You may remember not long ago the news was humming of news that the NASA rover Curiosity had found something on important on mars. It was reported that the discovery, which scientists were pretty confident of, was not being announced, because it was so absolutely astonishing and earth-shattering that they had to be 100% sure it was real and not an error.
The whole thing seemed strange: if you were going to announce something major, why not just announce it? If it was uncertain, why not announce that you saw signs of something but were not 100% sure? Perhaps it could be attributed to the tendency of the press to gloss over the disclaimer of uncertainty, but given that fact, why announce anything at if it had not been verified? Making an announcement of something, without saying what it was, seemed to defeat the purpose of waiting to release the information.
Needless to say, speculation ran wild. What could it be? Large amounts of liquid water? Organic compounds? Life?
Well, it turns out it wasn’t anything at all. It was just some very ridiculous levels of misinterpretation by reporters.
Remember last week when we told you about how NASA’s Curiosity rover had reportedly sent back some very interesting data from Mars in the form of a soil sample that could be, in the apparent words of one of the mission’s leaders, “one for the history books”? Yeah, well, now NASA is saying that all the hype is actually just a giant misunderstanding between the scientist and the NPR reporter who interviewed him—a mistake that was then multiplied many times over by each news outlet (again, including us) who picked up the story.
Here, let’s have Mashable, which did the legwork to follow up on the original NPR report, explain (emphasis ours):
The quote heard around the world came shortly after [scientist John] Grotzinger explained that NASA had just received the initial data from Curiosity’s first soil experiment using a new Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is capable of identifying organic compounds.
Naturally, the public assumed that this meant Curiosity had discovered a complex organic molecule. But while NASA does have the latest soil samples, the mission team tells Mashable that researchers haven’t determined that particular groundbreaking discovery. …
What Grotzinger was actually trying to convey is that Curiosity’s data over her entire two-year mission will further our knowledge of Mars more than ever before, making it a historical mission.
So to recap, Grotzinger was apparently trying to express just how excited he was about the entire mission, not about any one specific discovery; it is the sum of all of Curiosity’s past and future discoveries that he thinks will be historic. His particular choice of words—”This data is gonna be one for the history books”—however, along with the suggestion that his team was currently double- and triple-checking data it had received (something that is standard procedure) gave NPR the mistaken impression that there was something specific that NASA was eager to celebrate as a major discovery.
The original NPR report made it pretty clear that the reporter doing the interview, veteran science correspondent Joe Palca, thought Grotzinger was hyping a specific result:
Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something remarkable. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he says.
Grotzinger can see the pained look on my face as I wait, hoping he’ll tell me what the heck he’s found, but he’s not providing any more information.
While it’s a little odd that NASA’s communication team didn’t manage to quickly quash the rumor after the original report aired, Veronica McGregor, NASA’s news and social media manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Slatest late Tuesday night that they did their best to set the story straight.
So it seems that this was a case of the NASA spokesperson basically saying that the data from this mission would be something for the history books, not that any one given reading was so earth-shattering it would itself be one for the history books.
I have to admit I was suspicious of this from the start and got a strange feeling from it, and that’s why I didn’t say much about it.
I really wish the media had actually made an effort to confirm things like this more, but I also wish NASA had made more effort to clarify the situation. Apparently there were tweets to that effect from NASA and the Curiosity team, but clearly just tweeting it is not enough.