You Can Go About Your Business; Move Along

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. — Carl Sagan

The more I read about the “bacteria in a meteorite“, the more it’s obvious that even my cautious skepticism was too cautious. With a lot of different researchers weighing in, it’s evident that there was never a story here—nobody should ever have taken this seriously. Being fair-minded is a good idea, but the evidence in this case is so weak as to be absurd.

It hardly needs to be said that science isn’t done by press release. The needs of the media—to always be searching for news—conflict with the needs of science. Science news isn’t always overhyped, but it’s amazing how often preliminary studies, partial results, and the opinions of one or two researchers get promoted as the “next big idea” by the media. Ideally, scientific results pass through peer review before publication; this process is often slow, and scientists (and/or their funding sources) understandably can become impatient with the process, so blame doesn’t purely lie with the media.

Honestly, the situation isn’t terrible, either: a fair number of scientists are good writers and media-savvy enough to be able to talk about fairly esoteric stuff in a way the general public can understand. When stories like the “alien bacteria” are broken, it doesn’t take long for the cooler heads to chime in and provide a healthy perspective. It serves the media well to consult with these cooler heads early and often, even if it makes the stories less sensational.

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