The latest from Mars along with an important caveat…

Yes, Mars seems to be potentially more benign for life that we had thought, but this important caveat:

The basic fact is that most in the news business do not understand (or at least, do not fully appreciate) the incremental, cumulative nature of modern science.  It is seldom indeed when a single experiment or observation causes a scientific revolution.  Moreover, it is equally seldom that a breakthough comes from one person or even one research team.  Science is a complex, interdisciplinary effort.  It makes progress, but slowly and in a manner that includes both leaps forward and (sometimes) backward.

The full article is here.

Science reporting

Here in Washington, we wake up to WTOP, the local all-news station. This morning, substantially before I had my coffee, I thought I heard the mention of a new clinical study (I wont mention the results here) for which the conclusions sounded really hard to believe. Of course there was no context at all, no mention of where the study was published and therefore no chance of critically evaluating the conclusions.

This strikes me as emblematic of a huge problem in reporting on science–particularly in the context of health: pithy press-releases with a news hook trump any critical evaluation for many of the larger news outlets. It’s another version of “if it bleeds, it leads”.
The public health result is confusion. Folks on one day hear that they should consume more X to stay healthy longer. On another day, they hear that X causes cancer. They don’t know what to believe and the obvious contradictions create a credibility-gap for scientists.
This is why the profession of science-writing is so terribly important. The best science writers provide plenty of context, critical evaluation and even meta-analysis so that members of the public and decision makers get a real sense of what the sum-total of the data suggest.
We need more science writers and less press-releases.
Jim