Mars Media Mayhem

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Science  11 Oct 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5285, pp. 161-165
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5285.161a

As lead author of a recent report (1) advising the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on a strategy for the search for evidence of life on Mars, I was besieged for most of the first week of August by media representatives needing an instant opinion on the Research Article by D. S. McKay et al. (16 Aug., p. 924).

First, I should note that I am convinced that the search for evidence of ancient life on Mars is a rational exercise with a reasonable probability of success, but that I am equally convinced that the paper by McKay et al., although an excellent study of martian chemistry and mineralogy, fell far short of establishing the case for evidence of biological activity in martian meteorite ALH84001. Thus, my responses to the media reflected a high degree of skepticism concerning the conclusions of McKay et al.

The printed media and radio seemed to have no problem with my skepticism, asking generally sensible and pertinent questions and making use of a significant amount of the material I provided. The television networks, on the other hand, were less receptive. Interviews that I taped for NBC News and ABC News were not used. The programs that were aired by NBC and ABC were relentlessly upbeat and contained only token criticism of the “pro-life” interpretation. Planned appearances on CNN and ABC Nightline were abruptly cancelled after my skepticism had been made public.

For scientists facing such a situation in future, the bottom line seems to be, if you want to be on television, tell them what you think they want to hear. If you want the public to know the truth, stick to print and radio.


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