A Halloween Horror Tale: Media Space Reporting

Sometimes it is amazing the kind of stuff one can find while stumbling around on the internet. A few years ago I found something that seems very appropriate to share on Halloween. But first, a little background:

About 15 years ago I was asked by the editors of Scientific American to write a sidebar for an upcoming article about SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) being written by astronomer Ian Crawford titled “Where Are They?”. As can be inferred from the title, the article dealt with the lack of signals detected from any extraterrestrial civilizations and what that null result meant. My sidebar, “Where They Could Hide”, summarized what SETI programs had searched for and what could have eluded detection. The main graphic of the piece showed what fraction of stars had been searched as of 1999 for artificial radio beacons at the 1.42 GHz hydrogen line (the most thoroughly searched frequency in the radio spectrum corresponding to hydrogen) as a function of distance from Earth and transmitter power.

My conclusion was that as of 1999, SETI programs had excluded the existence of an Arecibo-like transmitter beaming a continuous signal at us at a frequency of 1.42 GHz that was associated with any star system out to about 50 light years. And given the sensitivity of the searches conducted up until that time, an Arecibo-like transmitter would have totally eluded detection at distances beyond about 4,000 light years. This left open the possibility that there were still millions of civilizations slightly more advanced than our own that are transmitting radio beacons at 1.42 GHz in our galaxy or even as many as one hundred Type I civilizations doing the same thing and still escape detection by SETI program up until 1999. But these were the results of searches at one radio frequency (out of billions) for one very specific type of signal (continuous, narrow-band beacons). As powerful as various searches had been, only a small fraction of the galaxy had been searched in a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum for a very narrow class signals. SETI has only begun its search so the lack of any detections is not too surprising.

My original plot from 1999 submitted to Scientific American showing the fraction of stars examined by SETI programs for continuous beacons at the 1.42 GHz hydrogen line as a function of distance from Earth and transmitter EIRP (Effective Isotropic Radiant Power). All combinations of distances and EIRP in the black area had not been searched. Click on image to enlarge. (A.J. LePage)

The article with my sidebar appeared in the July 2000 issue of Scientific American. Unknown to me at the time, a tabloid called Weekly World News published a piece (supposedly) summarizing the results presented in my sidebar in their November 28, 2000 issue (pictured at the top of this page). Despite quoting many of the salient points I made in the sidebar about what SETI had not found, they jumped to the erroneous conclusion that I was claiming that intelligent aliens do not exist and that “the average E.T. is as dumb as a bag of hammers!” since they were not transmitting signals for us to detect. Of course I realize that one can not expect any semblance of accuracy from a tabloid especially one like the Weekly World News which specialized in publishing over-the-top articles on the supernatural that sometimes bordered on being satire. So I got a good chuckle out of this article when I discovered it on the internet many years after my piece was published in Scientific American.

While it is easy to dismiss articles in publications like this, unfortunately it sometimes seems that the “main stream” media has done little better than this on its reporting on space-related topics. All too frequently in recent years, for example, some groups of astronomers stretch the bounds of scientific consensus to make the claim that their latest extrasolar planetary discovery is potentially habitable. The media then picks up on these claims and publishes them with fanciful artists depictions of these worlds without ever bothering to independently verify the veracity of the claims. There has even been at least one instance in recent months where a discovery team specifically stated that they seriously doubted the extrasolar planet they discovered was habitable only to have another laboratory declare otherwise and issue a press release that was then widely reported on the internet and elsewhere (see “GJ832c: Habitable Super-Earth or Super-Venus?”).

It is specifically for this reason that I started the “Habitable Planet Reality Check” series of essays on Drew Ex Machina to provide an independent analysis of the facts free of the media hype. As it turns out, the overwhelming majority of claims of “potentially habitable” extrasolar planets prove to have very little or no real scientific support. While making claims about the discovery of a potentially habitable planet might make for good press or generate lots of clicks to support web site advertising rates, it has a deleterious impact on the public’s view of science when the facts can no longer support the hype. In the long run, this contributes to a poorly informed public’s growing distrust in science and strengthens the dangerous undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in this country.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon of poor reporting is not confined just to astronomy. The once well regarded weekly news magazine, Newsweek, published an article by Kurt Eichenwald in their September 26, 2014 issue called “Dark Side of the Moon: The Hidden History of Cold War Star Wars” about the history of the Moon race that has been widely panned by space historians like myself. Dwayne Day best described the article as “filled with factual inaccuracies, lazy reporting, sloppy editing, and a rather warped sense of history” (for a complete review of the Newsweek article, I highly recommend Dwayne Day’s article in The Space Review titled “In space no one can here you sigh”). Instead of issuing a correction, the magazine simply deleted dozens of critical on-line comments from space historians and enthusiasts that had pointed out the factual errors and poor reporting in the piece.

Bad space reporting is no longer confined to the fringes of the media as is evident in the recent Newsweek article on the Moon race that has been widely panned by space historians and knowledgeable enthusiasts.

So my horror story for my gentle readers on this Halloween ends with the thought that the space-related reporting in today’s media all too frequently seems to be not much better than that of the tabloid papers one could find in the supermarket checkout just 15 years ago. While there are certainly many, many notable exceptions of this here and elsewhere across the web, as space-news consumers we need to be demanding better quality reporting from the rest of the media where the majority of people get their news about science in general and space in particular.


Related Reading

My entire series of “Habitable Planet Reality Check” and related essays on astrobiology on Drew Ex Machina can be seen here.

My sidebar from the July 2000 issue of Scientific American, “Where They Could Hide”, can be accessed from the Scientific American web site here.