Did Kepler Scientist Leak Data? Um, Not Really


Mainstream media (MSM) is funny. Well, maybe funny isn’t the right word, especially when they hose things up and create a story when there really isn’t one. Or when they miss the real story. MSM recently succeeded in spades on both accounts in regards to the Kepler mission. Just last month, the Kepler team announced they had found over 750 candidates for extrasolar planets, and 706 of these candidates potentially are planets from as small as Earth to around the size of Jupiter, with the majority having radii less than half that of Jupiter. This is such incredible news, especially when you factor in that the data was from just 43 days of observations! But MSM seemed to miss all this and instead focused on the fact that the Kepler team got approval from NASA to keep over half of their data for an additional six months to verify and confirm their findings, rather than releasing all of it, as per NASA’s standard policy which requires astronomers to release their data from publicly funded instruments in one year. Then over this past weekend, from a TED talk by Kepler co-investigator Dimitar Sasselov, MSM finally realized that Kepler has found a boat-load of potential Earth-sized exoplanets. Well, yes. That’s what they said in June.

But then MSM took things out of context and exaggerated just a tad.

Even though in his talk, Sasselov used the words “potential” and “candidates” and said the planets are “like Earth, that is, having a radius smaller than twice Earth’s radius,” MSM reported news that NASA has found rocky planets with land and water.

And now some people are saying that Sasselov “leaked” the proprietary Kepler data, and some say he is in trouble for doing so. Today, the Kepler team said via Twitter that they are “working hard to thoughtfully respond to the media flurry surrounding the TEDGlobal talk.”

Let me use one of my mother’s favorite admonitions: For Pete’s sakes!

Watch the TED talk. In my opinion, Sasselov does a good job of getting people excited about exoplanets and he doesn’t say we have actually found another Earth. He also does a good job of presenting what the Kepler team has found without revealing any really huge proprietary data, even though he used this graph:

Screenshot from Sasselov's TED talk.

But really, this is pretty much what the Kepler team said in June, that they expected half of the 750 planet candidates would turn out not to be planets, and a fair number of those might be Earth-sized. The graph takes into account the amount of potential planets that Kepler found, plus the planets found previously by other telescopes and missions.

While it is exciting to think about the potential of finding Earth-sized and maybe even Earth-like planets, we’re likely a long way off from actually finding and then actually confirming another Earth. Additionally, right now, we’re only capable of finding planets that orbit relatively close to their parent star, which most likely wouldn’t put them in the “Goldilocks Zone” of being habitable.

You can read our original article from June here, where the Kepler team announced their findings. There’s also an explanation there of why the team requested to keep part of their data for an extra six months.

UPDATE: 10 pm Tuesday: Sasselov has written an blog post at the Kepler website, bascially saying that there is a big difference between Earth-sized and Earth-like. You can read it here.

12 Replies to “Did Kepler Scientist Leak Data? Um, Not Really”

  1. Boy, do I hate the term “mainstream media” … It makes it sound as if media outlets are just one big monolith. Aaanyway, the Kepler team did say back in June that most of the candidates they found appeared to be Neptune-scale or smaller. I think Sasselov’s subtle but attention-grabbing re-spin was that objects “like Earth” made up the largest category of candidates. Of course, many of these planets would not be like Earth at all, except for their width. They’d be more like close-orbiting hellholes.

  2. “MSM reported news that NASA has found rocky planets with land and water”

    I have never headdesked so hard. Then again, the news reporters are ordinary people… which is no excuse because ALL ordinary people should know a lot about space. 😛

  3. Nice summary!

    What grabbed my attention of Sasselov’s discussion wasn’t that Earth analogs were most common, the release paper data of the 1/r^2 frequency distribution told us that, but his carefully binned diagram. Even to the point that 2 Re gives much the same gravity, so the same tectonic/atmospheric/biological potential.

    [All terrestrials will have correlated traits through the mass. But Sasselov’s diagram makes some of it explicit.]

    When he compared the new data to the pre-exoplanet Keplerian data, and showed the naturalness of our system (4-2-1-1-0) compared to the observed distribution (rescaled ~ 4-2-1-1-0, see the figure above), it floored me! Wow, didn’t see that one coming.

  4. They send Sports fans to cover Sports, but they don’t send Science fans to cover Science.

    Get a statistic wrong on the Sports page and the crowd goes nuts and the paper prints a change. Get the science wrong and you’re lucky to get an “Oops”.

  5. Excellent job Nancy!

    I think anymore, it is just expected the media writers will improperly detail science news in an attempt to grab the largest front page byline on every media outlet in the world. It seems their ignorance of scientific nomenclature and principles only makes it worse since they don’t see how wrong they are.

    I remember first seeing the story at Fox News. First thing I thought was, “WOW!! “. Then 2 heartbeats later I thought someone must have misinterpretted or embellished something….AGAIN.

  6. I didn’t really realize that so many earth-sized planets had been found.

    This article should focus more on Kepler than mainstream media.

    Good post Torbjorn, as always.

    I’m kinda disenchanted because this is a huge mission. My favourite.

  7. ABOYLE wrote, “Boy, do I hate the term “mainstream media” … It makes it sound as if media outlets are just one big monolith.”

    My friend,,, they are closer to being a monopolistic monolith, than an organization giving unbiased, objective information. They ALL have an agenda, which usually includes sensationalistic presentations of whatever news it is they are attempting to cover. I have NO faith in any one news organization, and MainStream Media least of all.

  8. Sure, the mainstream media might have gone a bit overboard but can you blame them?

    First, there’s the intrigue and mystery of a rogue scientist leaking results. Coming on the heels of the Washington Post spy expose and WikeLeak, journos played up that angle to grab readers.

    Second, and more importantly (from my POV as an astronomy educator), “Earth-like” is a very poor choice of words. If you looked up “context sensitive” in the dictionary, it would say, “E.g. ‘Earth-like'”

    Everyone who reads “Earth-like” makes their own interpretation. Geologists will think it has the same rocky composition as Earth, chemists, the chemistry. Ask a biologist what “Earth-like” means and you’ll hear about organisms and ecosystems. And tell a kid the candidate planets are “Earth-like” and they’ll imagine trees, dogs and cats, flying kites, ice cream and swimming at the beach.

    Yes, I see Sasselov’s PPT slide says “Planet size” way over on the side but anyone without some expertise in reading graphs (that is, the majority of the general population) sees a big histogram bar over “like Earth”. If he’d thought for a moment about his audience, not just his expert colleagues, he could have better chosen his labels (“Earth-sized”, “Neptune-sized”…) and his words.


  9. This is in part one reason I have not paid much attention to the televised media and most journalism for the last 15 years.


  10. Most MSM is indeed monolithic — or possibly “BI”lithic. Most just parrot what was reported by the AP or Reuters. No independent investigations; and most “confirmation” consists of: “did CNN or Fox report it too? Then it must be true. (re Shirley Sherrod).

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