In (Partial) Defense of Overzealous Scientists: A Reflection on Martian Disappointments

Right before Thanksgiving, Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger told NPR that NASA's rover had discovered something earthshaking on the Red Planet. "This data is going to be one for the history books," he crowed, declining to say more until results from the rover's SAM instrument — an onboard chemistry lab designed to detect (let loose the dogs of wild speculation) carbon compounds essential to Earth-like life — had been thoroughly verified. "It's looking really good."

But now, NASA is backpedaling. The nature of Curiosity's discovery has been downgraded from "earthshaking" to "interesting," and many are crying foul. They feel misled, cheated and deceived, and Grotzinger has been roundly condemned for blowing the discovery out of proportion. Should we feel this feel? Sure. Hell, I feel it. But this fiasco presents a unique opportunity to talk about how scientists should (and shouldn't) conduct themselves in the public eye — and why, sometimes, overzealous researchers may be exactly what we need.

First, some context. For the last few days, NASA spokesperson Guy Webster has been working overtime to set the record straight on Curiosity's "earthshaking" discovery and curb public expectations before next week's announcement on the findings (to be delivered at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union). The hype, it would seem, has stemmed from a big misunderstanding. Yesterday, Webster told CBS News that "the rumors about what the results are from the SAM instrument on Curiosity are quite overblown... There's nothing earthshaking. The news conference next week will be one in a series trying to keep people up to date about the rover's progress and findings."

Webster has also described Curiosity's SAM data to various other news outlets as "interesting" and (this is my favorite) "not insignificant."

The blowback to Webster's damage control has not been insignificant, either. The following exchange, borrowed from the comments section of this article at Spaceflight Now, does a good job of capturing a couple widely held sentiments:

In (Partial) Defense of Overzealous Scientists: A Reflection on Martian Disappointments

I understand where Humphrey is coming from. I really do. When news of Curiosity's "momentous" discovery broke last week, I was excited. Skeptical, cynical and wary, yes, but excited. And I also expressed how disappointed I would be if this announcement was anything less than, well, earthshaking. Things got a little heated, and more than a little dramatic:

If, a few weeks from now, the big reveal is even more evidence of ancient water on Mars, I will personally fly to Pasadena and punch Grotzinger in the brain. Not because more evidence of water on Mars is unimportant or insignificant (Curiosity is a one-ton, six-wheel-drive, nuclear-powered super-laboratory doing science on FUCKING MARS — every single thing it finds is, by definition, a major discovery), but because when most people hear someone say "this is gonna be one for the history books," they expect news that 99% of the population (i.e. someone other than a geologist) can get excited about.

I stand by that last part — the part about most people expecting historic news when its promised to them by someone like Grotzinger. But over the last few days, the public outcry that Grotzinger was irresponsible in painting Curiosity's discovery as earthshaking has left me feeling a little sheepish about the threats I leveled against Grotzinger's grey matter, and conflicted over the question of how scientists should conduct themselves in the public eye.

Because here's the thing: I think it's a good thing when scientists are outwardly excited about their research. When someone like Grotzinger overstates the significance of a discovery, it reminds us that scientists are humans who are wholly invested in their work. It makes their pursuits more relatable. I believe that the tendency among scientists to present themselves as dispassionate, robotlike, and wholly objective is boring and dishonest. Slate's Michelle Nijjhuis explored this idea earlier this year, noting that there are those who claim that "by exposing their humanity... scientists will win more of the public's trust." For instance:

in the wake of "Climategate," when hacked emails from the University of East Anglia exposed some scientists as being intemperate and suggested that they were prone to using so-called "tricks" in their analyses, most people who changed their views as a result of the scandal became more convinced of the reality of global warming, not less.

Granted, there are different ways to "expose one's humanity," and some are vastly preferable to others. Do we want researchers to engage in wholesale scientific fraud? Obviously not. But could scientists stand to be, for example, more outwardly enthusiastic about their work? Absolutely. Scientists, even the pompous ones, tend to undersell their findings, eschew "flowery" language, and feign complete objectivity — all under the banner of "good science."

But sometimes this approach is bullshit. It is the wellspring of silly, ironic understatements like "Curiosity has made a discovery on Mars, and that discovery is not insignificant." Of course it isn't insignificant. It's a discovery on Mars, and that is awesome. Get excited about it. If scientists like Grotzinger get a little too excited from time to time, and the internet blows it out proportion and runs wild with speculation, well then maybe that's just something we have to live with. Because scientists exposing their humanity is about more than the fallibility of results. It's about the fallibility of personhood. It's about our capacity for real emotions that can, and do, affect the research process — from the design of experiments, to the interpretation of results, to the communication of those results.

The challenge for scientists is striking a balance between under- and over-selling — between "these findings are not insignificant" and "this is one for the history books." Because I do think Grotzinger got carried away, but I absolutely detest the idea of bashing him for being publicly excited about his work.