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NASA Scientist Finds Extraterrestrial Bacteria In Meteorite
March 5, 2011 2:29 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Hoover has discovered evidence of microfossils similar to Cyanobacteria in freshly fractured slices of the interior surfaces of the Alais, Ivuna, and Orgueil CI1 carbonaceous meteorites. The scientist's conclusion is that the fossilized bacteria are not Earthly contaminants but are the fossilized remains of living organisms which lived in the parent bodies of these meteors, e.g. comets, moons, and other astral bodies. The implications are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets.
posted by Surfin' Bird (150 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
For real this time? Really, really, for real?
posted by ryanrs at 2:35 PM on March 5, 2011 [14 favorites]


*Claims* to have discovered evidence. I think this needs some scientific consensus before we get all excited.
posted by The Thnikkaman at 2:35 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Apparently this is not news. I am also suspicious of epoch-defining scientific discoveries published in a journal that doesn't even warrant a Wikipedia article.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:36 PM on March 5, 2011 [15 favorites]


Crackpot journal, I'm afraid. I'm as excited about astrobiology as everyone else, but, yeah, skeptical.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:39 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is the same bullshit journal that published that stupid sex in space article.
posted by kmz at 2:42 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aww, it's never really for real. :(
posted by ryanrs at 2:43 PM on March 5, 2011 [22 favorites]


ryanrs, someday it will be, and it won't be announced first on Fox News. Win-win.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:46 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is pretty much total hokum. This is roughly what I do too, and not only are the data not convincing, such that the conclusions of this article are not accepted by anyone I know, but it has been emailed to me multiple times this week in mocking emails.....I think it's this month's arsenic-based life science scandal.
posted by girl scientist at 2:46 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


and this is not news

Fox fell for it (briefly)

Sigh, you think you are going to see an alien and it turns out to be a two-headed calf...
posted by warbaby at 2:48 PM on March 5, 2011


What is Fox's motivation in publishing something like this that is pretty obviously bogus? You can find out this guy and the journal aren't super credible with Google. Maybe I am being overly cynical but are they just trying to discredit NASA/science here?
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:48 PM on March 5, 2011


Fox covers all sorts of stuff that is totally bogus. It's their function.
posted by warbaby at 2:50 PM on March 5, 2011


I assume Fox New is just that stupid and/or lazy.
posted by kmz at 2:50 PM on March 5, 2011


What is Fox's motivation in publishing something like this that is pretty obviously bogus?

Not sure - probably just incompetence. But I'd be surprised if they ever publish a retraction, and I wonder what fraction of their audience falls for it completely and never even does a Google search?
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:50 PM on March 5, 2011


Question: is it the NASA administration that's pushing all this junk science in pursuit of drumming up interest in astrobiology, or external scientists pushing the NASA name in order to clamor for credibility, or both? In any case, NASA had better watch out for their credibility, for anything biology related I already believe them less than Weekly World News.
posted by Llama-Lime at 2:50 PM on March 5, 2011


NASA has nothing to do with this.
posted by kmz at 2:52 PM on March 5, 2011


Fox fell for it

I love how Gawker calls them out then publishes a pic of the "suspected" bacteria which is not even supposed to be such pic. The one they show is of a terrestrial bacteria to which the paper is comparing the suspect bacteria. Nice job reading the article, Gawker.

Not that this makes the paper valid at all.
posted by roquetuen at 2:54 PM on March 5, 2011


I love how Gawker calls them out then publishes a pic of the "suspected" bacteria which is not even supposed to be such pic. The one they show is of a terrestrial bacteria to which the paper is comparing the suspect bacteria. Nice job reading the article, Gawker.

Actually, that's the only picture Fox News was running this morning, and it wasn't at all clear from the caption that it wasn't an SEM of the meteorite.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:55 PM on March 5, 2011


Posts tagged with "shit"
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:02 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are you sure the journal is junk? The editor has a wikipedia page, a PhD from Harvard and is director of their 1.5 meter telescope program. The other editors seemingly have non-crank backgrounds.

I mean it is no Lancet, but it seems like several of the editors have successful professional careers not being crazy.
posted by geoff. at 3:06 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I stumbled upon this Journal of Cosmology before, and read some of the articles in their Colonizing Mars issue. My favorite article was this one by Dan Răzvan Popoviciu: Terraforming Mars via the Bosch Reaction: Turning Gas Giants Into Stars
This paper proposes the use of the two gas giant planets (Jupiter and Saturn) as a hydrogen source, through the process of stellification, which would turn these bodies into small stars (also allowing the terraformation of their satellites). The ejecta from these two newborn stars would provide the hydrogen required. The paper investigates the possibility that this could be achieved by thermonuclear detonations inside the giant planets, an inexpensive solution considering the recent New START Treaty
posted by ts;dr at 3:07 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait's take.
posted by mcwetboy at 3:08 PM on March 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


this month's arsenic-based life science scandal

Wait - what happened with the arsenic-based life thing? Last I heard was the evidence from Mono Lake that bacteria from there had the ability to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in ways we wouldn't have expected before. Did that turn out the be false?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:11 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The paper investigates the possibility that this could be achieved by thermonuclear detonations inside the giant planets, an inexpensive solution considering the recent New START Treaty

Inexpensive Solution starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, in theaters this summer.
posted by rory at 3:15 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Are you sure the journal is junk?

