The James Webb Telescope: a signpost for identifying fake news sources


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The news yesterday that NASA will once again have to delay the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope due to a variety of technical issues and management errors not only exemplified the fundamental failure of the federal government, it also illustrated the routine failures of today’s mainstream press.

First, Webb’s new delay epitomizes the systemic incompetence of Washington. Despite being 13 years behind schedule and costing eight times more than originally planned, NASA and its contractors still couldn’t get things right.

Most of the problems have occurred with the spacecraft half of the project, which was built by Northrop Grumman in California and is undergoing testing there. During the teleconference, NASA officials, including acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, expanded upon technical problems first reported publicly by the agency’s inspector general last month.

These include leaky valves within the spacecraft’s propulsion system and difficulties encountered during deployment tests of the sun shield. Not only did the thin, five-layer sun shield snag during the deployment, but technicians also found seven tears up to 10cm long within the material. NASA and Northrop Grumman have identified fixes for these problems, but their repair has added months of delays to the project, and engineers cannot be sure that more issues will not crop up during further testing.

Such failures, in NASA and in all big federal projects in recent years, are hardly news. Only the willfully blind or those who support wasting tax dollars to distribute pork will deny they exist.

The failures of the federal government however is not the focus of this essay. Instead, the announcement yesterday and the coverage of it by the press provides us a perfect and very obvious signpost for differentiating between the fake news sources that are generally unreliable or too often allow their biases to influence their reporting, and those sources that do a good job.

That signpost is one simple fact: Webb is not a replacement or successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, despite NASA making this false claim for decades. Hubble is an optical telescope. Webb will view the universe in the infrared. These are too entirely different things.

Yet, too many news sources today repeated NASA’s false claim, illustrating how little they know about both telescopes and their design, while revealing their complete inability to do some basic journalistic research. Instead they merely rewrite old press releases, and thus prove clearly by their bad reporting why so many people have so little respect for the modern press.

The worst examples made this false claim right in the headline:

Other news sources avoided this particular error in the headline, but then made it in the body of the story:

Some of the articles above also contain some egregious errors. For example, the New Scientist article that says Webb is designed to study exoplanets. That is patently false. It will be able to do this research, but anyone who has done any research into Webb should know that it was optimized for deep space cosmology, and its primary research goal is to look back as far and as close to the Big Bang as possible (as noted by this well written Sky & Telescope report). Meanwhile, Space.com, which should know better, claims that the original launch date for Webb was 2018, not 2007, while the Atlantic appears to not even know that the telescope is thirteen years behind schedule.

The news sources that got this simple fact right, and also reported the overall story accurately, included not only Ars Technica above and Sky & Telescope, but Space News, NASASpaceFlight.com, GeekWire, the Verge, SpacePolicyOnLine.com, and Popular Science. These reports are all fine examples of good reporting, detailing the failures of NASA and Northrup Grumman while providing some historical context.

Notice a pattern? Almost all the news sources that got this trivial fact wrong are big name mainstream media outlets, while the good reporting generally came from newer, independent news sources focused on science, space, and astronomy. This pattern illustrates once again why the web makes it possible to get better information. Rather than go to mainstream sources that do a poor job covering specialty topics, the web allows ordinary citizens to go to news sources that focus specifically on the subject matter, and thus get the reporting right.

It is also no accident that the poor reporting noted above also came from mostly partisan leftist mainstream news sources. These sources generally claim they are objective, even as they time after time show themselves to be nothing more than operatives for the Democratic Party. That intellectual dishonesty has poisoned all of their reporting, so that they often to get some obvious facts wrong, not merely in their science reporting but in all their reporting. They no longer know how to do basic journalistic research, and thus make basic errors of fact repeatedly.

The Webb story today simply provides us a good and easily identifiable example of this. Because many of these liberal mainstream news sources are fans of big government space projects like Webb, they allow that bias to warp their reporting. Rather than find out what Webb really is, they sell it, as NASA has in the past, pushing Webb as a bigger and better Hubble. That Webb is not a bigger and better Hubble is irrelevant to them. They have a cause to push.

