Monday, November 4, 2013

I Sense a Pattern Here

The Atlantic site has a new article by one of their regular writers, Megan Garber.  The title is "There Are (Probably) Billions of Earth-Like Planets in the Universe."  Well, "probably" and a dollar will get you on the bus, here in Bloomington anyway.  The article is typical of its kind -- the rabble-rousing three-cheers-for-science kind which inflates what we know or can do -- in its careful but sneaky use of qualifiers that undercut the impression the writer wants to give.  For example:
Here's more potential evidence against notions of Earthian exceptionalism: The team estimates that 22 percent—essentially one in five—of sun-like stars have potentially habitable Earth-size planets.
"Potential", twice in two sentences (or one compound one)!  The research Garber is writing about doesn't even offer evidence, only "potential" evidence, and an "estimate" of numbers.  Of course "potential" (along with its cousin "possible" and its half-sibling "suggests") is misused in all kinds of writing, in the hope the reader will ignore it and believe what is potential, or potentially potential, is actual.  Even "probably" is an overstatement in the article's title.  We still have no real basis for computing probabilities about the number of planets, let alone "potentially" habitable ones, in the universe, and Garber's article doesn't provide any real evidence that the situation has changed.