Being a scientist and practiced astronomer myself, I found a particular note of interest when I had heard that NASA had released news that their Kepler mission to search for exo-planets, or planets orbiting stars in other solar systems had recently provided results. The “big news” from NASA was that the satellite had successfully done what we designed it to do: it found an exo-planet in the habitable zone of orbit, where liquid water might exist.
This actually isn’t all that great of a discovery, as it’s not even the first planet we’ve found in the habitable zone…it’s only the first one we found using the Kepler Satellite. At this moment, we think that this planet is a rocky-cored planet and not a gas giant, but that’s just getting confirmed. The only particular point of interest about this tiny speck in the night sky is that we think it statistically has a chance of having liquid water. This one possible planet so far, out of 2,326 exo-planets so far discovered. With the exception of Kepler-22b and 54 others, the rest of these exo-planets are all gas-giants, or have orbits that are well outside the range of human habitability.
Ok, so now that I’ve correctly established the factual base of information, in the past 24 hours, I’ve noticed that while the numbers seem to stay the same, the facts around them seem to be changed as one news group re-posts, and reposts the same information.
Here is a link to the original article, posted by NASA. This is where I gathered all of my information, straight from the source. Take special point and search the page, as the words “life” and “alien” do not even exist on the NASA article. The article even goes so far as to specify that out of the 2,326 planets surveyed, only 54 of these planets orbit near enough to the habitable zone to be candidates, but require further study of their orbits to confirm.
Here is a link to the Washington Post’s take on the NASA release, which discusses mostly facts on the matter, but does open the article to the question of “are we alone?” While I feel that out of most of the articles out there, this may be one of the most accurate reports, it appears to have been partially written by Roger Hunter, the Project Manager for the Kepler Mission.
Here’s where things start getting distorted. In an article from Space.com, the words “could harbor life” occur on three separate occasions, one of which is claiming to quote NASA (which, remember, I just showed how they never mentioned it). The world “alien” appears eight times in this article, being used in contexts from discussing “alien worlds” to “intelligent aliens.” Here’s a quote:
If intelligent aliens were studying our solar system with their own version of Kepler, after all, it would take them three years to detect our home planet.
Wow…so clearly, the author of the article posted on Space.com is more of an idealist/romanticist about the idea of aliens than an actual pragmatic scientist attempting to impart factual information. This on its own probably wouldn’t be too much of a problem, as the audience of Space.com appears to be mostly comprised of children learning about space in general and UFO enthusiasts.
Where this does get rather concerning, however, is when the article is instead used as the source of fact-finding from a major “news” site. Foxnews.com posted this article about the Kepler-22b discovery, which references only the space.com article, and nothing else. Here, the word “exo-planet” is completely replaced by “alien-world,” a term that implies that intelligent aliens are actively living on said planet. A quote from this swill:
Virtually all of the alien planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope may turn out to be the real deal, a new study suggests.
That’s literally the first sentence of the article… it just gets worse from there. I know that many of you out there are already aware of the kind of distortion that goes through Foxnews.com, but as someone who is capable of catching these patterns and clearly laying them out, I feel that I have a responsibility to make it clear to those who don’t have access to the correct information, or who don’t have the education necessary to see through the misinformation.
So there we have it, in a single day, the story went from “a single possible rocky-planet that might be able to sustain liquid water” to “hundreds of alien planets.” Until we start taking the time to really dig through the bull to find the correct facts, and as long as we allow people to distort the truth without any repercussions, then every step that humanity takes will always be second-guessed, impeded, misguided, and ultimately backward in direction.
UPDATE: After another 24 hours, MSNBC decided to follow in the footsteps of Foxnews.com. I’ve linked to the article from MSNBC that also only quotes from Space.com, and gets their wording incorrect. The only major news organization to get it right is apparently CNN, which (like me) gets their facts straight from the NASA mission page.