Recently a scientist claimed in The Journal Of Cosmology, that he found micro-fossils within a meteorite that are likely from an alien bacteria-like organism.
The initial wave of reporting yet again showcased the sorry state of science journalism in the US.
The Fox News “Exclusive” went something like this
“We are not alone in the universe — and alien life forms may have a lot more in common with life on Earth than we had previously thought. That’s the stunning conclusion one NASA scientist has come to, releasing his groundbreaking revelations in a new study in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology.”
That early reporting had titles like the following:
“Evidence of Alien Life on Meteorite Found” (Zee News)
“Life May Have Srrived on Earth by Meteorite” (Calgary Herald )
“Ancient Alien Bacteria Discovered in Meteorites” (PlanetSave.com)
It took a couple of days for the tide to turn but eventually we got titles like this:
“Alien Microbes Attack! Dangers Of Science News That Isn’t Science Or News” (NPR Blog)
And my favorite title:
“The Aliens Haven’t Landed” (Nature.com)
So what happened?
Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center took some old meteorites and fractured them to observe the newly created interior surface with Scanning Electron Microscopes. He found what appears to be unusual squiggles and formations that are reminiscent of certain species of cyanobacteria.
Are these micro-formations decent evidence of an ancient alien bacteria-like life? The consensus of scientists that I like seems to be “NO FRICKEN WAY”
What about the evidence?
I liked science blogger Rosie Redfield’s assessment
she’s the one who did a real nice blog-take-down of NASA for that whole bacteria arsenic/phosphorus hub-bub
On this topic she said that…
“The Ivuna meteorite sample showed a couple of micron-scale squiggles, one of which contained about 2.5-fold more carbon than the background. One of the five Orguil samples had at least one patch of clustered fibers; these contained more sulfur and magnesium than the background, and less silicon. As evidence for life this is pathetic, no better than that presented by McKay’s group for the…Martian meteorite in 1996.”
Many times, if you want to get a handle on some new incredible claim, it’s helpful and fun to do a red-flag test. Let’s see what the red-flag test tells us about this news-item and SHOULD have told those early journalists who acted like aliens walked out of a spaceship on the front lawn of the white-house.
To put the red-flags in perspective,we need to start with our extraordinary claims dictum. The claim is essentially Evidence For Alien Life. Yes that is a biggie.. I’d say that was a bit extraordinary. That of course means that our evidence better be pretty damn solid. It also means that we probably should have even less tolerance for red-flags than we normally would.
The biggest red-flag is the journal that the research was published in.… the Journal of Cosmology
One needs literally only 5 seconds to notice a problem with this journal’s website and that included the time it takes for the page to load. The website looks like a refugee from the 90′s…Copy-editing, formatting, even page numbers are foreign concepts to the designers. Guys…spend a few bucks on a professional web designer.
If you peruse the previous papers on the site you see discussions about the “Myth of the Big Bang” and “Quantum Consciousness”. Uh oh…more red-flags.
I love PZ Meyers take on this journal…..
It’s a “the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea…that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth”
Another big red flag is that this guy is a NASA scientist. Why is there no involvement of NASA? What better outlet for your discovery of alien life than NASA? Their non-involvement is very suspicious.
Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington said:
“NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper.”
The final red flag that I could discern was that similar research was submitted to a real journal, The International Journal of Astrobiology in 2007 and never got past the peer review process. Hear those sirens in the background. Nuff said.
Now remember, the red-flag test does not say the researcher is wrong. It’s just a very good guide for determining the plausibility of a specific claim. In this regard it’s really like our good friend, Occam’s Razor.