The Sciences

Puddle pusher

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJun 11, 2007 7:51 PM


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You know that I like to spread my love around, and much of it goes to Emily Lakdawalla, who writes the blog for the Planetary Society. She is a great writer, and her chops as a trained scientist give her insight into the topics on which she writes. Emily writes about Mars quite a bit, but today she takes on some Mars pseudoscience in a manner that has made my love blossom. The magazine New Scientist sometimes likes to walk the edge of mainstream science, and I think that's fine as far as it goes, but you have to be very careful lest you tread over the cliff. Unfortunately, they have literally done this in a recent issue. An article discusses the claim that some scientists have found evidence for puddles of water on the surface of Mars. As you might expect, this would be huge news if true. Unfortunately, it ain't. True, that is. Emily goes to town on the claim, showing incontrovertibly that it's false. The "puddles" claimed to be pooled water on the martian surface lie along one of the steepest cliffs seen by the rover -- it's called Burns Cliff, after all. If you know of a way for water to pool at an incline, please let me know. I'd like to start a water skiiing franchise. Again, read Emily's blog for details. But I want to add something here. New Scientist is, in general, a good magazine. I enjoy the articles, and have several friends -- competent journalists all -- who write for it (in fact, I wouldn't mind writing for NS and -- full disclosure -- I've pursued that in the past). But this particular article was poorly researched; the author should have done more due diligence to find out what was going on in the image. Instead, he simply repeated the claim made by the "scientist" and only got a minimal reaction from other scientists. I'll note that the claimant, Ron Levin, has for years been making, ah, unusual statements about Mars, saying the sky should really be blue, and so on -- not Hoagland-level insanity, but still not supported by evidence. Emily, with the help of a few others who habituate the wonderful forum Unmanned Spaceflight, quickly and easily debunks this claim. How hard would it have been for the article author to make a few more phone calls, get more information? Had this been some minor claim then it would not have been a big deal, but a story about evidence of water on Mars -- with a false-color picture showing blue smooth surfaces -- demands a lot of field work before being printed. Also, some blame can be laid at the feet of whatever editor chose the article title: "Mars rover finds "puddles" on the planet's surface". I'll note that this claim of puddles was not published in a scientific journal; it was made at a conference. Emily has some choice words about that as well; Levin's claim was so easily shown wrong that it's difficult to understand how it got to be presented at all. This situation reminds me of another tempest in a teapot Mars story from 2005. Compare how this story in New Scientist about puddles compares to an article New Scientist published in 2005 about possible evidence of life on Mars. They're night and day. I think at this point having the puddle article up on their site is embarrassing for New Scientist. They should either retract it (with a correction) or follow up on it with further research.

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