Oh geez, not another exoplanet story

Image of exoplanets in the HR 8799 system, from the Keck telescope in Hawaii. [Credit: RC-HIA/C. Marois/Keck Observatory]
I wrote yet another exoplanet story yesterday. Not only that, I wrote yet another exoplanet story about the same system astronomy writer extraordinaire Kelly Oakes covered, and which my editor John Timmer wrote about the day before.  OK, these weren’t identical stories by any means, but at some point I imagine many people might start getting confused: what do we know about exoplanets? What discoveries (that seem to come out nearly on a weekly basis) are truly groundbreaking, and which constitute incremental progress? How can a non-expert—or even someone like me, who covers the exoplanet beat without specific background in the area—really understand what’s going on?

In fact, stories like mine are why former Scientific American editor John Rennie says that exoplanets bore him. Not that the discovery of new planets orbiting other stars is inherently boring, but because every reporter seems to feel the need to make every new find sound like it’s the most exciting thing yet. However, it’s not possible that every one of these stories is equally significant, much less of escalating significance.

Admittedly, I’m part of the problem, at least sometimes. Here at Galileo’s Pendulum, I rarely cover “breaking news”, so I can afford a lot more nuance. I also have a lot more editorial freedom (since I is my oun editor), so I’m under very little pressure to be timely, for better or worse. However, scientists make new discoveries all the time, and—yes—it’s important to write about them.

Normal versus revolutionary science

A puppet Thomas Kuhn doing the “YMCA”. Because, why not? [Tip of the pendulum to the excellent science writer Kelly Oakes]
The problem: most science is incremental by its very nature, but we tend to report as though every discovery is groundbreaking. To phrase it in the language of Thomas Kuhn’s classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we report normal science as revolutionary science. I’m not going to summarize Kuhn’s book (mostly because it’s been 15 years since I last read it cover to cover), but his basic ideas are worth examining in brief, albeit with my particular spin on it. Philosophers of science will no doubt excoriate me in the comments.

New theories—detailed frameworks for doing science—or new types of observations are revolutionary. They force changes in the way we think about a field of research, but they’re rare by their very nature. Natural selection in biology and quantum mechanics in physics were two major revolutions that we’re still dealing with today, but most aspects have become normalized. Researchers don’t usually have to think about the philosophical implications of either when studying (say) the ecological impact of invasive species, or interactions between light and matter in novel materials, even though neither of these phenomena would make sense without the respective theoretical frameworks of natural selection and quantum physics.

In other words, those studies are part of normal science. In a Kuhnian sense, they can’t be revolutionary, no matter how significant they are. The problem is that frequently we’re not very good at distinguishing important from revolutionary. Most scientific discovery is going to be incremental, filling in details in the larger theoretical framework. But that doesn’t make those incremental finds unimportant, a lesson that’s essential to grasp. It’s not just crackpots that think that only the Big Discoveries are important, and therefore anything less isn’t worth the time. Revolutions are often only recognized long after they’ve become normalized, and talk of “the end of science” or “ironic science” is just another sign of this kind of bad thinking.

The public presentations of science often reinforce this false view of science as well. Think for a moment about the Nobel Prizes, widely considered the most significant acknowledgement of achievement in science. Yet, only three people may receive the prize in a given field in a year, which means inevitably many worthy people in a collaboration are left out. As I wrote in my earlier Nobel Curmudgeon post, who will receive the prize for discovering the Higgs boson? Furthermore, the Nobel Prizes aren’t offered in every field, so they can’t even claim to be comprehensive. The top scientists in some areas, even if they make revolutionary discoveries, will never receive Nobels. (This doesn’t even get into issues of bias and favoritism, or the blatant antisemitism that kept Einstein from winning the Nobel Prize for several years, to the point where the committee blatantly refused to give a prize in physics at all in 1921 rather than award it to him.)

Normal science is exciting too

As the full exchange between John Rennie and various others (including me) shows, the primary concern he had about the glut of exoplanet news was the lack of context. In a real sense, being able to talk about statistics of exoplanets—the variety of worlds, the types of systems, and some of the extreme planets out there—is itself the news. Thirty years ago, we knew of no other planets outside the Solar System; twenty years ago, the only extrasolar planets we knew orbited pulsars, which hardly bore comparison to Earth, Jupiter, and siblings. Even a decade ago, exoplanet data consisted mainly of huge planets orbiting very close to their host stars. That whole field has sprung up rapidly, at least by the usual slow standard pace of science.

