Hanny’s Voorwerp, that odd object discovered by Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel via the Galaxy Zoo project, has provoked press reaction all over the world. And Chris Lintott, a key player in the Galaxy Zoo’s ongoing survey of galaxies, notes the uneasiness he feels in discussing theories about the object before the paper that attempts to explain it has even gone through peer review. The speed with which the Internet allows science to be discussed can be disconcerting, as Lintott makes clear in the latest edition of the Space Carnival, conducted this week by David Chandler at his Next Generation site.
Now the Galaxy Zoo is doing good science in an obviously public fashion. Anyone can sign up to participate in the classification of the images of one million galaxies drawn from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and that makes participating computer users scientific collaborators. Seeing this, the Galaxy Zoo blogs about its work out of a sense of obligation to its contributors, but invariably encounters mainstream media coverage that can be misleading. Big media like ‘eureka’ moments, huge discoveries, but as Lintott notes:
“The reality of doing science day to day involves talking and arguing and thinking, and it’s in those arguments that the scientific method lurks. If you can’t defend your idea with data, whether talking to a journal’s referee, to your colleagues in the office down the corridor or even to yourself, then it doesn’t survive.”
Anyone involved in research faces the dilemma that as science becomes more open, it can be quickly misconstrued. But I agree with Lintott that having data and papers available on the Net is a huge plus. The benefit is that the more day to day science becomes visible, the more the public learns how scientists argue, using data sets, competing studies, and alternative explanations to resolve disagreements and get at the underlying facts. That moves the focus away from those ‘eureka’ moments and shifts it to the process of defending new ideas with data.
Yes, the recent perchlorate controversy invoked Net speculation that forced NASA into a premature news conference, one that seems to have left at least a few reporters disappointed. But it also sent the signal that good science can occur in more public venues, even if the excitement of the ‘big announcement’ must give way to the realization that some things take time, and the study of incoming Phoenix data remains a work in progress. Putting the scientific method into the public arena may not always make for the biggest headlines, but the results can only benefit our understanding of how the process of discovery works.