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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

To hype or not to hype…what a question!

Last week NASA held a press conference “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”  The blogosphere went wild in the days before the announcement, speculating everything from the discovery of ET to possible life on Mars (just do a Google search for “NASA press conference”).  As many of you probably know by now, the actual announcement was that a research group in California had discovered a type of bacteria that can substitute arsenic for phosphorous, changing our definition of what chemical elements are essential for life.

The aftermath of this announcement has also been stupendous.  Some of the online discussion really looks at the merits of the science and how this information might be used in the future, with interesting discussion in unusual places, like a science fiction blog by Karl Schroeder.  The problem is, a lot of people have gotten the science wrong and are still wildly speculating, driven by the pre-press conference rumors.

Did NASA astrobiology help or hurt this research, and science in general, by publicizing this finding as news that will change how we search for life on other planets?  Is NASA to blame for others getting the research wrong, or should NASA be commended for getting people excited about science, even if those people then mid-understand the details?  The Engage Science class at the University of Washington debated this topic last week, and were split on the issue…we agree that it’s important to get the public excited about science (that’s the whole purpose of Engage!), but we’re also scientists, so it pains us when people get the facts wrong.  I then talked to a smart non-scientist friend and she was initially excited about the impending NASA announcement, but disappointed when it wasn’t really about life on another planet.  

When we hype up our science, are we helping to engage the public, or are we setting them up for a let down?  Does it matter as long as people get excited about science, even if they’re excited about incorrect information?  What do you think?


  1. It's a fine line between realism and optimistic overexcitement. I think that part of the issue is that in this instance, what was really a pretty cool and interesting finding that gets scientists excited (and debating over the validity of those findings) is more of a "meh" for the lay public. It doesn't tie into the sexy blockbuster movie-ready discovery people have come to expect, thanks to overhyping by media and dodgy/distorted science in TV shows and cinema.

    Perhaps the best thing NASA could have done was to not announce the press conference so far in advance; don't give time for the rumors to start building and gaining momentum. It's a tough call.

    Nice article, btw, but I wanted more! :) Keep up the good work!

  2. Todd-I think you bring up a good point here. Movies and TV have given us a distorted view of how fast science progresses and made people think that every day yields some amazing new discovery. Just think CSI...