Why is There So Much Sensationalism in Science Journalism?

science and sensationalism

There is no shortage of science news in mainstream media. This means that there is also no shortage of ignorance and sensationalism in mainstream media. Let me first address the initial reaction that the general population is likely to have given the caricatures of Christianity and beliefs of Christians promulgated across the internet. The objection goes something like this: ‘Well, I would expect nothing more than for a Christian to complain about science because everyone knows Christianity is anti-science.’ Mind you, this does not typically come from those more educated in these matters. Those who are educated in science, the history of science and the philosophy of science are far less likely to have this sort of attitude. They know the deep roots of science, are aware of the subtleties of scientific reasoning, and have a profound respect for the Christian influence in the rise and flourishing of science.

With that empty, baseless objection behind us, I want to point out some of the reasons why there seems to be more ignorance and sensationalism in science journalism than there is actual science. Journalism has typically been all about reporting of facts, but merely reporting facts can sometimes seem a bit boring to most people. As such, journalists will often try to color and exaggerate their stories in order to draw more readers, more web page views, and more ad revenues, etc. This benefits not only the journalist but the organization for which he writes. This is why sensationalism is not only tolerated but even unofficially mandated. With the rise of so much competition across the internet news outlets, journalists and the organizations with which they are affiliated, are always vying for more attention. And so, tremendous liberties are taken with the facts and their implications as communicated by scientific studies and observations.

Proxima b

If one had the time to scour the internet for examples, volumes could be written of the fallacious sensationalism that predominates the news media. For our intents and purposes, a single example may be sufficient to demonstrate this empty rhetoric. In August of 2016 astronomers discovered a planet (Proxima b) that could potentially support life. But what is this potentiality based on? The most notable factors mentioned to be used as an analog to Earth and hence, to the possibility of allowing for life were the following:

  • planetary mass (30% greater than Earth)
  • solar system’s habitable zone (temperatures are just right to allow the existence of liquid surface water)

As one popular news source put it,

“The planet is thought to be about 1.3 times more massive than Earth and probably rocky. It lies within its star’s “habitable zone” where temperatures are just right to allow the existence of liquid surface water, raising the possibility of life.

If the planet formed further out from its star before migrating to its present close position just 7.5 million kilometres away (4.6 million miles), it could have deep global oceans… Leading University of Washington astronomer Dr. Rory Barnes wrote in a blog for the palereddot.org website, which is dedicated to the new planet: “The short answer is, it’s complicated. Our observations are few, and what we do know allows for a dizzying array of possibilities.”

The biggest obstacle to life on Proxima b is the fact that it is 25 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun.” [1. Sunday World, Evidence of life on Proxima B ‘could be uncovered within a few years’ http://www.sundayworld.com/entertainment/trending/evidence-of-life-on-proxima-b-could-be-uncovered-within-a-few-years]

One interesting concession the writer makes in this piece is that at least one of the factors necessary for life depends on a big assumption, namely that the possibility of life is asserted on the basis of the assumption that the planet formed further away from its host star.

Let’s look at the headline again – “Evidence of life on Proxima B ‘could be uncovered within a few years.” Now, notice the more reserved sobering quote from Dr. Rory Barnes, one of the leading astronomers of the project,

“…what we do know allows for a dizzying array of possibilities.”

Well, before we know more, of course, it’s hypothetically possible for a planet to support life. But does this current “silence” mean that therefore there is life or that it’s likely for there to be life or that it’s just a matter of time before we know there is life? Of course not. But this is typically not the general tone of articles such as these.

Assumption of the Imminence of the Origin of Life Anywhere

Every single instance of a news article that proclaims the possibility of life on another planet includes one enormous assumption, namely that what happened here on Earth for life to emerge was easy and would be expected everywhere else in the universe. This is a giant leap of faith into utter darkness. In reality, the origin of life on Earth is still a giant mystery. There are many challenges, some of which appear to be insurmountable at the moment. I’ve written more about this in Cold and Lonely Truth so I won’t rehash that in this piece. Think about this for a moment – we don’t know how chemical evolution turned inorganic materials into life, and we are aware of many factors that militate against every single theory we’ve tried. And at the same time, we are willing to grant that not only did this happen by no other means than materials and processes on Earth but ready to assume that the same processes acting on similar materials have already taken place on other planets. Blind faith is well and alive, not only in many religions but also at times in science.

