Saturday, June 5, 2010

Titanically Bad Science Reporting

A couple of days ago, I read this NASA press release:

One key finding comes from a paper online now in the journal Icarus that shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan's atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. Another paper online now in the Journal of Geophysical Research maps hydrocarbons on the Titan surface and finds a lack of acetylene.

This lack of acetylene is important because that chemical would likely be the best energy source for a methane-based life on Titan, said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., who proposed a set of conditions necessary for this kind of methane-based life on Titan in 2005. One interpretation of the acetylene data is that the hydrocarbon is being consumed as food. But McKay said the flow of hydrogen is even more critical because all of their proposed mechanisms involved the consumption of hydrogen.

"We suggested hydrogen consumption because it's the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth," McKay said. "If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth."

To date, methane-based life forms are only hypothetical. Scientists have not yet detected this form of life anywhere, though there are liquid-water-based microbes on Earth that thrive on methane or produce it as a waste product. On Titan, where temperatures are around 90 Kelvin (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), a methane-based organism would have to use a substance that is liquid as its medium for living processes, but not water itself. Water is frozen solid on Titan's surface and much too cold to support life as we know it.

Now the above isn't good, but it's not horrible. For example, the fact that "there are liquid-water-based microbes on Earth that thrive on methane,"is simply irrelevant here. The proposed "food" for the hypothetical Titanian bugs is acetylene. But I simply assume at this point that when a press release comes out from a major source like NASA that it will very shortly be badly misreported and misrepresented by the media. The Telegraph (UK) is often the culprit... they swing, they hit... FOUL!
Data from Nasa's Cassini probe has analysed the complex chemistry on the surface of Titan, which experts say is the only moon around the planet to have a dense atmosphere.

They have discovered that life forms have been breathing in the planet’s atmosphere and also feeding on its surface’s fuel.

Astronomers claim the moon is generally too cold to support even liquid water on its surface.
I would love to see data analyze complex chemistry. "Experts say," is my candidate for a phrase that should be exterminated from the English language. But the gem is the middle sentence. That's it, game over, life forms are breathing. "Generally too cold to support even liquid water?" "Generally?" "Support?" "Even?" I'm not finding a record high temperature for Titan's surface, but the average is -180 C, or -290 F, though, tee-hee, that same site lists "-90 K" as the Kelvin equivalent.

So let's review: scientist(s) publish research. Scientifically illiterate PR hack interviews them, doesn't even glance at journal article, plays up sensationalism, plays down uncertainties, 'cause you know, if you can't draw in Homer Simpson, Beavis, and Butthead, no one will read it. Then, an utterly illiterate reporter, who may or may not discover Google and Wikipedia before the end of his career, processes the news one step further and makes it all sensationalism with no uncertainty: "life forms have been breathing in the planet’s atmosphere and also feeding on its surface’s fuel."
We are living in the future
I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships
And talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines
We are standing in soup lines.
Perception is reality, but reality should at least influence perception. I wish reporters understood that.


Bob said...

Another opportunity to link to this cartoon:

Lockwood said...

Thanks Bob, I was actually thinking about tracking that down. I'm at home now- very slow and untrustworthy wi-fi connection- but I'll try to remember to post this link as a follow-up tomorrow

Anonymous said...

For another interesting perspective on this NASA news release and resultant articles see here:

Lockwood said...

Thanks for the link, Anonymous! That is an excellent article that clarifies a lot.