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?