During NASA's media briefing on the new study, I tweeted a few things about what the findings do and don't mean. At no point did I tell y'all to be less excited, mind — I was just clarifying a few points that were getting glossed over by the media in all the kerfuffle. They didn't find direct signs of liquid water, as many news outlets implied, but they found evidence that seems to confirm a very solid theory of where and how liquid water would form.
But I got a few responses that worried me. When The Post tweeted out my comments, several folks replying seemed to think I was saying that NASA had pulled a fast one on us.
"Yep. Methinks this story of water flow smells fishy," one reply stated. Another called the study "the space equivalent of deflategate," which I guess means something about fraud, though the actual metaphor is kind of lost on me because sports is weird.
And I found myself wondering: Do we really have to pick between accepting things wholesale and becoming convinced we're being duped?
No, we don't. You probably don't need me to tell you this. You're a complex and diverse group of individuals who share nothing in common but the fact that you sometimes read my articles or tweet at me, and some of you have more degrees in science than I do, and others of you are just smart as heck, and you probably know how science works. But just in case you don't, let me explain:
Monday's announcement was not a shocking new development. It was also not definitive proof of anything. It happened to come out just a few days before a much-anticipated movie about Mars. NASA definitely used some cloak-and-daggers when they sent out their news release hinting at the announcement, and the agency was definitely trying to stir up a lot of excitement — because its funding depends on public support.
All of this is true, and it was still great science.
There's a misconception that scientific studies are only important if they represent breakthroughs — big new ideas that no one has thought of before, proven in an instant. Everyone loves a good "eureka!" moment. But those don't happen very often. And when they do, other scientists have to scramble around trying to reproduce that "eureka" over and over again to make sure that it actually happened, and that it meant what the initial eureka-er thought it did.
Science isn't a series of big discoveries. It's a series of small steps forward — and a lot of marching in place.
And because good scientists have to wait for their work to be reviewed by unaffiliated peers in the field, we don't find out about their discoveries right away. That means that sometimes — perhaps with a little push from those involved — studies can be announced right when they're most likely to make a big splash. This happens all the time (exhibit a: this study about fanged deer that coincidentally came out on Halloween), and you can't really blame the scientists involved for trying. Getting media attention has become a huge part of getting tenure and awards, And NASA has made no secret of its obsession with social media, which — for all of its potential downsides — could be what gets us on crewed missions to Mars. Missions take funding, and NASA relies on the excitement of the public to make that happen.
All of this is to say that there is a little duping going on. But we can be skeptical of hype without spinning out in the opposite direction. If a big announcement sounds a little too big, take a step back, and check out the details a little more closely. But if it turns out to be a step instead of a massive leap, don't feel duped — it's just good science.