Via Bad Astronomer, here's a press release from the dying JoC that has an awful lot of the crackpot keywords in it.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:15 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Asked my in-house astronomer:

"[Journal of Cosmology] sounds low quality -- it doesn't sound like a real journal. If you just read what's on their front page, which presumably is representative ... I wouldn't call it a peer to any professional astronomical journal."
posted by kyrademon at 3:21 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I might say something similar to kyrademon's in-house astronomer too.
posted by edd at 3:24 PM on March 5, 2011


Also, while I can't evaluate the report itself, publishing it in a questionable-at-best online journal is all kinds of red flags. Claiming that Science or Nature wouldn't want a piece of a truly convincing result in astrobiology is nutso.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:29 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


You have an in-house astronomer? Sheesh, I don't even have a maid.
posted by ryanrs at 3:30 PM on March 5, 2011 [17 favorites]


Nice book covers. I know we can't expect all scientists to be good web designers but that site looks a bit too much like the site I was referred to that gave conclusive proof of the Reptilian Conspiracy.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:31 PM on March 5, 2011


Getting your article published in the Journal of Cosmetology, it's like lipstick on a pig.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:44 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


What is Fox's motivation in publishing something like this that is pretty obviously bogus?

Fox News' primary agenda is to make rational evaluation of evidence seem pointless and irrelevant. Their goal is to erode the perceived probative value of scientific authority in the mind of the American viewer and voter, so that the next time a "NASA expert" says something about e.g. climate change on some other network, they think "yeah whatever, last time it was alien microbes." And then when an economist says "deficits shouldn't be our top priority" or "spending cuts alone won't balance budgets," they think "oh great, another so-called 'expert' talking crap."
posted by nicwolff at 3:48 PM on March 5, 2011 [41 favorites]


Dr. Hoover has discovered evidence of microfossils similar to Cyanobacteria in freshly fractured slices of the interior surfaces of the Alais, Ivuna, and Orgueil CI1 carbonaceous meteorites.

WOW. Awesome.

The scientist's conclusion is that the fossilized bacteria are not Earthly contaminants but are the fossilized remains of living organisms which lived in the parent bodies of these meteors, e.g. comets, moons, and other astral bodies. The implications are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets.

Yes...thats plausible. But its also plausible to suggest converging evolution rather than diverging evolution. Just because they are similar does not mean they are related.

Good science...but back those suggestions up, doc. You got a long road ahead of you.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:04 PM on March 5, 2011


Asked my in-house astronomer:

"[Journal of Cosmology] sounds low quality -- it doesn't sound like a real journal. If you just read what's on their front page, which presumably is representative ... I wouldn't call it a peer to any professional astronomical journal."


You should ask your in-house astronomer to go past the cover. If you click on the "Editorial Guidelines & Review", it seems pretty peer-reviewed. It may not have the history and monocles of the NEJM...but good science doesn't need that. It just needs criticism that it can stand up to.

I say this Journal looks very legit.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:12 PM on March 5, 2011


As written here:

Official Statement from Dr. Rudy Schild,
Center for Astrophysics, Harvard-Smithsonian,
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Cosmology.

Dr. Richard Hoover is a highly respected scientist and astrobiologist with a prestigious record of accomplishment at NASA. Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. Our intention is to publish the commentaries, both pro and con, alongside Dr. Hoover's paper. In this way, the paper will have received a thorough vetting, and all points of view can be presented. No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis, and no other scientific journal in the history of science has made such a profoundly important paper available to the scientific community, for comment, before it is published. We believe the best way to advance science, is to promote debate and discussion.



I agree that the design of the website looks a little 1998 x-files to me, but come on...its scientists. Next...they have quite a bit of stuff on their editorial process...and this little number up here.

Seems to me that every word of this paper is going to be looked at by a lot of people. It hasn't been published yet...and I think they want everyone's input before it gets published. It *sounds* like big news...but only time and the scientific method will tell. But certainly not layout of a website.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:18 PM on March 5, 2011


The submission guidelines (bitmap format figures, LaTeX expressly forbidden) are distinctly odd for an astronomy journal. Lots of other things about it are incongruous.
I don't know what to make of it.
posted by edd at 4:24 PM on March 5, 2011


The shocling truth is that we are descended from body snatchers.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:26 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pigs have been in space for decades.
posted by not_on_display at 4:27 PM on March 5, 2011


I think they want everyone's input before it gets published.

