Friday, June 20, 2014

The Problem With Doing Science Via Public Media

OK, so it is not really doing science via public media, but we all should have learned our lessons already by now when new results are announced via press conference AHEAD of it being scrutinized by experts in the field. We could go back, way back, to the Fleshmann and Pons "cold fusion" debacle. But people young enough to not be aware of that still have no excuses, because the recent "fast than light" neutrinos measured by OPERA should also be a major lesson.

But I guess some people, especially the PR departments at major institutions, just never learn. The same embarrassing fate may befallen on the recent BICEP2 results. After much media publicity of the implications of the results, the media are now touting how it could be wrong, which is a claim that needs to also be verified.

I can certainly understand how "big discoveries" of this magnitude can being a spotlight to science, especially in physics. I definitely see the advantage of that. However, and this is especially true for something that is so dependent on many factors and many ways to analyze, we need to lean on the conservative side and let the process takes its course before touting the results. I am certain that if the BICEP2 result was simply submitted for publication, and then it appears in print, no one in the media would somehow recognize the profound implication of its results. So why not wait until sufficient scrutiny has been done before we approach the media and then tell them that, hey, we have published this paper and this is the big implication of the result?

This is where the news embargo that Science and Nature impose on submission inadvertently helps in this process. Unlike PRL and many journals that do not have such restrictions, Nature and Science forces the authors to "keep it down" while the manuscript undergoes its rounds of scrutiny and refereeing, no press releases, no public announcement, etc., until after it has been accepted. Then, even the PR people at these journals will try to trumpet the results as much as they can!

You do science via public media, you sometime die via the same public media.



BAJ said...

Having been part of several large international physics collaborations I can assure you that the push for doing press releases before publication comes not from PR people but from the physicists themselves. Ultimately, the audience that matters here are policymakers and funding agency personnel. A press release means that mainstream press articles will get written and when it comes time to ask for money, we physicists can show off that our work "even made the mainstream press." While I agree that it would be great if we could wait until after peer-review, the reality is that the higher-ups in these collaborations want "significant" results to get publicity as soon as they are made public and that is often before the peer-review process is completed.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff BAJ. AFAIK physicists sometimes put a "media hook" into a paper. Like Hawking saying "black holes don't exist". Shock horror! Guaranteed coverage. Also see this about going direct to the media. Hamish Johnson said "I think it left many British scientists cringing under their duvets".

Douglas Natelson said...

Yeah, from an outsider's POV, it sure seems like there was no need to have a big press fanfare prior to peer review of the paper. Even if they were trying to establish some kind of priority over the Planck team, the media circus seemed way more than was necessary (or perhaps warranted, depending on how this turns out). I mean, suppose they're right - would their chances at a Nobel really have been weakened by waiting for the paper to be accepted before talking extensively to the press?