Does Proxima b Meet the Conditions for Planetary Life?

To claim that Proxima b is capable of sustaining life because it meets two of the criteria for planetary habitability similar to Earth is just way too simplistic. That the two factors must be within the necessary range of habitability is a must, but it does not mean that there are no other factors required. But, if one were reading articles such as this, one would certainly get the feeling that the conditions for a life permitting planet are not that rare in the universe. The fact of the matter is that conditions for habitability on a planet are so numerous and the ranges for those conditions so narrow, given what we know of the universe, it is extremely improbable for all the requirements to be met in one place and time.

Let’s get back to the claim that Proxima b is a candidate for a life-permitting planet because it is analogous to the size of Earth. Proxima b is 30% more massive than Earth, so its size is not that similar to that of Earth. Could a planet 30% more massive than Earth allow and sustain life? That’s unlikely and here’s why.

The mass of a planet dictates many other aspects of that planet, such as its gravity, its atmosphere and more. Many factors that trickle down a very long chain. If Earth were 30% more massive (like Proxima b), it would have,

  • A substantial increase in gravitational pull
  • A substantial change in the gasses that comprises the atmosphere

A slight increase in gravity on Earth would dramatically change the kinds of organisms that can live on the planet. A bigger increase would mean that no life could survive on the planet. Another hoopla was made in 2009 with the discovery of Gliese 581c on which it was speculated that there might be bugs. Why bugs? Because the gravity on the planet was thought to be too strong that it virtually wiped out the possibility of upright alien-type creatures we’re accustomed to seeing depicted. Scientist, Dr. Edgar Andrews, addressed some of those claims in his piece as well [2. Dr. Edgar Andrews, Small flat bugs, http://whomadegod.org/2009/11/small-flat-bugs/]

The change in the gravitational pull would also impact the gasses that comprise the atmosphere. The reason why the moon has no atmosphere is that it does not have a strong enough gravity. The gasses that make up our atmosphere are finely tuned to allow for life. For example, at the moment our planet’s atmosphere contains ~21% oxygen. If Earth had a stronger gravity, it would retain more of its oxygen. Now, some would think of this as a good thing. But if the oxygen level were to reach ~27% it would be catastrophic for life. [3. Dr. Jeff Zweerink, Too Much Oxygen in the Past, http://www.reasons.org/articles/too-much-oxygen-in-the-past] [4. Kenneth H. Coale, “A Massive PhytoPlankton Bloom Induced by an Ecosystem-Scale Iron Fertilization Experiment in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean,” Nature 383 (1996), pp. 495-499.] An increase in the gravity of our planet would also throw off important ratios of gasses, such as the oxygen to nitrogen ratio. If this ratio is greater, advanced life functions would proceed too quickly. [5. Neil F. Comins, What If The Moon Didn’t Exist? (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pp.2-8, 53-65.]

Now, let’s consider the star around which Proxima b orbits. After all, the size of a planet’s host star is also important in creating the conditions that would allow for life on the planet. Proxima Centauri, the host star of Proxima b is a red dwarf star. Our sun is a yellow dwarf star. While the difference is not so significant when considering the full range of the biggest and smallest stars, the difference is enough to call into question whether this type of star would allow this kind of planet to sustain life. Proxima Centauri is ten times smaller than our sun. A smaller star would almost certainly have a lower magnetic field. The problem is that when a star’s magnetic field is too low solar wind and solar magnetosphere will not be adequate to thwart a significant amount of cosmic rays [6. Kentaro Nagamine, Masataka Fukugita, Renyue Cen, and Jeremiah P. Ostriker, “Star Formation History and Stellar Metallicity Distribution in a Cold Dark Matter Universe,” Astrophysical Journal, 558 (2001), pp. 497-504.] and this will have dire consequences for life.