You know who else wanted that? (No, not Hitler) Perpetual motion Steorn, who ended up disputing the jury's findings.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 4:34 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


"You have an in-house astronomer? Sheesh, I don't even have a maid."

The suggested implication this has for what my life is like is so appealing that I'm going to pretend it's true from now on.

"It may not have the history and monocles of the NEJM...but good science doesn't need that."

On the front page of their journal's website, they call a fellow scientist an "astronomer-wannabe ... [whose] most famous discovery was finding one of his old socks when it went missing after a spin in his dryer."

Their executive editors include Chandra Wickramasinghe, who has accused NASA of covering up evidence of life on Mars.

Their Senior Executive Managing Director, Lana Tao, recently put out a press release that accused "science magazines ... [of engaging] in illegal, criminal, anti-competitive acts to prevent JOC from distributing news about its online editions and books," called the leadership at NASA "nincompoops and gutless wonders," and that in the final edition of the JOC they will present evidence "demonstrating that life on Earth has a genetic pedigree extending backwards in time by over 10 billion years (billions of years before Earth was formed) ... and this is something the Bible-thumpers, the 'leadership' at NASA, and the status quo, do not want the public to know."

They have a history of publishing dubious articles, including one that claims that, "The Big Bang is religion masquerading as science."

This is stuff that goes a little beyond not having "history and monocles".
posted by kyrademon at 4:38 PM on March 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


Just skimmed through a few past publications of this journal too, which I would politely describe as nonsense. The article in question may or may not be - astrobiology is not my field.
posted by edd at 4:40 PM on March 5, 2011


Needs a panspermia tag.
posted by Brian B. at 5:05 PM on March 5, 2011


I agree with everyone else that, if I just went by the journal (or even the number of typos in the published paper), I would dismiss this out of hand.

However, in his defense, he does do a fairly careful job trying to respond to the usual counter-arguments. He goes to great lengths to suggest that he did not contaminate the material -- freshly cracked samples, no solvents, flame-sterilized tools, etc -- and then has a couple of clever tests suggesting that if the filaments are biological, they are not recent contaminants: they have low nitrogen levels (like fossils do, but not recently dead microorganisms; Fig 6a), and while he detects many amino acids, a bunch are also missing as well -- in precisely the pattern shown by fossils, but not recently dead organic matter (Table IV).

So while the context makes me skeptical, taken merely on its own terms (by someone who is not remotely trained in this field!), the arguments aren't junk. If you believe him when he explains his precautions, believe that the SEM images are unfaked, and believe that his material has (and lacks) the organic components that he claims, then you have to work a bit to come up with a plausible abiologic mechanism for these filaments. And though one certainly can find plenty of abiologic filaments out there, those Figures 2a, 4a and 5a certainly are striking.

In any case, it's a bit more than just saying: see, these shapes are organic looking, and have some organic-seeming compounds in them.
posted by chortly at 5:08 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you click on the "Editorial Guidelines & Review", it seems pretty peer-reviewed.

The contents of any peer-reviewed journal ultimately boil down to decisions made by the editors—who to pick as the reviewers, and then what to do with the reviews once they are in. I don't have any reason to trust that the editors of this journal perform this process well.

I agree that the design of the website looks a little 1998 x-files to me, but come on...its scientists.

What is that supposed to mean? The vast majority of scientific peer-reviewed journals look far more professional than this.
posted by grouse at 5:13 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh come on, guys. They're just rude and crude, totally radical cosmologists who are simply too awesome for the establishment.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:13 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This journal is ranked in the second quartile (75th out of 199). The panspermia theory itself is not new, and this is not news per se. Abiogenesis lacks a standard model, or has issues if you want to think of it that way. Finally, to consider this bizarre is ignoring too much. For example, we don't even know for certain how the earth's water formed on this planet, one theory being it landed here.
posted by Brian B. at 5:45 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This journal is ranked in the second quartile (75th out of 199).

That's the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, which is unrelated. This crackpot journal is not in the list because it is a crackpot journal.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 5:50 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, which is unrelated. This crackpot journal is not in the list because it is a crackpot journal.

You're right that it's not on the list, but the list was last generated for 2009 and according to this blog, we're talking about a newer journal than the list itself.
posted by Brian B. at 5:59 PM on March 5, 2011


If this is to believed, the journal isn't even in business anymore.
posted by feloniousmonk at 6:00 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Brian B. -- No, it isn't. The Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics (JCAP) is a completely different journal from the Journal of Cosmology (JoC). The Journal of Cosmology is not even listed on that chart of 199 legitimate journals, and rightly so. (On preview, what EMRJKB94 said.)

To be *completely* fair --

Dr. Richard Hoover seems to be, as far as I can tell, a perfectly legitimate scientist with a lot of credible, serious research.

The editors of the Journal of Cosmology, including Chandra Wickramasinghe who I mentioned above, seem at a cursory glance to also be genuine, working scientists, some reasonably well-known, even if some of them have also made eyebrow-raising statements on occasion.

