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WISE spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, making observations. WISE observations of near-Earth objects were analyzed for the NEOWISE mission. (Credit: NASA)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – NASA issued a statement today disputing Seattle tech icon Nathan Myhrvold’s critique of asteroid data analysis from the space agency’s NEOWISE mission.

The statement follows up on reports published this week by GeekWire and other media outlets. In those reports, Myhrvold said NEOWISE’s analysis relied on flawed statistical calculations, which resulted in incorrect or highly uncertain measurements for thousands of asteroids.

When GeekWire showed Myhrvold’s critique to scientists associated with NEOWISE and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, they identified what they said were serious errors – including misinterpretations of NEOWISE’s methods and an apparent confusion between radius and diameter in one key equation. GeekWire’s report on Monday referred to those problems, as well as Myhrvold’s acknowledgment of mistakes.

Today’s NASA statement refers to those errors as “mistakes that an independent peer review process is designed to catch.”

“While critique and re-examination of published results are essential to the scientific process, it is important that any paper undergo peer review by an independent journal before it can be seriously considered,” NASA said. “This completes a necessary step to ensure science results are independently validated, reproducible and of value to the science community.”

Nathan Myhrvold
Nathan Myhrvold (GeekWire photo)

The space agency pointed out that the NEOWISE team’s results endured the peer-review process. “NASA is confident that the processes and analyses performed by the NEOWISE team are valid and verified, and stands by its data and scientific findings,” the statement said.

In a posting to a Yahoo discussion group on near-Earth objects, Australian amateur astronomer David Herald reports three measurements of asteroids derived by stellar occultations that are consistent with NEOWISE’s analysis, but not with Myhrvold’s recalculations. Those findings suggest that NEOWISE’s methods are more accurate than Myhrvold gives them credit for.

Myhrvold is known not only as a self-described gadfly who has previously raised questions about the statistical analysis of dinosaur growth rates, but also as Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, the author of “Modernist Cuisine,” and the founder and CEO of Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures. His net worth is estimated at $650 million.

“Well, I seem to have made the big time, or anyway enough that NASA has issued a press release about me  :-).  Now if only it was positive,” he told GeekWire today in an email.

Myhrvold said he welcomed peer review of his findings, which have been submitted to the journal Icarus for publication.

“Experts will review whether my new material and analysis is worth publishing,” he said. “However, the issues with data problems in NEOWISE is not my peer review. It is about problems with their work, which happened to slip past peer review. Those issues are properly addressed by others … and have nothing to do with my peer review.”

Both NASA and Myhrvold noted that the public and the scientific community could check the NEOWISE data for themselves. The NEOWISE team has provided a guide to its latest data release, as well as data products and academic references associated with the mission. Myhrvold, meanwhile, posted “A Simple Guide to NEOWISE Data Problems” to today.

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