Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

A Glass Half-full/half Empty?

As far as I am aware, there were no papers published in June that were critical to a theory of planetary formation so my ebook propositions last another month, but there were papers of interest, one of which is the basis of this blog. It is often argued that scientists do not communicate with the public very well. Part of the reason might be that sometimes we do not have a clear message. We may have very clear data, but there may be more than one way to interpret it, and we tend to see what we want to see.
There was a recent paper in Nature that measured the reflectance of Shackleton Crater, a polar lunar crater. The data established three points:
(a) The floor of the crater, which receives no sunlight, was brighter than the usual lunar material,
(b)  The walls of the crater, which receives sunlight, was brighter than the usual lunar material.
(c)  Standard lunar regolith plus 22% water would give the same reflectance as the floor of the crater.
There were two interpretations. One, a comment in Nature, argued that because of the sunlight striking it, the crater walls must be anhydrous, therefore the floor was likely to comprise eroded wall material. A second, on the NASA website, based on the principle that there is no easy means of mass transport on the Moon, argued that the floor is most likely to have frosts, which would be stable for millions of years. In this context, gravitational collapse would be expected to provide much brighter areas on the rim of the crater, but much less so in the centre, and this was not noticed. There is one further possibility: the impactor consisted of an abnormally bright material, and we are viewing the residue.
The problem, of course, is that finding water would be highly desirable from NASA’s point of view, because it would then be easier to get further funding. Absence of water is more desirable from certain theorists’ points of view, because the standard theory of lunar formation involves the Moon condensing from molten silicates formed through a collision of  a massive body, Theia, with Earth. In short, it is only too easy to interpret the data in terms of what you hope, rather than what you know.
What we know is (a – c) above; what we need is, at a minimum, some spectral data. The news media picked up on this story, but usually only one half of it, which results in conflicting stories in the public domain, and that does not help the credibility of science. At the risk of being repetitive, I think we need a better means of analyzing data and presenting theories.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jul 6, 2012 6:01 AM Europe/London

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