Science spinning out of control? A planet by any other name

I’ve already ranted about science by press release, but another effect that seems to be on the increase is the situation where a press release is issues making a claim that is not really backed up by the science it’s reporting. The cynic in me says that this is because this is seen as the best way to get a headline.

There have been several recent cases, the most notable of which is 55 Cancri e: the “diamond planet.” This story garnered headlines and news stories around the world, but could it really be true?

Looking at the paper in question closely, the answer is well, maybe. That’s not what you get by reading the press release from Yale, however. Consider this. The number of times the word diamond appears in the paper is two. The number of times the word diamond appears in the Yale press release is nine!

In the peer-reviewed paper, the mentions of diamond are in the input to the physical model trying to describe the interior of the planet. There’s no mention of diamonds in the abstract or conclusions. The paper is titled “A possible carbon-rich interior in Super-Earth 55 Cancri e” – not so much clarity there, eh?

I should point out again that there is certainly a possibility that the core of this planet is some form of diamond. The problem is that what is told to the media is not what is told to scientists: there have also been studies that find the planet could have an iron-rich core as well. Somewhere along the line, this is got put forward as the most likely scenario, when that’s not really true.

Not quite as bad, but still annoying, is the “zombie planet“, also known as Fomalhaut b. I’ve also read this referred to as the “phoenix planet“, which at least makes a bit more sense. The idea is that it’s a planet that was announced, then doubt was cast upon it, and then it was re-claimed as a planet. It’s back from the dead, not undead!

A little more background for those interested: this planet was first claimed in late 2008 by scientists who imaged a small something orbiting Fomalhaut in optical light with the Hubble Space Telescope. Subsequent observations in the infrared could find no trace of the object, which is not at all what you’d expect. If anything a planet should be far brighter in the infrared than the optical. This is because planets are warm, and heat radiation is emitted at wavelengths longer than the eye can see. The original discovery paper also suggested this should be the case.

I’m not going to argue whether Fomalhaut b is real or not here – that’s for peer-reviewed journals based on observations. What annoys me about this story is not the science, but the cheap buy-in to a current fad in popular culture that is not even relevant! All to get into the headlines… it’s a little sad that science, or at least astronomy, has been reduced to this.

So, should we be worried about this kind of thing? A little: it seems to me that it’s on the increase, and it definitely pushes science towards the “fast food news ghetto“, something I’ve discussed before. The last thing that we need is this sort of trivialisation being caused – however inadvertently – by scientists themselves. These days scientists need to put the right spin on a story just like anyone else, but the story still has to represent the science.

To show that I’m not all doom and gloom: you can come up with a good, catchy (some might say wacky) headline without stretching the truth, here’s a great press release headline: “Astronomers discover deep-fried planets.” It’s about planets that have apparently survived their parent star’s expansion to become a red giant, and may have in fact caused the star to lose most of it’s outer layers. Cool! 🙂


About drsimmo

I'm an astronomer and science communicator, these are my adventures. Views posted are my own.
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2 Responses to Science spinning out of control? A planet by any other name

  1. Roger Powell says:

    Simon, I have grown more than a little tired of reading so many hyped up astronomy news articles, written by journalists or university media officers, all under instructions to look for an “angle” to any story. Attractive sounding speculation so easily becomes published “truth”.

    The example you used, the so-called diamond planet, appears to be a prime example.

    This is exactly why I look out for astronomers who talk about astronomy on their own blog pages. Their outlook on any topic is refreshing because they use the opportunity to teach those willing to listen. I really wish more were doing that instead of spending all day communicating in 140 character bursts.

    Scientific papers consist of language and mathematics that are necessarily incomprehensible to the public. At the other end of the scale, astronomers conspire to write simple but often misleading and inadequate news releases. If only their employers would insist on requiring the “middle ground” to be covered by a two or three page “plain English” version to accompany each published paper.

    Or a blog post!


  2. Pingback: Is there a planetary system around tau Ceti? | I Wouldn't Normally Call

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