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

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?

31 Responses to “Phosphine on Venus, Water on the Moon, and Hype Everywhere”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    It’s also submitted to Nature Astronomy. It will be interesting to see if it is accepted and/or if Nature Astronomy prints a retraction of the original paper (if the authors submit one).

    I do wonder what Mr. Edward Molter did to deserve to be the only one addressed with a title. πŸ™‚

  2. I agree that this aggressiveness is ludicrous, and I very much hope Astronomy insists on the removal of that sentence. The Greaves paper was fine, and carefully worded. Its completely normal that someone does better later (if they have… I haven’t read the paper!)

  3. May I just say, I love the expression “over-egging their own pudding”.

  4. The arxiv ‘preprint’ is not a paper but a matters arising. I am surprised that the journal would have encouraged them to put it on arxiv with such a statement in the abstract. It is a personal attack rather than a scientific attitude. Such a paper damages the authors more than the people they attack. The message it conveys is ‘I wanted me to find that’!

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      But if, as some have claimed, the goal of Nature (Astronomy) is to be talked about, then the strategy makes sense. 😐

      • You are equating different journals. They have different editors, different procedures and different policies.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Yes, they are different, but there is Nature in the name and there have been some indications that Nature Astronomy might also suffer from hype in the same way that Nature does.

        It’s like when the daughters of Brian Wilson and John Phillips (for all the young dudes, two of the most influential American musicians of the 1960s) formed a group and called themselves Wilson Phillips, but then said that they want to be judged on their own work rather than that of their fathers’. But in that case, why choose a name which rubs it in?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Albert – are they from the same publishing house?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        I’m not Albert, but yes: https://www.nature.com/natastron/

        Β© 2020 Springer Nature Limited

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        If they weren’t, then Springer Nature could (correctly) file suit for trademark violation or whatever.

        Note that there is a crackpot journal called Science and Nature so that one can say “I have published in Science and Nature” which when heard (or read if written by someone with no sense of style) is just like “I have published in Science and Nature“. 😐

  5. I agree that the new preprint is very unprofessional in its aggressiveness. Didn’t any of the 20+ authors think that their condescencion is very much over the top?

    That said, I think the hype surrounding the original paper was ridiculous and I’m not sure if it’s fair to blame it all on science reporters. Someone (probably not the authors, though. The journal, maybe?) had clearly pushed the story very hard under the embargo. Even the biggest TV network in my small European country, which has no connection to this story, had quite a lot of coverage about this the same evening that the embargo was lifted.

  6. Phillip Helbig Says:

    In contrast to the last two, no former colleagues on this new paper. πŸ™‚

  7. […] confirmed. There is water on the Moon. OK, what’s the big deal? Water is very common in the cosmos and has been seen on the moon before. The difference is that previously it had been been only in […]

  8. The last sentence is now removed

  9. This is my perception what is going on that makes some real scientists worry, astronomical noise from science fiction addicts….
    “There’s a lad who’s sure
    All that glitters is gold
    And he’s buying a stairway to Heaven
    When he gets there he knows
    If the stores are all closed
    With a word he can get what he came for
    Oh oh oh oh and he’s buying a stairway to Heaven”

  10. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Not that there is nothing worth reading in Nature; this is rather interesting:

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02986-y

    More than 20 years ago, on 16 June 2020, I added the following pithy quip to my collection of quotable quotes:

    It is easier to create consciousness than to define it.

    —Leon Koopmans

    In the Nature piece, one can read:

    “Creating a conscious system might be a whole lot easier than defining it. “

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      16 July 1999

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “you tell me exactly what consciousness is, and I will build a machine that has it” – John von Neumann, recorded in a short note published by Ed Jaynes in (I think) the 1950s.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Yes, a good rebuttal to the folks who believe that consciousness is something not reachable via normal scientific methods. It might be difficult to do, and I doubt that he could have with the stone knives and bearskins at his disposal, but in principle it is probably correct.

        But the point is that it might be possible to build something conscious without even having to define it first. Or let non-biological intelligence evolve (circumventing GΓΆdel’s incompleteness theorem, but I disagree with Penrose that that has anything to do with consciousness at all).

    • Can a brainless virus that sweeps over our planet now be defined as a conscious or intelligent entity when it uses the ignorance and stupidity of it host to evolve? Can random mutations to optimize its spreading be a form of awareness?

  11. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Among the readers here, probably only Professor Moriarty will appreciate the following comment (not penned by me) on phosphine on Venus:


    Unstable condition
    A symptom of life?
    In mental and environmental change
    Atmospheric disturbance
    The feverish flux
    Of human interface
    And interchange
    The impulse is pure
    Sometimes our circuits get shorted
    By external interference
    Signals get crossed
    And the balance distorted
    By internal incoherence
    A tired mind become a shape-shifter
    Everybody need a mood lifter

    Everybody got mixed feelings
    About the function and the form

    An ounce of perception
    A pound of obscure
    Process information
    At half-speed
    Pause
    Rewind, replay

    Random sample
    Hold the one you need
    Leave out the fiction
    The fact is
    This friction
    Will only be worn by persistence
    Leave out conditions
    Courageous convictions
    Will drag the dream into existence
    A tired mind become a shape-shifter
    Everybody need a soft filter

    Everybody got mixed feelings
    About the function and the form
    Everybody got to elevate
    From the norm

    • Great finding Sherlock !

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        I should have posted it back when the thread was more active and the topic more in the limelight, but the pictures just moved into my head this morning in a rush. All the same, I think that the topic will stay in the camera eye for a while and hope that the debate will become more facts-based and less of a witch hunt. Of course, this isn’t the first result which seemed interesting if true but then proved to be rather fly by night.

  12. […] Phosphine on Venus, Water on the Moon, and Hype Everywhere β€” In the Dark […]

  13. […] gestern, vorgestern, dem 17.11. hier, hier und hier, dem 8.11., 4.11., 31.10., 29.11., 28.10. hier, hier und hier und 27.10. sowie die Papers „Abundant Atmospheric Methane from Volcanism on […]

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