Why would we be optimistic about Proxima b containing life when we have so much data against this likelihood. And what of all the things we don’t know? Does it have a moon? What is its rate of rotation, its atmospheric pressure, its water to continent ratio, orbital eccentricity, the makeup of its core, its magnetic field, its oxygen level, its ozone level, its age, so on and so forth? Why do we need to know these things? Well, each of those factors and many others are all essential for life.

What Are the Galactic/Planetary Conditions Necessary for Life?

Whether scientists or journalists, to claim that Proxima b is capable of sustaining life is premature to say the least. I suppose one gets excited over this one planet because it may be the best potential for finding life elsewhere in the universe. I think it’s best to measure our optimism with the factors known to be required for life. Astronomer, Dr. Hugh Ross, has done a superb job of researching and aggregating these factors [8. Dr. Hugh Ross, Fine-Tuning For Life On Earth, http://www.reasons.org/articles/fine-tuning-for-life-on-earth-june-2004]:

  1. absorption rate of planets and planetismals by parent star
  2. aerosol particle density emitted from forests
  3. air turbulence in troposphere
  4. albedo (ratio of reflected light to total amount falling on surface)
  5. amount of gas infalling into the central core of the galaxy
  6. amount of outward migration of Neptune
  7. asteroidal and cometary collision rate
  8. atmospheric electric discharge rate
  9. atmospheric pressure
  10. atmospheric transparency
  11. average quantity of gas infused into the universe’s first star clusters
  12. average rainfall preciptiation
  13. average slope or relief of the continental land masses
  14. axial tilt
  15. biomass to comet infall ratio
  16. birth date of the star-planetary system
  17. carbon dioxide level in atmosphere
  18. chlorine quantity in atmosphere
  19. collision location of body colliding with primordial Earth
  20. continental relief
  21. cosmic ray luminosity of Milky Way Galaxy:
  22. decay rate of cold dark matter particles
  23. decay rate of cold dark matter particles
  24. density of brown dwarfs
  25. density of giant galaxies in the early universe
  26. density of interstellar and interplanetary dust particles in vicinity of life-support planet
  27. density of quasars
  28. distance from nearest black hole
  29. distance from parent star
  30. drift in major planet distances
  31. efficiency of flows of silicate melt, hypersaline hydrothermal fluids, and hydrothermal vapors in the upper crust
  32. flux of cosmic ray protons
  33. frequency and extent of ice ages
  34. frequency of gamma ray bursts in galaxy
  35. frequency of late impacts by large asteroids and comets
  36. galactic tides
  37. galaxy cluster density
  38. galaxy cluster type
  39. galaxy location
  40. galaxy mass distribution
  41. galaxy size
  42. galaxy type
  43. gamma-ray burst events
  44. gas dispersal rate by companion stars, shock waves, and molecular cloud expansion in the Sun’s birthing star cluster
  45. giant star density in galaxy
  46. global distribution of continents (for Earth)
  47. gravitational interaction with a moon
  48. H3+production
  49. heat flow through the planet’s mantle from radiometric decay in planet’s core
  50. heavy element abundance in the intracluster medium for the early universe
  51. hypernovae eruptions
  52. inclination of orbit
  53. iron quantity in oceans and soils
  54. Jupiter distance
  55. Jupiter mass
  56. Kuiper Belt of asteroids (beyond Neptune)
  57. level of cooling of gas infalling into the central core of the galaxy
  58. level of spiral substructure in spiral galaxy
  59. level of supersonic turbulence in the infant universe
  60. magnetic field
  61. magnitude and duration of sunspot cycle
  62. major planet eccentricities
  63. major planet orbital instabilities
  64. mantle plume production
  65. mass of body colliding with primordial Earth
  66. mass of Neptune
  67. mass of outer gas giant planet relative to inner gas giant planet
  68. masses of stars that become hypernovae
  69. mesospheric ozone quantity
  70. nitrogen quantity in atmosphere
  71. number density of the first metal-free stars to form in the universe
  72. number of hypernovae
  73. number of stars in parent star birth aggregate
  74. number of stars in the planetary system
  75. oceans-to-continents ratio
  76. orbital eccentricity
  77. oxygen quantity in atmosphere
