Reasons for fake science news: (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Thursday, February 28, 2019, 00:01 (458 days ago)

A review of probabilities:

Astronomer Avi Loeb suggests space rock Oumuamua 'could be alien probe'


"Within the scientific community, outlandish ideas like Loeb’s can be divisive, primarily because claims that attract a lot of media attention can turn the conversation away from the definite facts we’ve worked hard to learn. Scientists who make big claims can be seen as capitalizing on media hype, and the rest of us sometimes blame the media itself for playing a part. If we’re being honest, though, we have to admit that everyone involved — not just journalists, but also academic and research institutions and even the scientists themselves — participates in the hype cycle.

"Hype in science can be seen as an outgrowth of the larger crisis in journalism, as the precipitous decline in journalism jobs has meant that few news outlets employ dedicated science journalists. While many scientists blame hyped-up science news on a lack of journalistic expertise, the reality is more complex: As the bottom fell out for science journalism jobs, many science journalists were faced with the choice between battling it out as freelancers or using their skills to work in the communications offices of the institutions housing scientists — usually universities. There, they would be tasked with spreading the word about the results of new research happening at their home institutions.

" While the writers themselves are genuinely excited to share these new discoveries, media attention boosts the institution itself, enhancing its reputation and opening up new funding avenues. Accordingly, no news release, however measured, is ever solely about the distribution of new knowledge. And yet these same documents still do help journalists (especially those without specialized training in science) identify what new scientific results might be transformative.

"It’s here that the problem of hyperbole comes into play. Many astronomers are fond of what’s known as the Sagan standard: the saying that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” By contrast, ancient rhetoricians such as Quintilian believed that extraordinary circumstances actually justify hyperbole, because it can express the inexpressible when, in Quintilian’s phrase, “no one is contented with the exact truth.” All hyperbole skates a thin boundary between elegance and extravagance, between capturing the incompleteness of our knowledge, and distorting the truth. Among scientists — and, in this case, astronomers specifically — the boundaries of how outlandish one can be are limited by our commitment to careful measurement and moderate interpretations. Hyperbolic ideas therefore need not leave the solar system entirely before they risk offending our sensibilities.

"But does hyperbole actually shift our perspective on the possible at all? Over at the Atlantic, Marina Koren has written about how institutional prestige — in this case, Loeb’s position as chairman of the Harvard Astronomy Department, along with his long list of other accomplishments — can add a certain gravitas to a claim that might be dismissed if it came from somewhere else. But it also shapes who can get away with extreme ideas in the first place. Pushing the boundaries of plausibility comes with risk to one’s career and reputation, so while anyone can use hyperbole as a tool, the risk that one bears is substantially higher if you are not insulated by a name-brand institution, along with titles and accomplishments from adjacent name-brand institutions. Outlandish claims are, in some sense, a luxury concentrated in the hands of those who already possess other luxuries — a kind of academic weight whose heft accumulates with time. The fact that hyperbolic ideas remain a privilege is precisely what limits them as a tool for moving the boundaries of the possible."

Comment: This all goes back to my main point about grants. The government is the sugar daddy that supplies lots of money for research, any research, because it is good politics, but doesn't necessarily make good science. Universities want and use great publicity to suck up as much money as they can get. By the way Oumuamua is an odd-shaped space rock wondering through our solar system. Hyperbole can be rampent in science reports by both reporters and the scientists themselves.

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