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Science Sensationalism in the Media Damages Trust

How the planet K2-18 became misrepresented

Imagine waking up one fine morning. You go about your daily routine of doomscrolling through social media while lying in bed. Then you come across the announcement that life has been found on another planet.

Suddenly your morning trip to Starbucks is a lot less ordinary. Everyone, from the cashier to the bus driver to the receptionist and your boss, are all talking about what they believe the aliens from planet Xorg look like. Finding life outside of Earth has always been one of the most captivating pursuits in science. As a space scientist myself, I can attest to the fact that the question of alien life will come up without fail in any given public talk related to astronomy.

Recently, it seemed as though internet publications had beaten scientists to the punch with announcements that evidence of life had been found in the Exoplanet K2-18 b. This came as quite a surprise to the scientists who had published their findings about this planet but had no recollection of telling the media that they had confirmed the existence of extra terrestrials.

What happened was that some of the conclusions of their published findings were spun into very misleading headlines. They did, however, prove to be quite effective in terms of how many people clicked on those articles online.

Such misrepresentations of science in the media, especially online media, have been happening more frequently in the last ten years. The business model of high engagement equals higher profits has created an online media ecosystem that thrives on sensationalizing scientific findings. By sensationalizing I mean that a lot of facts are distorted to attract more readers.

For context, what exactly is this planet K2-18 b? It is a planet that is two and a half times as wide and eight times as massive as Earth. It orbits a small red dwarf star at a distance of 124 light years from our solar system. K2-18 b has half the Earth’s density, suggesting the existence of light material such as water and ice on the planet. Furthermore, the planet was found to orbit near the habitable zone of the system, which fuelled speculation on whether K2-18 b could harbour life. Discoveries such as the evidence of water vapour and hydrogen gas in its atmosphere by the Hubble Space Telescope presented this world as a Hycean world candidate (a planet with a hydrogen atmosphere and a global ocean).

This wasn’t the first time that planet K2-18 b made an appearance in the media as a flag bearer for fake alien life. The same happened when this planet was discovered in 2015 and several online publications described it as a planet with a global ocean. While the idea that K2-18 b could potentially have water was proposed based on the density of the planet, the astronomers who studied this world simply mentioned it as one of many possible conclusions to their observations.

Similarly, in September of this year, spectral data from the NIRISS instrument of the James Webb Space Telescope showed evidence of methane, carbon dioxide, and hints of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) on K2-18 b. Among these, DMS was predicted to be a potential biomarker, but the data was not strong enough to say that the DMS came from life. The conclusions of the paper on these findings, which appeared as a letter in the Astrophysical Journal, were that DMS might be present in the atmosphere of K2-18 b but that it would require much more data to confirm. While the possibility of the origin of DMS being biological was brought up, considering it a certainty would have been scientific malpractice.

Several news outlets, however, spun these findings in a different light. USA Today led with the headline “NASA says Exoplanet named K2-18 b could harbor life.” CNET had the headline “Webb finds potentially habitable planet might be an ocean world,” while The Guardian sounded off the headline “NASA says distant Exoplanet could have rare water ocean and possible hints of life.” Many of these articles cherry-picked findings from these studies while omitting the researchers’ words of caution. One might argue that sensationalizing science will get more engagement from the public. But researchers would say that they still observe strong public engagement without having to exaggerate scientific results. When it comes to news, simply announcing findings as they are is the best course of action.

Over time, media exaggeration of science erodes the public trust in science and scientific institutions. It is the collective responsibility of researchers and the media to ensure clear communication between science and the public.