The Sensationalization of Science Sucks
This month, we’ve had some pretty exciting news in science, specifically in Astronomy and space science in general. The smoking-gun signs of liquid water were discovered on Mars, which is an unprecedented discovery that could very well lead to breakthrough research on Mars’s history and composition. The New Horizons probe continues to reveal insights into Pluto that have never before been possible. It’s a great time to be alive if you’re a student of our universe; new discoveries are being made almost daily.
However, there’s a disconcerting trend emerging. As if discovering liquid water on Mars isn’t enough, media organizations feel the need to sensationalize every science headline to ridiculous degrees. It’s not just “We’ve discovered liquid water on Mars!”, it’s now “Liquid water on Mars – does this mean we’ve found alien life?“. It’s apparently just not satisfying enough to report on the incredible discoveries being made in space; everything has to relate to Sci-Fi if it’s going to get airtime or get published on a news site.
This may seem like harmless clickbait, but it actually does real harm to the image that people have of science, which in turn causes big problems when it comes time to get funding or announce a new discovery. With Sci-Fi movies constantly pushing the boundaries of our expectations of science, people seem to just get bored of real science. Or, at least, that’s what the media seems to think.
Earlier this year, I talked about a sensationalized science story, specifically regarding a bunch of armchair physicists debating whether or not a warp drive had actually been built. Well, here we are 5+ months later, and we don’t have a warp drive. Right now there is another sensationalized story spreading across the internet, regarding an interesting star that was recently discovered. The star in question seems to have a tight cluster of matter orbiting it which doesn’t fit the profile for something like a planet or large asteroid.
Based on a single off-the-cuff remark, the media instantly started reporting that scientists had discovered a star system which seemed to be home to “alien megastructures“. From there, the story grew to include Dyson Spheres, references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and speculation that we should stop broadcasting on all wavelengths to prevent the aliens from realizing we’re here.
Now, I know that a lot of this might just be bored reporters trying to spruce up a story, but the problem is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t do anything more than read headlines, and then go and spread misinformation based on those headlines. The reality of the situation is that no one who knows what they’re talking about is seriously calling the matter cluster alien megastructures. No one who knows what they’re talking about is jumping to the conclusion that liquid water on Mars definitely means there are little green men running around on the red planet, and no one who knew what they were talking about thought the EM Drive was going to facilitate interstellar travel.
The media has the responsibility to report facts. However, much of our online news sources more often decide it’s prudent to represent speculation and spurious claims as if they were fact. They may even discredit that speculation in their own article, but because people in our culture today have the attention span of a particularly dim-witted goldfish, these headlines become some amalgamation of the worst game of telephone ever and your grandpa’s tale of the time he almost caught a 400-pound catfish. These stories that are supposed to be reporting on science rarely seem to contain any actual science.
The saddest part about all of this is that these stories don’t even need the sensational headlines or claims. They’re amazing as they are. It is truly incredible that we’ve verified flowing water on Mars. That’s an unprecedented discovery that is going to lead to tons of awesome science. It’s really cool that we found a star system which probably has exocomets clustered in this particular formation. The close-up shots of Pluto that the New Horizons probe is sending back are breathtaking. But the media seems to think that we’re too stupid to appreciate those things, and the only way to get us to click their stories is to make a claim so ridiculous that you can’t help but read it.
It’s a sad day when real science is being shunned for science fiction.