Two years of stonewalling: What happened when a scientist filed a public records request for NASA code

Nathan Myhrvold

Retraction Watch readers may know Nathan Myhrvold, who holds a PhD in physics, as the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, or as the author of Modernist Cuisine. They may also recall that he questioned a pair of papers in Nature about dinosaurs. In that vein, he has also been raising concerns about papers describing the sizes of asteroids. (Not everyone shares those concerns; the authors of the original papers don’t, and astronomer Phil Plait said Myrhvold was wrong in 2016.) Last month, Myhrvold published a peer-reviewed paper as part of his critique. The final version of that paper went live today, as did a story about the science in The New York Times and a detailed explanation by Myrhvold in Medium. As the discussion over the results continues, here he shares his experience trying to obtain details about the methodology the authors used.

Two years ago, I uploaded a preprint to describing what I considered serious problems, including apparently irreproducible results, that I had uncovered when analyzing a set of research articles published by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) NEOWISE project. NEOWISE is the largest scientific analysis of asteroids ever conducted; the researchers on the project have so far published estimated sizes of more than 164,000 objects in the solar system, estimates they have claimed were all derived by applying a standard approach to raw observations from the WISE space telescope.

My findings generated quite a stir in the media, including stories in The New York Times, Science, and Scientific American, among other outlets. My hope and expectation was that shining light on these troubling issues would spur the JPL researchers to retract or correct their papers. At the very least, I thought, they would release the various unpublished techniques that they had used in a series of highly cited papers, stretching from 2011 to 2015, thus lifting the veil of secrecy that had prevented me and other astronomers from replicating their results. Continue reading Two years of stonewalling: What happened when a scientist filed a public records request for NASA code