Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t Dr. Willie Soon – an outside researcher has uncovered what he alleges is an attempt by NASA JPL asteroid researchers to pass off other research results as the product of their model, possibly in an effort to conceal the shortcomings of the NASA model.
Two years of stonewalling: What happened when a scientist filed a public records request for NASA code
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 arXiv.org 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 At the very least, I thought, they would release the various unpublished techniques that they had used in a series of highly cited papers, stretching from 2011 to 2015, thus lifting the veil of secrecy that had prevented me and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.
As it turns out, my math was not wrong, and my findings were up to the challenge of intensive peer-review. Part one appeared in the prestigious planetary science journal Icarus in December, and the larger part twowas published last week. Key sections also appeared, after peer review, at planetary science conferences in 2016 and 2017.
NASA’s response got me wondering why the NEOWISE researchers were being so studiously recalcitrant. Typically, when you point out to scientists that they have goofed, they do one of three things: they say “oops!,” they ask you for proof of their error, or they bend over backwards to justify why they did things in an unconventional way. Instead, NASA issued a vague press release berating me with claims I had made a calculation error. (It was actually just a typo – and a red herring. Even if my math had been completely off, that wouldn’t explain or excuse evidence that some of the NEOWISE papers had passed off asteroid diameter measurements made by other researchers as asteroid model results that they had calculated themselves.)
What happens to turn students who idealistically study space science into paid researchers who allegedly cheat, lie and bully? When did protecting scientific reputations by any means become more important than telling the truth?
I personally find this sordid tale deeply shocking. The motives of scientists who cheat at climate science or medical research at least make an ugly kind of sense – a lot of money hinges on whether we face a climate emergency, or upon the acceptance or rejection of new pharmaceuticals.
But cheating at measuring the sizes of Asteroids; if this is true to me the actions of the JPL researchers defy comprehension. What possible motivation could scientists have to cheat on the measurement of Asteroids? Nobody cares if a result has to be corrected. Nobody loses money if they have to revise their method. If space science models produce defective results, surely all they need to do is apply for more grant money to help them improve their models.
Why would anyone do this? Someone inside NASA must have helped these scientists perpetrate their alleged coverup. Just how deep does the rot go?