Kepler Mission – Errare Humanum Est
I’ve been reflecting on the events surrounding the TED lecture by my colleague, Dimitar Sasselov. There is disappointment in the air. People who were misled to believe that Kepler had found many other earths out there now realize that this isn’t the case. I understand how they must feel. I admit that I feel a little bit disappointed too, though not for the same reason. I and my colleagues have worked hard to understand our data and to plan out the analysis in a systematic and methodical way. We are excited by the small, but steady stream of discoveries that we are making. And we have full confidence that one day we will learn something profound about habitable, earth-size planets in our galaxy. I felt a bit derailed and stunned by the announcement of 140 “earth-like” planets by my colleague. I admit that I, like many out there, understood it to mean “earth-size” and “habitable”. And even though I now understand that this isn’t what he meant, I admit that I still feel a bit disappointed.
We’ve been very careful to not let our own biases creep into the scientific analysis. We, like every single human out there, are excited beyond belief to find another earth. We, like every single human out there, are captivated by the large number of candidates smaller than Neptune. But we hold back knowing that we do not fully understand the data, nor do we yet have the smoking gun: a large sample of earth-size candidates in the HZ with acceptably small false-alarm rates. This will take time. So we keep our emotions in check and plan out a methodical analysis. This is the beauty of the scientific method as it provides a means of removing (most, if not all of) our human emotions and biases. Listening to Dimitar’s talk, I felt a little bit like the girl at the party setting up a joke only to have someone else walk by and tell the punch line.
But so what! This is not at all the point I want to make. I want to talk about something much more important: academic freedom. I participated, as a Kepler science team member, in the aftermath of the TED talk. And by that I mean that I was a listening ear for Dimitar as he wrote his response. And each time I felt like imposing my feelings on him, I kept thinking about his academic freedom as a scientist to give that TED talk and to communicate his thoughts to the world. I kept thinking about my own academic freedom to speak freely when I give public lectures and how I value it. People outside of NASA are probably imagining NASA’s response to the TED talk. Was NASA upset? You bet! Did they want Dimitar to respond? Absolutely! But did they tell him what to write? No, they didn’t. I was impressed by that. It gave me a feeling of trust. This trust will make me a better scientist and communicator.
Dimitar made a mistake in my humble opinion. But so what! It’s only a matter of time before I make a big blunder too. Does it really matter? Should I be scared? Should I hold back? No. To the contrary. I will strive to be as honest as I can humanly be in reporting the scientific results that our team has collectively arrived at based on the observations we are taking. I know that Dimitar tried to do this also. It is unfortunate that he communicated a message that he did not intend, but that’s always the risk we take.
Should NASA screen everything that the team plans to say in public? Should we, the Kepler team, screen everything our colleagues plan to say in public? I think that the best we can do is ask our colleagues for advice to make sure that we are understood. Perhaps that would have helped Dimitar. There are articles out there that say he shouldn’t be allowed to speak in public. Yes, you heard me correctly — that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Rubbish. I can only say that I will take this PR blunder any day of the week over a work environment that does not give me academic freedom to speak within the reasoable agreements that I have with my colleagues. Any day.