only hope that everyone watching these results appreciates that scientific discovery is a fundamentally human endeavor– Kepler’s an amazing instrument, but it isn’t a gumball machine that planets pop out of. In our case, these announcements come from a large number of people working together to investigate one of the greatest mysteries of our time, and we’re trying our best to communicate our results in a way that’s both accurate and conveys the excitement we feel about our own work.

    1. Hi Lucianne,

      Great points, and thank you for taking the time to clarify how the press conference schedule emerged.

      I actually don’t have any big criticisms of the press conference and the associated presentations of material. The only hiccup I noticed was an apparent discrepancy between 1 am EST and 1 pm EST that slipped into a press release I saw.

      I think all the participants took pains to explain what is known, what is unknown, and what work remains to be done. This is a great example of how to properly announce major discoveries. Your engagement, right here with BoingBoing’s readership, is a testament to the Kepler team wanting to get things right.

      So, kudos. And I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next!


  5. Oh, astronomers can never quite keep that daytime/nighttime thing straight. Besides, I am pretty sure there were people working in the NASA Ames Kepler offices at both of those hours..!

  6. It’s still not as cringe inducing as when somebody decided to call the Higgs Boson the, “God Particle”.

Comments are closed.