Are Scientists Overselling The Recent Discovery Of Methane On Mars?

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Is the recent discovery of methane on Mars being oversold to the public as a discovery of life to encourage more funding for future projects? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Nicole Gravagna, Neuroscience PhD, on Quora:

Is the recent discovery of methane on Mars being oversold to the public as a discovery of life to encourage more funding for future projects? If so, how do scientists feel about this?

When I was still a scientist who worked in the lab, I had a running joke with the other scientists. “Hey, guys! They found water on Mars!” The others knew the right response was feigned surprise. “Whoa! Really? No way!”

They discovered water on Mars no less than 17 times in the 6 years that I worked in that lab and had that running gag with my colleagues. Maybe they discovered water on the moon a few of those times. We lost track.

Public interest news media and true scientific discoveries are poorly connected to one another. Real scientific discovery happens very very quietly. It’s like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits. Shhhh. We don’t want to scare the results away.

A scientist doesn’t “discover” something unless some scientific publication allows them to have a forum with other peer scientists. This is called peer review. Often this forum consists of a scientist writing up their results along with other results that they collected recently into a nice story of related results.

Then that draft paper is given to others scientists (sometimes strangers, sometimes friends) and it is criticized thoroughly. That’s the “right” thing to do. Criticize the heck out of another scientist’s science.

Only after holes have been poked in the science and patched back up again with stated caveats and qualifiers does the science see the public eye. And by “public” I mean the scientific public. These papers are written in a language that most people can’t read–science. It’s a lot like legalese.

The news doesn’t catch wind of science right away. Often there’s a period of time where there’s a gentlemen’s agreement that the science article can stay in the science world before other public interest articles can write about it.

Then, after all that, the public might just hear about a scientific discovery. Maybe. A year or three have gone by at this point.

You see, most scientific discoveries are just too damned boring for regular news media. Regular people (non scientists) need some kind of context that they understand before they can care about a scientific finding. So, discoveries like a finding a chemical like methane on Mars just isn’t newsworthy unless some journalist can add the so what? part of the story.

When a scientist finds methane on Mars, there’s usually a single line in the whole discovery paper that suggests maybe there’s a slight chance that methane might kind of suggest that life could have existed in some form on Mars at some point. Super wishy washy.

You see, science is about fact and fact is very very narrow. Fact is never as big as “life on Mars.” Fact is more like, “we saw a methane signal using three different types of assays that we used to detect methane in a significant number of the samples we tested.” Fact is what and how. Fact is never why or so what.

So yes, all science is oversold to the public because the public wouldn’t give a care about it if it wasn’t over sold. The public cares about so what. The public cares about why. Science is simply the what and how. To get to why and so what, you have to add some showmanship and that part comes from journalists like me.

Peer review and the publication process

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Joan Guzman