Which pretty much just leaves me mystified as to why any of them would want to be associated with this crackpot "journal" which seems to primarily publish ludicrous, typo-ridden nonsense articles which at best tarnish their reputations by their association with it. If Hoover has real research findings here, why on earth didn't he publish them in a real journal? He's certainly done so before.

If it's supposed to be a rag for entirely speculative pie-in-the-sky stuff aimed at laypeople, why is it pretending so hard to be a legitimate peer-reviewed journal for scientists? If it's supposed to be a peer-reviewed journal, how is so much utter nonsense getting through?

In short, WTF?
posted by kyrademon at 6:01 PM on March 5, 2011 [6 favorites]



As elementary as this seems, just look at the design of the site. How can we possibly take any of these findings seriously given such a rudimentary-looking website? Perhaps a journal contributor or two could give a few of their grant dollars to update the website after they are finished examining meteors and such.
posted by bengalsfan1 at 6:09 PM on March 5, 2011


Even though I assume extraterrestrial exists until it's proven otherwise, the specifics of discovered e14l life will still blow my mind.
posted by davel at 6:12 PM on March 5, 2011


As someone mentioned above, this quote is from an article on the front page of the 'Journal of Cosmology'.

The torches and pitchforks crowd, led by astronomer-wannabe Phil Plait claims its not so. But then, Plait's most famous discovery was finding one of his old socks when it went missing after a spin in his dryer.

To those who don't read peer-reviewed scientific journals, let me explain - this is not something any legitimate journal would ever allow within it. This is bad. Scientists simply do not treat each other this way in print. To do so would be seem as extremely unprofessional, and it would be sufficient that other scientists would probably refuse to collaborate with you, unless you were already an established master in your field, like James Watson. Even then, it's going to undermine the hell out of your credibility.
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:39 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The implications are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets.

Finally, a explanation for cousin Milton!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:47 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am beginning to suspect the story of this journal went something like this --

Lana Tao: Hey, guys! Why don't we start an open, internet-based science journal?

A Few Scientists: I am intrigued. Tell me more!

Lana Tao: Since the overhead will be low, it will be cheaper than getting into those old-fashioned journals that everybody is mad at because they are expensive!

A Few Scientists: I, too, have thought this would be a good idea!

Lana Tao: Plus, since our lower price means that grants and funding will not be as important for our contributors, we can open it up to more speculative, mavericky ideas than the older journals are willing to touch, and ask people to write in plainer language.

A Few Scientists: I consider myself a maverick! This excites me! But wait -- will this be a legitimate journal that publishes legitimate science?

Lana Tao: Of course! Everything will be anonymously peer-reviewed, just as is proper. And as proof of the legitimacy, I already have on board a couple of aging and cranky yet reasonably well-known scientists who are willing to vouch for it.

Aging and Cranky Scientists: You recognize our names from when we were doing a lot of good work, and are not necessarily aware that we now believe the universe is conscious and NASA is hiding evidence of Martian life.

A Few Scientists: Well, if such well-known scientists are vouching for it, it must be legitimate indeed! I will happily serve as an editor and/or contribute some of my more speculative work! Let us set up a website.

Lana Tao: I FILL THE WORLD WITH CRAZY NOW!
posted by kyrademon at 6:48 PM on March 5, 2011 [30 favorites]


If I am Harvard or the Smithsonian or the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, I would be super pissed about this being done in association with people using my name. I would imagine that this journal's support is going to evaporate pretty quickly as news of their behavior spreads. I don't know much about scientific journals but you don't have to do much to convince me that this is not professional behavior.
posted by feloniousmonk at 6:51 PM on March 5, 2011


To those who don't read peer-reviewed scientific journals, let me explain - this is not something any legitimate journal would ever allow within it. This is bad. Scientists simply do not treat each other this way in print.

Well, not usually. But I can think of at least one article that appeared in a top-shelf journal in my discipline that exists entirely to make fun of someone who, while his work in political science is more or less normal, happens to also have a set of extraneous crazy beliefs about aliens and remote viewing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:31 PM on March 5, 2011


ROU_Xenophobe: Well, not usually. But I can think of at least one article that appeared in a top-shelf journal in my discipline that exists entirely to make fun of someone who, while his work in political science is more or less normal, happens to also have a set of extraneous crazy beliefs about aliens and remote viewing.

