The Dangers of Sensationalism

I am very critical of yellow journalism, especially when it comes to the topic of the burgeoning search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It seems that in order to draw more traffic to their domains, journalists are often incentivized to throw in more buzzwords or sensational misrepresentations of the primary message of their interviewees. In this department, Andersen’s article in The Atlantic fares moderately well in that he does not go headlong into sensation (though he does participate to some degree, as we shall see). The article provides decent exposition on the astronomical techniques used in the detection of exoplanets and an account of the events regarding Tabby’s star as they unfolded. My primary qualm with the presentation was that they emboldened and enlarged a paraphrase of a quote from Prof. Jason Wright, which seemed to distract from his main message (My secondary qualm is that in their last sentence they suggeste that Tabby’s star might see Earth transit, but the declination of Kepler field stars places them well beyond the range of the Earth transit zone). In the paragraph text, he says: “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider.” This is what most certainly, if any, should have been emboldened and enlarged. Instead they chose: “… it looked like [something] you might expect an alien civilization to build.” To the lay person who might only read the article in brief and without skeptically-trained eyes, they may come across this latter phrase and then go on to tell all their friends and family a false truth regarding Tabby’s Star due to this choice of emphasis. This is obviously dangerous to the representation of SETI and astronomy in general, and may tarnish the reputation of the field and the authors consulted. I would strongly admonish any deviation from a purely accurate representation of the ideas and phrases of a scientist, especially so in this area. Therefore, it is the role of the scientist to effectively explain the subtlety of their position to the journalist and the role of the journalist to reflect such a position with fidelity in the popular article.

Author: Alan

Hi, I'm a first year graduate student in the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds.