A science writer reflects:
THE RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT that scientists discovered water on the planet K2-18b, 110 light years away, prompted a media swoon. News stories, including a piece written by me, billed it as the first detection of water on a “potentially habitable” planet outside our solar system.
The blowback from the astronomy community was swift. A chorus of critics stated on Twitter that, although K2-18b orbits its host star within a distance range astronomers call the habitable zone, the planet is most likely too hot and under too much pressure to support life…
But in describing K2-18b as a potentially habitable planet, journalists were accurately reporting the views of the scientists who led one of the research studies. Those scientists repeatedly stated to reporters that the planet was “potentially habitable” — and they continued to say so when the specific criticisms of their peers’ were put to them.Pallab Ghosh, “Exoplanets, Life, and the Danger of a Single Study” at Undark
A longstanding problem is that science writers tend to act as cheerleaders instead of constructive critics. Most of the probing questions that could have been asked about many hyped claims do not require advanced degrees, just a tendency to compare different teams’ findings and ask the tough questions.
See also: In case you wondered why so much science journalism sounds like PR
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