I wonder if there's a difference between the cultures involved in the Political Sciences and the Natural Sciences? Also, if you could provide a link, I would appreciate it - it sounds like it might be interesting and/or funny.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:46 PM on March 5, 2011


ts;dr: My favorite article was this one by Dan Răzvan Popoviciu: Terraforming Mars via the Bosch Reaction: Turning Gas Giants Into Stars
This paper proposes the use of the two gas giant planets (Jupiter and Saturn) as a hydrogen source, through the process of stellification, which would turn these bodies into small stars (also allowing the terraformation of their satellites)...
The guy wasn't even decent enough to cite Arthur C. Clarke. But maybe that's part of the game...?
posted by cobra libre at 8:19 PM on March 5, 2011


I'm still giving this piece a chance. I want to see some peers reviewing it and giving their professional opinion. Internetters who talk about site layout aren't really part of the scientific process.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:28 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wait - what happened with the arsenic-based life thing? Last I heard was the evidence from Mono Lake that bacteria from there had the ability to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in ways we wouldn't have expected before. Did that turn out the be false?

As I understand it, there is healthy skepticism in the science community about Dr. Wolfe-Simon's results and conclusions. Work is underway now to confirm (or not). Science moves slowly but deliberately.

Sadly, a future headline debunking the arsenic story will likely get buried in the news. Happens every day.
posted by intermod at 9:03 PM on March 5, 2011


The Wikipedia take on the arsenic criticism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GFAJ-1#Criticism
posted by intermod at 9:05 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think the fact that they cite Rhawn Joseph as an authority without irony is damning enough without worrying about site layout.
posted by kmz at 9:08 PM on March 5, 2011


I wonder if there's a difference between the cultures involved in the Political Sciences and the Natural Sciences?

ISTR the editors taking well-deserved flak for it, so I don't think so. It's not an accepted thing. But even non-accepted things happen from time to time.

Also, if you could provide a link, I would appreciate it - it sounds like it might be interesting and/or funny.

"Probing Well Beyond The Bounds of Conventional Wisdom," Paul Abramson, AJPS 1997.

It's not funny when you remember that the journal runs a rejection rate well above 90%, and that publishing the pointless thing meant that (at best) someone's actual non-joke paper had to wait another quarter or two for publication.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:12 PM on March 5, 2011


They sure know how to manipulate the border attribute on tables. That's got to be worth something!
posted by blue_beetle at 9:16 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wait - what happened with the arsenic-based life thing? Last I heard was the evidence from Mono Lake that bacteria from there had the ability to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in ways we wouldn't have expected before. Did that turn out the be false?

Though they lived in an arsenic-rich environment, their DNA used normal phosphorous compounds. What the researchers did was take them out of their natural environment and put them in a lab environment which had all the phosphorous removed. The bacteria were able to continue living and reproducing without phosphorous by incorporating arsenic, but they grew at a much slower rate and were bloated in size with vacuoles. The part of the story that was bunk was "new arsenic-based life form found" which was what got most of the press interest.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:17 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's a good summary of the criticisms of the arsenic fiasco.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:23 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's plenty of real, interesting science to discuss. It is so unfair, when cranks pander to the public in this way. It should be discouraged.
posted by polymodus at 9:27 PM on March 5, 2011


NYTimes blog discusses it, says criticism and speculation will be published on the Journal of Cosmology website between March 7th & March 10.
posted by cashman at 10:12 PM on March 5, 2011


What color is it?

/Lovecraftian set-up.
posted by Artw at 11:00 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's the color of my god.

/Lovecraftian punch-line.
posted by cthuljew at 12:12 AM on March 6, 2011


All this is a perfect example of why i totally lost interest in science. Someone makes some "discovery", people say that within five to ten years things will be different, people point out how it's wrong, nothing has changed. When i was little, science was neat, it promised the future, new discoveries, etc, but now whenever i hear a scientist start to speak i'd rather just go do anything else. Probably doesn't help that all the people i know heavily into science are the most boring people, who make fun of every movie (even star wars) for not being scientifically accurate.
posted by usagizero at 12:47 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


usagizero - I agree science most certainly isn't for you. I think you want something more like video games. You're welcome.
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:01 AM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


NASA has nothing to do with this

How so? This bald statement is baldly in contradiction with all the news reports and the affiliation line of the paper. He's an astrobiologist at NASA, so unless his non-work hobby is separately line of astrobiology research on privately collected meteors, it seems highly related to NASA.

NASA also has a history of hyping weak astrobiology and deceptively portraying it to the press. This seems to be the same sort of stuff as bad official press announcements that NASA has made in the past.

It's a serious question: why is NASA frittering away their hard-won scientific credibility when it comes to astrobiology?
posted by Llama-Lime at 1:48 AM on March 6, 2011


From Lana Tao's letter:
Because JOC's editorial policy was to publish all peer reviewed science-based theory, including articles which directly challenged the "sacred cows" of "conventional wisdom", its success posed a direct threat to the entire scientific establishment and the "gate-keepers" who wish to protect easily disproved myths and crush dissenting views. Suddenly, here was this upstart, highly successful scientific journal, with a prestigious editorial board, which was directly challenging the status quo and their control over science.
WAKE UP SHEEPLE
posted by en forme de poire at 1:49 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


How did Fox News miss the illegal bacterial immigrant angle inherent in this story?

