Auditing science stories: Two examples from the bottom rungs

The Green Bank radio telescope, West Virginia. Credit: NRAO/AUI, CC BY 3.0

There are different kinds of science stories. I don’t just mean the usual long-form, short-form stuff. I mean there are qualitatively different kinds of stories. They inhabit a hierarchy, and right at the bottom is getting something wrong.

Like the way Livemint did on April 20, 2017, reporting that ISRO had plans to mine resources from the Moon to help manage India’s energy needs. ISRO has no such plans. The report’s author, Utpal Bhaskar, is likely referring to comments made by the noted space scientist Sivathanu Pillai at the Observer Research Foundation’s Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue 2017, held in March. Pillai had said mining helium-3 from the Moon was possible – but he didn’t say anything about ISRO planning such a thing. India TV then quoted Livemint and published a report of their own, not a detail changed.

Right on top of getting something wrong on the quality hierarchy is the act of reporting something that doesn’t deserve to be – the way The Guardian did, also on April 20. Ian Sample, the newspaper’s science editor, published a piece titled ‘No encounters: most ambitious alien search to date draws a blank’. What he seems to make no big deal of is mentioned – to be fair – in the first paragraph, but without playing up its significance in this context: Breakthrough Listen, the search mission, has been online for only a year.

And in this time, nobody expected its odds of finding anything would be noticeable. I’d say the deeper flaw in the story is to pay heed to the fact that this is humans’ most ambitious project of this kind yet. Well, so what if it is? It’s still not big enough to have better odds of finding anything in its first year of ops (the story itself says how they used one telescope last year and that it scanned 629 stars – both puny numbers). In other words, this is a null result and no one expected anything better. At best, it should’ve been a tweet, a status update for the records – not a news report suggesting disappointment. So in a way Sample’s effort can be construed as a null result reported wrong.

Finally, I will not speculate if Sample, who’s probably attending the Breakthrough Discuss conference (also being live-cast through Breakthrough’s Facebook page) on April 20-21, has been obligated by the organisers to publish a report on the subject – but I will say I’m tempted to. 😉 And I recommend just following Paul Gilster’s blog if you’re interested in updates on the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Featured image: The Green Bank radio telescope, West Virginia. Credit: NRAO/AUI, CC BY 3.0.