When Harvard researchers write a paper suggesting that a strange space rock called Oumuamua might be an alien probe sent from afar, it’s hard to resist talking about it. That’s what happened this week, when a preprint paper in arXiv explaining the strangely rapid acceleration of the interstellar visitor suggested it might be an alien probe, driving the media wild. Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was not impressed.
In an interview with Inverse, the StarTalk host commented both on the alien probe theory and the media’s response to it.
“Yeah, there’s some idea that it could be an alien thing,” he says. “I’m not convinced.”
The bulk of the paper, published by Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation researchers Shmuel Bialy, Ph.D., and Abraham Loeb, Ph.D., addresses the possibility that solar radiation pressure — that exerted by photons from the Sun — might be responsible for Oumuamua’s strange acceleration. The “alien thing,” however, appears in the paper’s last few paragraphs.
Alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization. . .This discrepancy is readily solved if ‘Oumuamua does not follow a random trajectory but is rather a targeted probe.
Tyson’s issue with the news surrounding this paper is the fact that it is an electronic preprint. Acceptance and categorization of preprints to the online repository arXiv is moderated by a panel of experts, but these papers are notably not peer reviewed. Peer review is the process by which studies and their results are vetted by other experts in the field, ensuring that data that goes public is accurate and authentic.
“What should have happened was, the press should not have written about that paper until it was peer reviewed,” says Tyson. “It was only submitted, and the press is basket-hanging on the thing.”
Called out! Inverse wrote about the theory, as did the vast majority of science publications that noticed the alien probe theory was dominating the news cycle. That said, some would argue it’s kosher to write about a preprint such as this one if it’s made clear that the paper is a preprint. The science community is divided on this: On the one hand, allowing scientists to publish their work before going through the lengthy process of peer review lets them quickly get feedback and buzz, which can be very helpful, especially for young scientists. On the other, they run the risk of their work getting scooped by other researchers in the field — and releasing incorrect data out into the world.
“For the broader scientific community, a common fear is that substandard work, which would not have survived peer review, will become widely available,” wrote Jocelyn Kaiser in a guide to preprints published in Science in 2017.
Meanwhile, in Nature, Tom Sheldon, the senior press manager at the Science Media Centre in London, argued in July: “Imagine early findings that seem to show that climate change is natural or that a common vaccine is unsafe. Preprints on subjects such as those could, if they become a story that goes viral, end up misleading millions, whether or not that was the intention of the authors.”
Fortunately, the Oumuamua paper and its suggestion about the alien probe theory probably won’t have effects as serious as those that Sheldon brings up, though it may stir up more nervous excitement about extraterrestrial life than is warranted by the musings of two Harvard scientists. The paper by Bialy and Loeb has at least, for its part, been accepted to the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters — which means it will soon be undergoing peer review — so the next few months will show whether the astrophysics community at large is, like Tyson, unconvinced.
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