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How “single-study stories” build up science’s Neverland

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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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One Reply to “How “single-study stories” build up science’s Neverland

  1. 1
    BobRyan says:

    Science writers aren’t allowed to ask tough questions for protected beliefs. Their jobs are at risk if they do, which isn’t likely to be a large percentage. Most go along gleefully with whatever keeps their readers swooning over them.
    It’s kind of like the inability for much of the press to ask serious questions about Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s campaign illegally funneled money through the DNC, to give her distance when a law office that works for the DNC was used to contact Fusion GPS. Fusion was directed to contact a former MI6 agent, Michael Steel, who happened to be known for having contacts with the FSB (they group that used to be the KGB). Steel was known to hate Trump and staunch supporter of Clinton. Steel was paid millions to create a dossier on Trump and have it look more official than it actually was. He bribed his FSB contacts and Putin received a cut, since the FSB has to pay a percentage of their bribes to him. The FSB spent 2 weeks putting together documents, which were fabricated, and gave the documents to Steel. Steel disseminated some of the information to make it appear as if multiple sources were used to give the leadership at the FBI a reason to investigate. There are serious campaign finance laws that were broken by Clinton, yet she has never been asked about this by any reporter. 2 weeks isn’t enough time for any intelligence agency to put together a serious dossier, which meant it was intended to be subterfuge in order to harm Trump. When Russian collusion was being shouted from the rooftops, not once was Clinton asked about her involvement.

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