In “Europa Plus Water Does Not Equal Life” (November 18, 2011), Creation-Evolution Headlines reports on pop science media coverage around NASA’s recent claim that “Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter, may have large lakes of liquid water under its icy shell, closer to the surface than the deep ocean long believed to exist miles down.” CEH’s emphasis here is surely right. The announcement itself is not spectacular. It’s been widely believed for some years now that there is water on Europa. So what’s really interesting to watch is what pop science media does with the story:
Every source made the biological connection, some with reckless abandon, some with caution. PhysOrg blazed it in the headline, “Scientists find evidence for ‘great lake’ on Jupiter’s moon Europa, potential new habitat for life.” The BBC News used life twice, telling readers that “Any liquid water could represent a potential habitat for life.” New Scientist was cautious, calling the possibility doubtful but not out of the question. Most restrained was Nola Taylor Redd at Live Science, who focused on the geology and merely ended with a quote from a planetary scientist who opined, “The material cycled into the ocean via these lakes may make Europa’s ocean even more habitable than previously imagined. “The lakes may even be habitats themselves.” But NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine was ecstatic, using the L-word three times, claiming that the discovery is “bolstering arguments that Europa could support habitats for life.” The NASA press release itself mentioned life twice, biology once, and habitability twice.
In fact, no evidence of life on Europa has ever surfaced.
In a story of this sort, the obligatory narrative is the thing to watch, far more compelling than fact: They Just Gotta Be Out There. A recent and highly convenient shift in cosmology toward determinism makes that conviction sound like science: Given the right conditions, life must emerge. Given the wrong conditions too. Given any conditions, actually. Life just must emerge.
One can never persuade people in the grip of this kind of thinking that heartfelt conviction is not a form of science. But as it happens, fortune may be dealing them a hand they never played before:
Breaking: Layoff notices are being handed out across CNN/U.S. today. Photographers, editors and other staffers in Atlanta, New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Miami are being let go. In all, at least 50 positions are being eliminated. As many as 12 staffers in the Washington, DC bureau alone, four of whom are longtime photojournalists.
This is no flash in the pan. Legacy mainstream media have been declining ever since the Internet became a serious source of news around the turn of the century.
It certainly doesn’t mean that the “They Just Gotta Be Out There” narrative will cease but that slowly decreasing numbers of media folk will be paid well to tell it. We shall see what changes that brings about.
See also: Jupiter’s moon Europa scene of latest hunt for life.
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