Kepler Mess: We Could Certainly Use Carl Sagan Right Now

Kepler Mission - Errare HumanumEst, Natalie Batalha Kepler Co-Investigator, Beyond The Cradle

"Should NASA screen everything that the team plans to say in public? Should we, the Kepler team, screen everything our colleagues plan to say in public? I think that the best we can do is ask our colleagues for advice to make sure that we are understood. Perhaps that would have helped Dimitar. There are articles out there that say he shouldn't be allowed to speak in public. Yes, you heard me correctly -- that he shouldn't be allowed to speak. Rubbish. I can only say that I will take this PR blunder any day of the week over a work environment that does not give me academic freedom to speak within the reasonable agreements that I have with my colleagues. Any day."

Keith's note: Let me be clear, does Ditimar Sasselov have the right to speak his mind in public about his research? Of course he does. Does Sasselov have a professional responsibility as the Co-Investigator on an enormously expensive, taxpayer-funded NASA mission to get his facts straight before he speaks? Of course he does. Does he (and the rest of his team) need to be internally and externally consistent when it comes to the rationale for what they do or do not want to release, how they release it, and where they release it? Of course they do.

Perhaps most importantly, do the people who are chosen to speak publicly (and those who decide to speak publicly on their own) about these enormously important research projects need to understand how to communicate their jargon-filled, complex ideas to the public at large? Of course they do. Bad communication is often worse than no communication at all.

Millions of people stopped what they were doing to read these stories about "Earth-like planets" circling other suns. Such words have meaning. 99.999% of humans don't dwell on the nature of planetary cores and the other excuses offered in support of the use of the term "Earth-like" in this lecture. We live on Earth. This guy said there are worlds out there "like Earth". Lots of them. When most people hear the words "Earth-like" they look out the window at Earth. They don't run to grab a textbook or Google some planetary geology website.

This is paradigm shifting stuff. Its about confirmation of centuries of speculation and dreaming as to the nature of our world's uniqueness and/or commonness with regard to the universe around us. Now the Kepler team is fumbling its way through clarification of what was said and was not said, implied and miscommunicated.

Instead of channeling the eventual (and apparently inevitable if the statistics are to be believed) incredible news in a way that could really show the world what is waiting out there for us, back peddling and PR spinning is now what we hear. We should be cheering in the streets. As far as small little rocky worlds go, we are not alone. How profound is that !? Alas, when the news is eventually released, as everyone seems to think it will be, there will be a caveat tossed in - people will wonder if this is the real thing or yet another false alarm. Leave it to NASA scientists to screw up a good thing like this.

If you are going to go out and talk about things with such an epochal potential for all humans to think about, you owe it to everyone involved (in other words everyone, everywhere) to make damn sure you know how to convey this information. If not, then find someone who can do it.

We could certainly use Carl Sagan right now.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 28, 2010 3:33 PM.

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