Astrobiology: what’s hot, what’s not, who cares?

geysers on Enceladus: JPL artist's concept

Last night I gave a guest lecture to an undergraduate honors class in astrobiology. What’s hot in astrobiology, I reported, are habitability, biomarkers, weird life, Mars of course, Europa, Enceladus, Titan…. What’s not are panspermia theory, claims of ET life in meteorites collected on Earth, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

But you might not be able to discern what’s hot and what’s not in this field by media coverage alone. Outliers, exceptions, and underdogs continue to be popular topics and sources with journalists of all sorts. Controversy remains a top news value.

While news values and journalistic practices shape science news, they serve the purposes of journalism (as they should) and not of science. Hence, rolling waves of stories about fringe-y theories and claims relating to extraterrestrial life, widespread and largely uncritical reporting about SETI, and a continual blurring of the boundaries between vastly different forms of life: microbial life and multicellular life, simple life and complex life, complex life and intelligent lif

Glaring differences between scientific and journalistic standards, values, and practices make it difficult for consumers of media content to gauge the significance, credibility, legitimacy, and validity of reported claims. The expansion – dare we call it democratization? – of the discourse of science to include anybody with access to the Internet and the will to blog (anonymously or not) is changing scientific peer review.

Are these changes good for science? Good for scientists? Good for The People? The students I spoke with last night seemed more intrigued by these questions than they were by current developments in astrobiolog

As a social scientist, I am observing these changes as an interesting phenomenon that might or might not change the way that science is done. By the end of the 20th century we saw physics dethroned as king of the natural sciences and biology rise to the top. In the 21st century, science communication (of all sorts) appears to be a growing interest among scientists, no matter what their disciplinary alliances might be. The ascendance of social media; the wild proliferation of mass media outlets; the ongoing shift from “old” media to new (that is, digital) media; falling numbers of staff science reporters and growing numbers of science-writing freelancers – these and other changes in the science-communication landscape will be making life “interesting” for scientists and science communicators alike.

Never a dull moment on my job!

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