Finding extra-terrestrial life would transform how we view our place in the Universe, but reporting on the search for it poses challenges for scientists and the media.
The tendency of the mass media to sensationalise and misreport scientific developments has prompted researchers at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Japan to explore best practices in communicating potentially ground-breaking research to the public. Their project, a partnership with Leiden University in the Netherlands, is largely inspired by a recent article by authors at NASA calling for a framework to be developed for reporting emerging evidence for life elsewhere.
In light of recent developments, including robotic exploration of planets in the solar system and the deep insights about exoplanets likely to come from the James Webb Space Telescope, the NASA team pointed out that “our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth”. They expressed concern that early results in the field light readily be taken to imply much more than the scientific observations support.
Yasuhito Sekine, director of ELSI, says such exaggeration and lack of caution had already occurred with a recent report suggesting that phosphine molecules had been detected in Venus’s upper atmosphere, which might serve as an indicator of life. “Major news outlets jumped at the opportunity to report this exciting discovery,” says Sekine. “But the claim was refuted by researchers a couple of days later, causing a stir within the research and media communities.”
Is there life on Venus?
Media speculation on this question began when some scientists reported phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine is typically released when organic matter decomposes.
In their Nature article, the NASA researchers proposed a seven-level scale to guide how developments in the search for extra-terrestrial life should be widely communicated. The levels cover events ranging from provisional detection of possible evidence, through phases of checking for contamination or error, ruling out all possible nonbiological causes, independent repetition of observations, and follow-up work as confidence in the evidence for biological origin increases.
Mary Voytek at the NASA Astrobiology Program, one of the authors of these proposals and a past ELSI executive Director, explains: “Until now, we have set the public up to think there are only two options: it’s life or it’s not life. We need a better way to share the excitement of our discoveries and demonstrate how each discovery builds on the next, to bring the public and other scientists along on the journey without raising false expectations or even false alarm.”
The Nature article stimulated interest across a wide variety of media outlets, which played a part in prompting the ELSI team to embark on their further exploration. They will work on this with Pedro Russo and Ionica Smeets at Leiden University.
The Leiden University-ELSI project is entitled ‘We found life elsewhere in the universe: Future-ready science communication approaches.’ Pedro Russo explains: “This research project will look at the most exciting of possible future news stories about the discovery of alien life, but it will also be relevant to the wider field of reporting scientific advances in general.”
The research will most specifically examine the media’s role in effective science communication and their contribution to the public understanding of the origin of life and astrobiology. It will also provide a more general framework, guidelines and best practices on communicating ground-breaking research results to the media and broader public.
“We will work closely with researchers, science communicators, journalists and the public, and each of these groups will participate in developing the framework for reporting evidence for life beyond Earth,” says Thilina Heenatigala, ELSI communications director and a co-researcher on the project.
The earliest such evidence is likely to be indicative of primitive microbial life, if anything, but the research team is all too aware of the tendency for speculative findings in that area to be sensationally reported with talk of “aliens” and associated wilder sci-fi possibilities.
“We need a means to convey the preliminary nature of all scientific discoveries, the likely path of possibilities requiring confirmation and correction, and the sometimes rather stumbling and regularly corrected way in which science really works,” says Heenatigala.
EDITOR: The article was first published in the Asia Research News in FY2022.