So how do we report on normal science, without engaging in sensationalism? Gabrielle Rabinowitz asked that question on Twitter, and collected a bunch of interesting answers. It’s hard to do, though: basically by writing a news item, a reporter is saying a result is newsworthy—and risks making a normal science result sound like it’s revolutionary. I know I run that risk regularly, and probably fail regularly as well. I’m on deadline. I gots to eats.

In that conversation with Gabrielle, though, I mentioned an ideal of mine: I would love to make normal science as exciting for others as it is for me. Think of it this way: many of us have jobs, and almost all of us work, paid or unpaid, in the home or outside it. Most of our victories are small in the cosmic scheme, but we celebrate them nevertheless. Promotions, the birth or adoption of children, the successful completion of a major project, graduations…all these things are the outcomes of the normal science of daily life.

Somehow, we who write or talk about scientific research need to emphasize that the victories of normal science are shared: they belong to all of us, thanks to tax support, citizen science projects, or even private donations. You and I may not be doing the research, but the science is being done on our behalf. (That’s a major reason why bad science and misleading research hurts all of us, but that’s a story for another day.) The risk is of overly romanticizing matters, of course: science is a messy endeavor, whether normal or revolutionary. However, if we can somehow get across the idea that normal science itself is interesting, exciting, and worthwhile, we’ll have come a long way toward turning yet another exoplanet story into a small victory for human discovery.


6 responses to “Oh geez, not another exoplanet story”

  1. Mass media science coverage really irritates me. If I hear the ridiculous term “god particle” one more time, I am going to take a large dump on the nearest TV news anchor!

  2. […] having another round of complaints about sensationalism and hype in science stories– Matthew Francis and Gabrielle Rabinowitz are the latest to cross my social media feeds. I’ve also seen some […]

  3. I personally am fascinated with every exoplanet story, likely because I remember being a kid and arguing that it wouldn’t make sense for the Sun to be the only star out of billions with planets only to be told. People have wondered about this for generations and centuries and to actually live to see these worlds discovered should make us feel very privileged. What could be more exciting than “strange new worlds?”–maybe “new life forms and new civilizations?” That could be next.

    1. Oops, in the first sentence, I meant to say, only to be told there is no evidence for any other stars having planets.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM Avatar
    Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Oh geez, not another philosophic story! :-/

    I don’t think Kuhn’s idea on science is testable. If you use statistical hypothesis testing to embody testing, in principle every minute parameter change means (testing) a new theory. Conversely, how do you measure that a small change has accumulated to something “revolutionary”, and how do you measure _that_ concept? I suspect all of science is “normal”, albeit messy as a process.

    I admit that philosophy is arbitrary story telling that doesn’t need to be testable. But when it tries to tell boring and by necessity uninformative stories on science, I get testy. As always, what we need is a science of science, not philosophic story telling on areas they by necessity are mostly ignorant of and thus should refrain talking about.

    The stuff about Nobel prizes is less boring. Science is elitist, based on the market of ideas. Then prizes are somewhat like social plan economy, trying to choose among good wares “just because it makes us feel good”.

    If we map science on economy, we note that on average it gives tremendous ROI, among the best out there. (NASA has some numbers on that.) But we also note that it is hard to prognosticate, especially the future. We don’t know what maps fruitful (market succeeding) ideas within science to fruitful ideas within society as regards economy, news value, et cetera.

    So I don’t think there is some quick fix. News is also a market, and I don’t think exoplanet news (say) will oversell long before it drops in value. Then people will tend to go after other stuff more, and the news market has changed. (“Normally” so, I hasten to add.)

    My 2p: make the best of it while it’s a market that sells well.

    PS. There is also submarkets, the generic public and the more science literate. You can’t sell on both with the same wares. Another 2p.

  5. […] interesting refinement of earlier observations, showing an excess of positrons we need to explain. We should make ordinary science interesting and exciting, but it benefits none of us to make such results sound more revolutionary than they really […]

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