May 31 2018

Panspermia Pseudoscience

Last week I wrote about a recent article claiming evidence for panspermia (the idea that life had limited origins and then seeded itself throughout the galaxy), and the underlying idea of panspermia itself. I concluded that the new paper provided no compelling evidence, and panspermia, while not impossible, is a fringe hypothesis with no credible supporting evidence.

In response one of the co-authors of the paper (Ted Steele) wrote me an e-mail, attempting to defend the paper. I welcome the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about any topic I blog about, and so here is my response. Here is the e-mail in full:

Dear Steven:

I can see you have got quite emotional (attached) – and I am sure you are therefore not thinking straight. I tried posting this reply to your Blog comment but for technical reasons( I think ) I was excluded. So I decided to email you directly and share my response with some of your academic colleagues.

I suggest you re-read our paper carefully as you read this note. See https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2018.03.004

I am a molecular immunologist and evolutionist of 50 years standing. I am also the lead author of this paper on the “Cause of the Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic? ” I do not publish scientific trivia, and apart from key books the main body of my work is published in peer reviewed journals – check me on PubMed searching “Steele EJ”. Many of my PDFs are also at my academia.edu site (below). My main field is the study of the RNA and DNA editing mechanisms in the somatic hypermutation and germline evolution of antibody variable genes – however I am very interested in pragmatically evaluating the evidence consistent with or predicted by the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe Panspermia explanatory paradigm.

I have spent 10 years or more poring over and thinking about all the multifactorial evidence and all the explanations and criticisms. I expect serious critics to do what I have done – confront all the “extraordinary ” evidence in conflict with the terrestrial paradigm. Most of my co-authors have done that. Skeptics must do this – confront and evaluate the evidence and the primary literature. Here some examples from our paper, which are paradigm shifting (that is, pure nonsense under the terrestrial neo-Darwinism paradigm).

We now have a set of extraordinary facts to explain. The usual skeptical response in these situations is that “Extraordinary Explanations require Extraordinary Evidence’. The situation now is the reverse. Extraordinary, and multifactorial evidence exists now on Earth and its immediate environs. So now we must provide an “Extraordinary” explanation that fits all these facts and makes sense of them – this has been the aim of Science since time immemorial.

Four extraordinary set of biological facts are speaking for themselves:

• Eukaryotic fossils in meteorites > 4.5 billion years old ( e.g. Murchison)

• Interstellar dust Infra red extinction spectrum = infra red extinction spectrum of freeze dried E. coli (this is the most incredible scientific result I have ever seen, see Fig 1 in our paper)

• Bacteria in the cosmic dust on the external surface of the International Space Station

• Tardigrades

I have not added a list of other data, including space hardy biological data, Mars data, nor the Octopus RNA editing data, because I do not need to – four , quite unrelated, data sets are enough for biological significance. ( Statistical significance does not enter the picture). The skeptic and traditional Astrophysicist now needs to provide a convincing explanation of these data sets that avoids Panspermia.

I am a pragmatic Popperian – I deal in hard facts that require a unifying explanation.

Yours

Ted Steele

Let me first say that if you don’t want to be thought of as a crank, then don’t act like a crank. Right at the beginning Steele does three things which set up the exchange as hostile, and unwittingly casts himself in the role of wounded pseudoscientist desperate for respect. First he commits an ad hominem argument by claiming that I am “quite emotional” and therefore must not be “thinking straight.” Nothing in my original post was emotional or irrational. This is a blog post, not a technical paper, and so I feel free to use colloquial terminology. But as always my points were perfectly calm. Steele does not know me, and so he has no way of knowing how incongruous his accusation is with my reputation, making himself immediately look a little foolish.

He then commits a common error of implying that his own technical difficulty with posting a comment may have been for something other than technical reasons (with the coy “I think”). Regular readers here again will recognize this tactic and how untrue it is.

Finally he does something very strange that I can only interpret as an attempt at shame and intimidation – he sent his e-mail to a random assortment of my colleagues at Yale (including my Chairman). They have no stake or interest in this topic or our exchange. There is absolutely no legitimate reason for including them in his e-mail. But my skeptical colleagues and I are very familiar with this tactic, implying that we are being unscientific and using that to take a broadside at our day job.  Truly scurrilous, and not a good way to begin.

Steele then engages in more classic crank behavior. He brags about his own credentials, as if that will impress me. He then makes the tired accusation that any of his critics must not have exhaustively examined the evidence as he has. But finally we do get to the meat of his response.

