News Advisory and Embargo Policy Feed Rampant Speculation About Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life

NASA issued a news advisory earlier this week announcing that timed with a paper embargoed for publication at the journal Science, that the agency would be holding a news conference at 2 p.m. on Thursday “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 advisory immediately sent in motion rampant speculation among bloggers leading some mainstream outlets to follow in similar fashion.  Examples include this article at Fox "Rumor Roundup: Has NASA Discovered Human Life?" and this article at the Atlanta Journal "Has NASA found life near Saturn?"

As Curtis Brainard describes at the Columbia Journalism Review, the speculation put many science journalists in an odd fix.  With advance access to the paper, they were in position to comment on the accuracy of the speculation but bound by the Science embargo policy to do so in only very limited and indirect ways.  For example, Atlantic Senior Editor Alex Madigral tweeted: "“I’ve seen the Science paper. It’s not that.”

As Brainard adds in his report on the cycle of speculation:

Indeed, the embargoed Science paper, which I have also seen, is quite terrestrial in nature and will come as a disappointment to those breathlessly waiting for news that E.T. has phoned home. It’s an interesting piece of research, but certainly not one that is bound to make the front page, or perhaps any page. One science reporter I talked to (who’s also seen the paper, but didn’t want to comment on the record) felt that it was “actually quite dull.”

Later in his analysis, Brainard offers the following insight from astronomer-blogger Phil Plait:

In his post for Discover, Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait noted that he didn’t have any concrete solutions, but that faulty press releases have created problems many times in the past.

“I don’t want to blame anyone,” he wrote, “but I do sometimes wish the press folks at NASA were more aware of what kind of cascade a line like [the one about extraterrestrial life] provokes (like the one from a few weeks ago which said it was about “an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood” but it turned out to be a supernova/black hole 50 million light years away). When announcements like these go public, it’s bound to be disappointing when the actual news gets out and it’s not a black hole right next door or actual life on Mars.”

That, Plait said, can lead to “news fatigue.” It can also erode trust in science and journalism. Understanding that, the only hope may be that all sides—scientists, press officers, and journalists alike—will tread more carefully. Scientists and press officers need to avoid cryptic yet proactive news releases. And journalists (as well as amateur bloggers) must resist the temptation to jump to conclusions without first checking their facts.

For readers with university library access, a useful model for understanding this particular case of blog-driven speculation appears in a paper by science communication scholar Bruce Lewenstein.  His paper at the journal Social Studies of Science examines the cold fusion controversy and how at that time fax technology served as the connective communication tissue by which scientists and journalists sorted out the veracity and nature of the escalating number of claims.  An abstract is below:

Science in the mass media is usually interpreted in terms of traditional, linear, dissemination and translation' models of science communication. Using the cold fusion saga that began in 1989, this paper argues that communication among scientists uses many media, which interact in complex ways. A more appropriate model for modern science must account for the permeable boundaries between formal publications, preprints, electronic computer networks, fax machines, mass media presentations and other forums for scientific discussions. The new model must account for the paradox that increased communication activity may be associated with instability rather than stability, at least in the preliminary periods of a scientific controversy.

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