Many months ago, the fossil primate “Ida” was reported to the world with much fanfare, including an entire mass market book and a huge press conference, and everything else one can possibly do to announce a new fossil find. Science bloggers and others got rather upset at the Ida team’s over the top fanfare, though few bloggers ever explained why it was a bad thing to make everyone on the planet notice an important new scientific find (and no one made the claim that Ida was not very important). One of the things the Ida team did was to use the term “missing link” in connection with that fossil, which was entirely inappropriate in that case. But the science blogosphere reacted to the use of this term so strongly that a dozen or so bloggers made strong arguments that the term “missing link” is NEVER correct (which is not true).
Recently, NASA affiliated scientists shocked the esoteric world of biochemistry with the finding that a bacterium could successfully replace arsenic with phosphorus in key molecules, such as DNA, and make that work. Although arsenic is often incorporated into bio tissues, no one has been able to point to a prior study that clearly demonstrates that this is possible. This is very interesting science with all sorts of implications, if it works out. There are important as yet unknown details and open questions. The ultimate importance of this research remains to be seen, like any new scientific research, but if it is demonstrated to be as stated, this is very cool, new, and interesting science.
In this case, NASA produced one small press release, the substantive parts of which are reproduced here:
WASHINGTON — 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.
The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at http://www.nasa.gov.
– Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
– Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
– Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
– Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
– James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe
That’s it. Prior to this press conference, the blogsophere went moderately wild (I’ve seen more wild) discussing and predicting what the find might be, talking about aliens, extraterrestrial life, etc. etc. Then, when the finding was reported in a paper released at the same time as the press conference (which is normal) and discussed in the press conference, most bloggers wrote about how NASA had totally screwed the pooch, putting out a press release (the one above) that caused widespread craszsiness in teh blogosphere.
I don’t agree. I think the widespread craziness was caused by the blogosphere itself, not by the press release above. I don’t think NASA needed to say less, or more, in this press release, but rather, those doing the wild speculation needed to read the actual press release and stick to what it says. Some did, by the way … several science bloggers pretty accurately predicted what the press conference was going to be about because they looked up who the participants were and did the math, as it were.
So, once again If find myself thinking one thing while the entire planet is thinking something different. I don’t think NASA screwed up this press release. (To reiterate: I don’t think NASA screwed up this press release. .. I did not mention the press conference or the research itself.) But many do.
So, I want to be edumucated. I want you to change my mind. Rather than stating that NASA did it wrong, prove it. In the comments below, reproduce a part of the press release, then cite a report in the blogosphere that came from this wording that was incorrect and over the top (about aliens or whatever) and show how a thoughtful rational expert or semi-expert in science or science writing can make the link that was made. Show us, in other words, how this press release caused some web site to say that NASA had found alien life, or whatever. Clearly distinguish between the press release being badly done in a way that caused the reaction vs. the blog or web site or press agency in question simply saying stupid crap because it was better press.
As a second exercise, and this would probably be more useful than the first (and the first exercise will not go well, I’m sure) try this: Simply rewrite the press release. This could be useful. I personally know people at NASA in public relations and elsewhere. I’ll make sure that anybody who is anybody sees the best of the rewrites.
And, if someone else has bothered to rewrite the press release in the comments, feel free to critique that press release too! We might as well get this right!