Here he also begins with a classic pseudoscientist tactic – the attempt to reverse the burden of proof. Suddenly I must now prove his extraordinary claim false, rather than him meeting the burden of proof for his fringe hypothesis. He does this in a way remarkably similar to that of ESP proponents and others, by prematurely citing questionable evidence as if it is rock solid and can be used as an established scientific fact.

Eukaryotic fossils in meteorites

The claim is that examinations of meteorites have found microfossils representing single-celled life, either bacteria or even algae (eukaryotes). However, these claims are not generally accepted by the scientific community, and therefore cannot be used as a solid premise, let alone the rather arrogant claim that it reverses the burden of proof.

Steele is referring to this paper by Richard Hoover (the reference to “Murchison” is to a meteorite, not a person). The paper was apparently rejected by legitimate peer-reviewed journals, and so was published in the Journal of Cosmology, which has a reputation for publishing low-quality speculation.  Hoover also calls himself a doctor but his degree is unclear. The paper itself reads like it was not written by actual scientists – claiming “unambiguous” evidence, for example. It does not follow the humble style that would be far more appropriate to such a claim.

The evidence presented is of small spheres and filaments in the meteorites on microscopic examination. However, Hoover presents no real evidence that the structures are biological rather than minerological. Others examining the evidence notice that the filaments look contiguous with the rock, as if they are extruding from it, rather than embedded in it. The chemical structure is also not typical of cyanobacteria, which Hoover just mentions is “anomalous” but doesn’t address the implications of this.

Other papers making similar claims have the same features – published in the Journal of Cosmology, and overinterpreting microscopic features in meteorites as if they are biological, without presenting any real evidence to support that conclusion or rule out the far more likely possibility that they are simply geological structures.

It is also noteworthy that NASA has officially distanced itself from Hoover’s paper and claims, and that none of the people who worked with him apparently wanted to be listed as co-authors.

The bottom line is that the claim for microfossils in meteorites remains unproven and speculative, just like panspermia itself. Steele is wrong to cite this as evidence that demands an extraordinary explanation. But again this behavior is typical – prematurely declaring victory from dubious evidence.

Interstellar dust Infra red extinction spectrum

Steele proclaims this to be the “most incredible scientific result I have ever seen” and is puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm by the scientific community. It may be that they are not as easily impressed as he is. This was first observed by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, early proponents of panspermia. They matched the infrared spectrum of interstellar dust to the spectrum of freeze-dried bacteria (E. coli).

However, I would invite Steele to peruse the “spurious correlations” website to see why such correlations do not prove causation, and are not necessarily impressive.

The spectrum curve is mostly a product of the size of particles in the dust clouds. So if they are similar to frozen bacteria, they would produce a similar curve. In fact scientists have found other candidates (carbon molecules) that are much more plausible.

Again, Steele is very premature in declaring victory here.

Bacteria in space

We have found bacteria in near-Earth space, and on the international space station. However, it is extremely likely that these bacteria are simply contaminations from Earth, and that is the consensus of scientific opinion. Complete sterility is impossible, and humans taking stuff to the ISS are reintroducing bacteria all the time. Also, there is Earth bacteria in the atmosphere.

There is a question of how Earth bacteria can make it to low Earth orbit. One hypothesis is that space dust can kick the bacteria up into space.

In any case – no one has found “alien” bacteria in orbit, or ruled out Earthly contamination. So yet again Steele is citing speculation as if it were fact, and prematurely dismissing the far more likely explanation.

Tardigrades

This isn’t an argument, it’s a word. Yes, tardigrades are amazing. They can survive in space, in a dormant and dried form. That does not mean, however, that they could survive for millions of years of interstellar travel. It also does not mean that life from other systems has seeded the Earth.

Conclusion

It is often the case that when cranks and pseudoscientists attempt to convince me that they are legitimate and their claims scientific and compelling, they achieve the exact opposite result, and this is no exception.

Ironically, I was actually quite kind to panspermia in my previous article. I specifically said it was not impossible, and the criticisms of the “alien octopus” paper did not mean that panspermia itself is wrong. I do, however, think it is highly speculative, unnecessary, and without any supporting evidence. But that’s OK – there is nothing wrong with speculative hypotheses.

There is something wrong with prematurely declaring victory, citing other speculative hypotheses as if they prove your own, and attacking your critics. Steele’s behavior in his e-mail to me (and he has done this to others as well) is that of a crank. If he does not want to be thought of as a crank, he should stop acting like one.

He also manages to shame his own pet theory of panspermia. When you make terrible arguments to support your theory, that does not prove your theory wrong, but it does suggest that there are only terrible arguments to marshal. If Steele had any good arguments, he would probably use them. So if anything Steele’s behavior downgrades the credibility of the theory he wishes to support.

 

 

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