  78. oxygen to nitrogen ratio in atmosphere
  79. ozone level in atmosphere
  80. parent star age
  81. parent star color
  82. parent star distance from center of galaxy
  83. parent star distance from closest spiral arm
  84. parent star distance from galaxy’s corotation circle
  85. parent star luminosity relative to speciation
  86. parent star magnetic field
  87. parent star mass
  88. parent star metallicity
  89. phosphorus and iron absorption by banded iron formations
  90. planet age
  91. poleward heat transport in planet’s atmosphere
  92. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon abundance in solar nebula
  93. pressure of the intra-galaxy-cluster medium
  94. primordial cosmic superwinds
  95. proximity of solar nebula to a supernova eruption
  96. Q-value (rigidity) of Earth during its early history
  97. quantity and extent of forest and grass fires
  98. quantity and proximity of gamma-ray burst events relative to emerging solar nebula
  99. quantity of aerobic photoheterotrophic bacteria
  100. quantity of dust formed in the ejecta of Population III supernovae
  101. quantity of galactic dust
  102. quantity of geobacteraceae
  103. quantity of iodocarbon-emitting marine organisms
  104. quantity of magnetars (proto-neutron stars with very strong magnetic fields)
  105. quantity of phytoplankton
  106. quantity of soil sulfer
  107. quantity of volatiles on and in Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone
  108. rate of change in oceans-to-continents ratio
  109. rate of change in rotation period
  110. rate of change of axial tilt
  111. rate of decline in tectonic activity
  112. rate of decline in volcanic activity
  113. rate of growth of central spheroid for the galaxy
  114. rate of interior heat loss
  115. rate of nearby gamma ray bursts
  116. rate of sedimentary loading at crustal subduction zones
  117. ratio of 40K, 235,238U, 232Th to iron for the planet
  118. ratio of dual water molecules, (H2O)2, to single water molecules, H2O, in the troposphere
  119. ratio of inner dark halo mass to stellar mass for galaxy
  120. rotation period
  121. seismic activity
  122. separation distances among inner terrestrial planets
  123. silicate dust annealing by nebular shocks
  124. size of galactic central bulge
  125. size of the carbon sink in the deep mantle of the planet
  126. smoking quasars
  127. soil mineralization
  128. solar magnetic activity level
  129. solar wind
  130. star formation history in parent star vicinity
  131. star formation rate in solar neighborhood during past 4 billion years
  132. star rotation rate
  133. stratospheric ozone quantity
  134. supernovae eruptions
  135. surface gravity (escape velocity)
  136. thickness of crust
  137. thickness of mid-mantle boundary
  138. time window between the peak of kerogen production and the appearance of intelligent life
  139. time window between the production of cisterns in the planet’s crust that can effectively collect and store petroleum and natural gas and the appearance of intelligent life
  140. timing of birth of continent formation
  141. timing of body colliding with primordial Earth
  142. timing of hypernovae production
  143. timing of solar nebula formation relative to supernova eruption
  144. total mass of Kuiper Belt asteroids
  145. triggering of El Nino events by explosive volcanic eruptions
  146. tropospheric ozone quantity
  147. variation and timing of average rainfall precipitation
  148. variation in star formation rate in solar neighborhood during past 4 billion years
  149. volcanic activity
  150. water absorption by planet’s mantle
  151. water absorption capacity of planet’s lower mantle
  152. water vapor level in atmosphere
  153. white dwarf binaries
  154. z-axis heights of star’s orbit

For a complete list, details and references to the scientific body of work that has yielded this list, please see the citation.

Now, given this list, how optimistic can we honestly be about the possibility of Proxima b or any other planet sustaining life? Do popular news outlets have justified reasons to write articles with such bravado? If not Proxima b, then is it really imminent that we will find any other planet with these set of conditions for sustaining life? Well, it’s theoretically possible, but let’s first gauge the various aspects of the planet with the conditions we know are necessary for life before we start parading that finding life on another planet is only a matter of time.