Last Thursday, struck — as it were — by a headline about an asteroid preparedness test, I took to Twitter:
Putting "fake" and "NASA" into a press release headline in today's climate: Risky, or Troll Level: Master? https://t.co/Wn0wypQm4z
— Ivan Oransky (@ivanoransky) July 28, 2017
I couldn’t quite tell if this was a clever dig at a certain President’s penchant for calling everything “fake news,” or a risky gambit, given various “faked Moon landing” conspiracy theories — or both.
And then, less than 90 minutes after I tweeted, the press release was retracted, with a note that an edited version would be reissued.
The original headline was:
NASA Drill: Fake Impact From a Real Asteroid
The headline now reads:
Upcoming Asteroid Flyby Will Help NASA Planetary Defense Network
What happened? Daniel Stolte, the University of Arizona science writer whose byline was on the release, told Retraction Watch:
I’m not exactly sure, but it looks like there may have been miscommunication somewhere in the approval chain.
Was the word “fake” the problem?
Apparently. I figured one could legitimately call a “preparedness drill rehearsing various aspects of an asteroid impact, such as deflection, evacuation and disaster relief” a “fake impact” [scenario], but in retrospect, “fake” may be perceived as loaded vocabulary and possibly be misinterpreted. I don’t think it would be my place to guess NASA’s stance on this.
I asked NASA for an explanation of what had happened, but they referred me back to the University of Arizona.
In addition to the headline, the first and fourth paragraphs were also rewritten. Here’s the original first paragraph:
For the first time, NASA will use an actual space rock for a tabletop exercise simulating an asteroid impact in a densely populated area. The asteroid, named 2012 TC4, does not pose a threat to Earth, but NASA is using it as a test object for an observational campaign because of its close flyby on Oct. 12, 2017.
And the new version of the first paragraph:
For the first time, NASA will use an actual space rock for an observational campaign to test NASA’s network of observatories and scientists who work with planetary defense. The asteroid, named 2012 TC4, does not pose a threat to the Earth, but NASA is using it as a test object for an observational campaign because of its close flyby on Oct. 12, 2017.
Here’s the original fourth paragraph:
NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), the federal entity in charge of coordinating efforts to protect Earth from hazardous asteroids, accepted Reddy’s proposal to conduct an observational campaign as part of assessing its Earth-based defense network. Reddy will assist Michael Kelley, who serves as a program scientist with NASA PDCO and the civil servant lead on the exercise.
And the new version:
NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, or PDCO, the federal entity in charge of coordinating efforts to protect Earth from hazardous asteroids, accepted Reddy’s idea to conduct an observational campaign as part of assessing its Earth-based defense network and identified the upcoming close approach of 2012 TC4 as a good opportunity to conduct the exercise. Reddy will assist Michael Kelley, who serves as a program scientist with NASA PDCO and as the lead on the exercise.
Stolte assured me that there was “absolutely no trolling intended. Seriously.”
You give us too much credit in terms of cleverness. That interpretation didn’t even occur to me until I saw your tweet. But I can definitely see where you’re coming from.
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