The fence needs to be higher! High enough to keep out meteors!
posted by srboisvert at 2:29 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I knew it wasn't real. You don't read about space aliens in the Bible, do you?

Praise Jesus.
posted by dougrayrankin at 2:41 AM on March 6, 2011


A critique of the research
posted by edd at 5:56 AM on March 6, 2011


Robin Hanson comments. O nabobs of science, you are all status-seeking monkeys without the guts to put your money where your mouth is and bet that you are right and Hoover is wrong.
posted by topynate at 8:07 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


An interesting fact I learned from the paper was that the older meteorites were noted to smell like hay and tar when dissolved, by 19th century chemists who had little else to measure with and few theories to support their notions. As noted in topynate's link above, panspermia is gaining support in the field. To dismiss this research because the journal is ugly or failing, or using new online techniques for peer review, or has a bias towards panspermia, is just obverse evidence of a lack of a debunking. The typical denial of the claims here have little to do with what is actually claimed, and more to do with how it is presented. It's a herd mentality by those who oddly consider themselves to be married to another view that has never confirmed.

Thankfully, I was primed for this evidence after just having watched an effort to confirm abiogenesis on a documentary last week. The researchers hypothesized that RNA would reassemble in volcanic hot springs using the latest analyzing tools, and as noted, all other attempts to demonstrate abiogenesis for life on earth have failed, along with theirs. Panspermia becomes more plausible after each failed attempt. If this research bears out, then a rock in the hand with life found in it has better explanatory power than fifty years of failed attempts to confirm abiogenesis.
posted by Brian B. at 8:59 AM on March 6, 2011


usagizero: "All this is a perfect example of why i totally lost interest in science. Someone makes some "discovery", [...]nothing has changed.

Yes, nothing has changed in the past 30 years, huh? Real science isn't the stuff that grabls headlines. The guys doing wild-eyed press releases are making wild claims, usually, which require extraordinary evidence.


When i was little, science was neat, it promised the future, new discoveries, etc, but now whenever i hear a scientist start to speak i'd rather just go do anything else. Probably doesn't help that all the people i know heavily into science are the most boring people, who make fun of every movie (even star wars) for not being scientifically accurate"

I'm sorry we don't live up to your exciting standards. You're just too cool for us science-ey people.
posted by notsnot at 9:31 AM on March 6, 2011


Brian B.: fifty years of failed attempts to confirm abiogenesis
Does this even mean anything?
posted by nowonmai at 9:45 AM on March 6, 2011


Brian B.: fifty years of failed attempts to confirm abiogenesis
Does this even mean anything?


Fifty was conservative, more like a hundred years.
posted by Brian B. at 9:49 AM on March 6, 2011


They laughed at Einstein, they laughed at Cantor, but they also laughed at David Icke and Steorn.

I want to see some peers reviewing it and giving their professional opinion.

1 2

How so? This bald statement is baldly in contradiction with all the news reports and the affiliation line of the paper. He's an astrobiologist at NASA, so unless his non-work hobby is separately line of astrobiology research on privately collected meteors, it seems highly related to NASA.

Did you see the journal's signoff letter? Half of which is slagging off NASA? Unless you're saying it's some big false flag conspiracy operation, I'm pretty sure NASA (as an organization) didn't have anything to do with this paper.

Robin Hanson comments. O nabobs of science, you are all status-seeking monkeys without the guts to put your money where your mouth is and bet that you are right and Hoover is wrong.

I can't even tell if you're being sarcastic or not. Does anybody take this Robin Hanson guy seriously? Financial betting as part of the scientific method? WTF?

Fifty was conservative, more like a hundred years.

I take it you don't believe in gravity either? Cause we still can't explain it several hundred years after Newton. TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!
posted by kmz at 9:58 AM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I take it you don't believe in gravity either? Cause we still can't explain it several hundred years after Newton. TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!

The phrase "I take it you don't believe in..." is directly associated with about everything I consciously steer clear of.
posted by Brian B. at 10:27 AM on March 6, 2011


All this is a perfect example of why i totally lost interest in science. Someone makes some "discovery", people say that within five to ten years things will be different, people point out how it's wrong, nothing has changed. When i was little, science was neat, it promised the future, new discoveries, etc, but now whenever i hear a scientist start to speak i'd rather just go do anything else. Probably doesn't help that all the people i know heavily into science are the most boring people, who make fun of every movie (even star wars) for not being scientifically accurate.

I'm really, genuinely, sorry that this has been your experience. It means that science journalism (and us scientists, too) are completely failing to get across to the public why we get up every morning and go to work for basically no money. Absolutely wonderfully fascinating discoveries are being made every day, but they're in really specific subfields and only add up to a game-changer over a long period of time. As people have said, only the extraordinary claims make big news, and that's the stuff that's most likely to be wrong.