Ironically, in NASA’s own press release announcing this new delay the agency actually avoided making the claim that Webb is Hubble’s successor, something NASA had done routinely in the past. Instead, the press release merely noted that Webb will “complement” Hubble, working in different wavelength bands. It appears that NASA management has been called on this lie one time too many by knowledgeable space reporters in the new independent press, and has decided to back off from the claim.

That the mainstream news sources above are oblivious to this, and continue to spread the lie, is further proof that responsible citizens need to go elsewhere for their information. These news sources are simply unreliable.

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7 comments

  • wodun

    all the news sources that got this trivial fact wrong are big name mainstream media outlets, while the good reporting generally came from newer, independent news sources focused at science, space, and astronomy.

    But why would you except people who are not space nerds and are writing on an unfamiliar topic to be experts? While your analysis is correct, many people in journalism are generalists and write about a wide array of topics rather than specializing. I always expect journalists to get large parts of a story wrong, no matter the topic, as that has always been the case in the industry.

    What this says to me, is that there is a market for someone like Mr Zimmerman to approach these large media companies with an offer of writing the occasional article about space related issues. People who created niche publications have spotted the market demand but they often just preach to the niche.

    That intellectual dishonesty has poisoned all of their reporting, so that they often to get some obvious facts wrong, not merely in their science reporting but in all their reporting.

    This is the important part. Very few people are interested in NASA’s satellites aside from the pretty pictures. But there are many topics of greater interest where expertise is easier to gain and the media constantly gets their facts wrong, twists a narrative, or intentionally hides what is actually going on. This has been going on as long as there was journalism but is getting much worse as the trends in national media have been adopted by local media.

    ** As an aside, the google captcha has me identifying crosswalks. It looks like that Uber accident in Arizona has the autonomous car people worried enough to enlist humans on the internet in their machine learning effort to spot pedestrians.

  • Carl Vehse

    Another article that included the false “replacement” claim was “A New Window on Alien Atmospheres” by Kevin Heng (American Scientist, Vol. 105, July-August, 2017, pp. 86-89):

    “In the 1990s, when JWST was conceived as the successor to the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, the notion that the atmospheres of alien worlds could be studied seemed faintly ludicrous.”

    The article goes on to hype the use of the James Webb Space Telescope to explore “Earth-like” [i.e., “sizes between that of Earth and Neptune,” which is 3.9X larger] exoplanets and analyze for “Earth-like” atmospheres after its “scheduled launch in October of 2018.”

    Buried in the middle of the article are such revealing statements as:

    “Our chances of extracting statistical trends from the atmospheres of these super Earths and mini-Neptunes with JWST are quite bleak.”

    “Studying Earth-like exoplanets with JWST will be even more elusive.”

    “The prohibitive amount of telescope time needed to measure the light spectrum of an Earth-like exoplanet would restrict the exoplanet community to only a handful of targets… Such a target currently does not exist in the catalogs of astronomers.”

  • Kreg Hines

    Another money pit brought to you by NASA. By the time they get this up into orbit it will already be long obsolete. The military is already using “Atmospheric Lensing” via laser tech to view objects from high altitude. Check out BAE Systems Atmospheric Lensing video on YouTube to get an idea how it works. It’s actually an old idea only recently made possible with newer laser technology. Theirs no reason why they wouldn’t be able to scale this up for a ground based station.

  • wodun

    Question, is replacement being used not as a reference to the capabilities but in reference to one project replacing the other?

  • wodun: No. As long as Hubble functions it will remain funded and operating. In fact, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, created to run Hubble, now has the job of running Webb also (once it is launched).

  • Scott M.

    Bob, I think you meant to say ‘if it is launched’ rather than ‘once it is launched’…

    ;)

  • Morgan Latte

    “Some of the articles above also contain some egregious errors. For example, the New Scientist article that says Webb is designed to study exoplanets.”

    No, it doesn’t, Bob. The NS article merely says that the JWST “is planned to be an exoplanet hunter,” but that followed the article observing that the telescope “will be able to peer deeper into the early universe and capture data on the formation of the first stars and galaxies.” For someone who hilariously expends so much effort arguing over the meaning of the word, “successor,” it seems like you’d learn to read more carefully. And since that was the very first example you gave of “fake news” regarding the various accounts of JWST, I’m just going to assume that the rest of your article is similarly tendentious, if not just feeble. I guess this is what happens when you have ideologues write about science.

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