Archive for October 28, 2020

Phosphine on Venus, Water on the Moon, and Hype Everywhere

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 28, 2020 by telescoper

To continue the ongoing saga of Phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus there’s a very strongly worded paper on the arXiv with the following abstract:

It’s one thing to question or refute another group’s result, but there’s no need to be so aggressive about it. The last sentence of the abstract is particularly unnecessary and reprehensible.

Update: the abstract has now been changed.

There has been a lot of reaction on social media from astronomers and others to the perceived “hype” of the initial discovery by the authors. I watched the press conference at the time and I think the authors spoke very sensibly about their work. Of course just because scientists are sensible that’s no reason to suppose the press will also be sensible and there was undoubtedly a great deal of hype about that result. In my experience hype is more likely to be a result of journalists wanting a sensational story and/or institutional press offices wanting to promote their institution that scientists over-egging their own puddings (though that does happen too).

I don’t mind individual scientists or groups of scientists making fools of themselves. It’s the damage to public trust in science that is the real danger here.

The hostile reaction we see in the above paper is an inevitable manifestation of an environment which encourages runaway self-publicity. This is not the only area in which this sort of toxic behaviour happens. I suppose it is mildly reassuring that it’s not only cosmologists that behave in such a way, but is this really what we want astrophysics to be like? I think we’d be better off leaving the petty point-scoring to the politicians.

Another example of hype this week – also involving a paper in Nature Astronomy – was the discovery of water on the Moon (again). The NASA publicity machine pulled out all the stops in advance of this announcement, only for the actual result to be a damp squib. Water is one of the most abundant molecules in space and I’ve lost track of how many times it has been detected on the Moon already. I suppose it is moderately reassuring that hasn’t suddenly disappeared, but from a scientific point of view it’s not all that interesting. I was particularly disappointed when the result turned out to be water, as I had bet on phosphine…

Could it be that the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is up for a funding review?