If you ever feel like it, I'd suggest listening to RadioLab or reading The Disappearing Spoon, both of which succeed brilliantly at the thing which it sounds like your friends are failing at completely.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:57 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


this dr. hoover, he sucks?
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 11:07 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for responses to my question about the arsenic thing. At the time it came out, the published initial reports did say (down in the body of the article, not in the misleading headlines) that it was not "arsenic-based life form found", but rather "under imposed artificial conditions this phosphorus-based life form can substitute arsenic for phosphorus". Hadn't heard about the subsequent criticisms of that claim.

Brian B., I think you may be reading hostility to the idea of life coming here aboard a meteor into some of the comments above. One can think that idea is very plausible, but still think the study reported here is suspect. (Plus, even if one believes that life came here aboard a meteor, it still needs to have arisen somewhere else - so the problem of how it got started at all is just moved to an unknown environment, not solved.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:27 AM on March 6, 2011


Meta on this thread.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:36 AM on March 6, 2011


Those of you who are saying the quality of the journal has no bearing on the accuracy of this research are not completely wrong ... but you're not completely right, either.
posted by kyrademon at 11:39 AM on March 6, 2011


(Plus, even if one believes that life came here aboard a meteor, it still needs to have arisen somewhere else - so the problem of how it got started at all is just moved to an unknown environment, not solved.)

That's my argument, that it doesn't matter, but it allows for a wider range of possibilities. Why people think it matters for evolution is for them to explain, and some of them may not believe in evolution at all.
posted by Brian B. at 11:56 AM on March 6, 2011


This reminded me of some research I first came across in a work by Namco/Bandai et al.
posted by mikepop at 12:35 PM on March 6, 2011


PZ Myers' view on this.
Summary: "Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites? No, no, no. No no no no no no no no."
posted by williampratt at 2:25 PM on March 6, 2011


"To dismiss this research because the journal is ugly or failing, or using new online techniques for peer review, or has a bias towards panspermia, is just obverse evidence of a lack of a debunking."

You missed the bits where it acts unlike any other astronomy-based journal and publishes poppycock then?
posted by edd at 2:27 PM on March 6, 2011


Those of you who are saying the quality of the journal has no bearing on the accuracy of this research are not completely wrong ... but you're not completely right, either.

What was the point here?
posted by hal_c_on at 2:47 PM on March 6, 2011


You missed the bits where it acts unlike any other astronomy-based journal and publishes poppycock then?

So you admit you are dismissing the research before the fact then?
posted by Brian B. at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2011


If David Icke claimed to have proof of extra-terrestrial life, I would let some noted journals or institutions or the general scientific consensus appraise his accuracy before I dedicated myself to studying it. It's not my job to treat every known bullshit-artist with total naïveté.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:10 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


My point, hal_c_on (and Brian B., for that matter) was that --

It is indeed true that a not-totally-insane-sounding paper by what seems to be a perfectly good scientist with a proven research track record should not be dismissed without any examination simply because it was published in a completely deranged "journal" known for publishing nonsense and hurling insults at scientists who dare to disagree with it.

However, it is equally ridiculous to act as if Hoover's chosen publication vehicle has absolutely no bearing on whether people should be suspicious of this research, hesitant to accept it as fact, or even lean towards believing his conclusion are unlikely until such time, if ever, that it is independently confirmed to be accurate in other, more reliable venues.

Scientists almost invariably try to get their research published in the best, most respected journals available. There are a lot of reasons to do so, including the simple fact that a paper published in a good journal is known to have gone through a heavy vetting process for both accuracy and importance. This is, in fact, the exact reason why more credence is given to articles published in such journals than in ones like the Journal of Cosmology.

Hoover's results, if they are completely solid, could easily have been turned into a paper for a top-ranked journal such as Nature. Astrobiology is a huge deal these days, which gets a lot of attention.

If Hoover's results are interesting but a bit on the speculative side, there's no reason he couldn't have published in another excellent journal, such as ApJ.

Which leads to the question, why the hell would he have published instead in a piece of crap like the Journal of Cosmology? A journal with a history of putting out ridiculous crank science? A journal which garners no respect for its obviously shoddy vetting process?

By far the most likely reason is that Hoover actually *couldn't* have published in Nature or ApJ or any of the other 199 journals listed on Brian B.'s link, because his results *weren't* actually solid or interesting and would never have gotten past a real editor. Hence the legitimate suspicions of the work.

Now, there are, of course, other possible reasons for him to publish in JoC. Maybe he's so tenured and grant-laden up the wazoo that he doesn't give a damn about his reputation or whether anyone believes him or not. Maybe he got hoodwinked into believing JoC was a shiny new internet-type journal and didn't bother to read any past issues. Maybe he thought he was writing some kind of pop-sci piece for laymen about his ongoing research and the internet rag he wrote it for is treating it like a real paper and he hasn't come forward to say so because he's shy.

