Stoker and colleague at Rio Tinto in 2003
NASA file
NASA scientist Carol Stoker and Ricardo Amils of Spain's National Institute of Aerospace Technology examine a sample from the Rio Tinto site in Spain in this image from 2003. The Rio Tinto research was the center of a media flurry last month over whether life presently existed on Mars.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 3/22/2005 12:05:18 AM ET 2005-03-22T05:05:18

Carol Stoker thought she was talking casually to friends at a party. A NASA scientist, Stoker and her husband and colleague Larry Lemke described work they were doing looking for biological activity — life — at a site in Spain called Rio Tinto that may be similar to potential habitats on Mars.

What happened next is up for debate. Stoker says neither she nor Lemke ever implied that her work could be extrapolated to suggest present life on Mars. She certainly never told anyone that a paper to that effect was about to be published in the journal Nature, she says.

Several people at the party, however, later told a journalist that they had said that. The subsequent Space News article set off a brief media frenzy in mid-February that eventually led to a rare official denial from NASA.

The media flap was soon overshadowed by actual news from Mars, but the consequences of that week continue to reverberate for Stoker and Lemke, she says. For that reason, Stoker agreed to her first on-the-record interview since the Feb. 13 party in Washington that started the whole thing.

‘My privacy was violated’
Stoker says she is still shocked that comments made at a private party could become fodder for a news story to begin with.

“What I feel is that my privacy was violated,” she says. “From my point of view, what I had was a private conversation at a cocktail party. … I knew who all the people at the cocktail party were. I knew that none of them were reporters.

“There was a discussion about various things going on in the space program which we participated in. We probably were the only scientists in the room, and we were more privy to what was going on in the Mars community. We said some things that were going on that were not very different from what goes on in [public conferences].”

That was a Sunday. Two days later, Brian Berger, an experienced and well-respected writer for Space News, tried to reach Stoker to confirm what he had heard about her statements at the party.

“While waiting for her to get back to me, I tracked down more people who had heard Dr. Stoker's presentation Sunday night to the group,” Berger said in an e-mail statement to MSNBC.com. “The people I spoke to were all trusted and reliable sources and they gave consistent accounts of what Stoker and her colleague had said about her research and the implications for present day life on Mars.”

“I left two voicemails for Dr. Stoker, letting her know I had heard about her research and wanted to write a story about it, preferably with her help,” Berger said.

Stoker, who was on business travel, says she found the messages only after the article was published the following day. However, she says, even if she had received the messages in time, she wouldn’t have considered them specific or urgent enough to answer immediately.

Nevertheless, she says she feels Berger should not have used her name without speaking to her first. Stoker also points out that “there was lots of ethanol consumed” at the party, which may have contributed to the loss of accuracy of any secondhand reports.

The story breaks
Berger’s story, which was also published on MSNBC.com as part of a content-sharing deal, described the Sunday event as a "private meeting," not a party.

It also cited the attendees as saying that Stoker and Lemke had said their findings had been submitted to Nature and were currently being peer-reviewed.

The story was careful to point out, however, that no one was saying there was direct evidence of current life on Mars:

“What Stoker and Lemke have found, according to several attendees of the private meeting, is not direct proof of life on Mars, but methane signatures and other signs of possible biological activity remarkably similar to those recently discovered in caves here on Earth.”

That distinction got somewhat lost in the days that followed, as others news services picked up the story and some headlines suggested that the scientists had in fact found life on Mars.

Stoker and Lemke declined all interview requests and NASA issued an unusual denial a few days later.

“The work by the scientists mentioned in the reports cannot be used to directly infer anything about life on Mars,” a press release stated. “No research paper has been submitted by them to any scientific journal asserting Martian life."

The work at Rio Tinto “may help formulate the strategy for how to search for Martian life,” the statement said, since the research “concerns extreme environments on Earth as analogs of possible environments on Mars.”

Stoker now says that the damage was already done and that the conclusions attributed to her created initial skeptical impressions in the minds of her colleagues.

“You get this kind of aghast thing, the rest of the scientific community reads this and they think obviously this information is incorrect, it can’t possibly be true. You can’t possibly have evidence for new life on Mars by drilling holes in Spain, it’s just impossible. So they think, they must be stupid.”

As a result, she says, “you attract a reputation as somebody who isn’t cautious, and isn’t careful about what you say.”

Wider consequences
The “false alarm” did not just impact Stoker and Lemke, she says, but her colleagues in Spain as well.

“I think it damaged the reputation of the project,” she says. “The impression I have is my collaborators in Spain were aghast, there were mumblings and grumblings from their scientific community that cast aspersions on the project.”

“This is a big project, with a lot of people involved,” she says. “I think the entire project was damaged because of it.”

Despite the NASA denial, Stoker says, the original impressions leave strong traces in people’s minds.

“A story like that goes out and the first thing that happens is that everyone who reads it believes it is true,” she says, “except for the people who know you personally who know you wouldn’t have said that.”

But even many of her colleagues just assumed it was true, Stoker says.

“I got e-mails from people who were getting calls asking to comment on the paper,” she recalls. “So there were people who asked for copies of the paper so they could comment” – but there wasn’t any paper.

If there actually had been a paper submitted to Nature, the pre-publication revelations would have been disastrous, Stoker says. “They would have rejected it instantly.”

She worries now that she will find it harder in the future to be published since she has gained the reputation — however unfairly — “as having been talking to the press about our work, unpublished — vetting our work in the press.”

“There’s a very good chance we will not be able to get our paper published because of this.”

‘Constant state of competition’
Along with the damage to her research, Stoker says she feels the incident also hurt her career.

“The problem is these things are taken at face value, by your own management and by the rest of the scientific community,” she says.

“Your success as a scientist depends upon your reputation — your reputation for caution, your reputation for correctness, for publishing the truth, for not making claims you can’t substantiate. If your reputation gets tarnished then that affects your ability to be competitive in the scientific community.”

A scientist must successfully compete in order to survive, Stoker explains.

“You compete for your funding, for your salary, for example, the salary of your staff,” she says. “You make applications to do projects, you write proposals, they get reviewed by panels of your peers, you pass or fail, and you get to do that project or not get to do it on the basis of whether or not you pass that process.

“You’re in a constant state of competition … and every one of those steps is dependent on your reputation as a scientist. So if a journalist makes a claim that is attributed to you, that is not a claim that you made, but everyone else hears that it is, then your reputation is tarnished and it affects that entire thing and it ultimately it affects your livelihood,” she says.

“It affects your ability to do the science, to get the work done, to get any work done.”

Berger, meanwhile, maintains that the story as originally reported was legitimate.

“Our story accurately portrayed what Dr. Stoker told a trusted group of insiders about her research and its implications,” he said in the e-mail to MSNBC.com. “As it happened, we were on the leading edge of what turned out to be a month chock full of intriguing science findings about Mars.”

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