But, yeah, given the more likely scenarios, if someone has a paper published in a venue known for publishing garbage, I see no particular reason to give it the benefit of the doubt until I find out I have good reason to.
posted by kyrademon at 3:16 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


FWIW: NASA Astrobiology.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 3:23 PM on March 6, 2011


While we're at it, why are we criticizing the ideas on TimeCube just because the text is rambling and the site is ugly?

It could be totally legit. STOP THE AD HOMINEMS.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:25 PM on March 6, 2011


By far the most likely reason is that Hoover actually *couldn't* have published in Nature or ApJ or any of the other 199 journals listed on Brian B.'s link, because his results *weren't* actually solid or interesting and would never have gotten past a real editor. Hence the legitimate suspicions of the work.

Here's the list filtered for American journals on the topic. Which would you specifically suggest? The JoC is not old enough to be on the list. Also, the editor looks real to me, but you seem to dismiss him as well for some articles you disagree with. Your case seems rather subjective for a simple discovery that either is or isn't a fact. I suppose that you want it to be false.
posted by Brian B. at 4:08 PM on March 6, 2011


By far the most likely reason is that Hoover actually *couldn't* have published in Nature or ApJ or any of the other 199 journals listed on Brian B.'s link, because his results *weren't* actually solid or interesting and would never have gotten past a real editor.

I agree with the first part of this sentence, but not the reasoning. I don't think editors are capable of judging whether results are solid. That's one of the reasons we have the review process in the first place. But most editors are scientists, and I they would likely dismiss work claiming evidence of extra-terrestial life at crackpot right from the start.

So the paper, regardless of quality, was destined for a lower ranked journal with more open-minded reviewers. At least he still went went for peer-reviewed. And if you want proper scientific scrutiny, how's this?

This isn't my field, so I can't comment on the veracity of the paper. But I am looking forward to hearing the comments of those who can.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:25 PM on March 6, 2011


Brian B. --

I have no "want" whatsoever for this to be false. I'm baffled as to why you think that would have to be so. I'd be delighted if the paper turns out to be credible in spite of everything.

I suggested two journals he might have tried to submit to if he thought his results were sound -- Nature and ApJ (The Astrophysical Journal). Both are open to American submissions. If you want me to name an American one for some reason, maybe Icarus? All three are on the site you link to, although some are listed in different subejct categories than the one you chose (such as "space and planetary sciences" or "astronomy and astrophysics".)

"Also, the editor looks real to me, but you seem to dismiss him as well for some articles you disagree with."

Either you have not taken a close look at the back issues of this journal or you ... I don't know what the alternative would have to be. The articles I am referring to are not "articles I disagree with". They are nonsense.

kisch mokusch --

"... most editors are scientists, and I they would likely dismiss work claiming evidence of extra-terrestial life at crackpot right from the start."

What? Why? There's a tremendous amount of interest in astrobiology. Lots of scientists are looking for exactly this kind of thing, and the first scientist to come up with reasonable proof of it is going to get his or her papers in the best journals around and be toasted with champagne.

"So the paper, regardless of quality, was destined for a lower ranked journal with more open-minded reviewers."

JoC is not a "lower ranked journal". It's nuts. It publishes papers that say things like:

"The creationist theory of the Big Bang was proposed by a Catholic Priest and implies the existence of a creator ... To support the myth of the Big Bang, estimates of the age and size of the cosmos, including claims of an accelerating universe, are based on an Earth-centered universe with the Earth as the measure of all things, exactly as dictated by religious theology ... The universe is not expanding or accelerating. Distant galaxies are accelerating to their doom, their velocities and red shifts increasing and their illumination dimming as they orbit toward the event horizon of a universe-in-mass black hole on the outskirts of the observable Hubble length universe."

This is Time Cube level stuff. If it got past their "peer review" process, then their peer review process is meaningless.
posted by kyrademon at 4:58 PM on March 6, 2011


If you want me to name an American one for some reason, maybe Icarus?

It doesn't seem like a good fit by emphasizing the solar system as it does. Maybe the author knows best after all.
posted by Brian B. at 5:40 PM on March 6, 2011


That argument certainly convinces me!
posted by nowonmai at 5:59 PM on March 6, 2011


This is Time Cube level stuff. If it got past their "peer review" process, then their peer review process is meaningless.

Whose peers are to review? The article you quote from is found in Vol. 6 of the Journal of Cosmology, number 12. It follows another article that also questions the big bang theory (No. 11), and a response by a theologian follows. For those who wonder, the big bang theory was actually proposed by a Catholic priest and approved by the Pope in 1951, precisely because it implied a creator and/or is not falsifiable as an event. But no surprises there, it's all in Wikipedia, and it is currently the widely accepted theory. It seems to me that critics of this theory would need a place to publish in a volume dedicated to challenging such assumptions, as they apparently do. The journal's reason for existence, it seems, is for outside-the-norm criticism of the science concerning the cosmos. It also stands to reason that if people are viscerally disgusted with criticism of the big bang theory, then they might also be having a religious-type reaction of some sort, knowingly or not. Disclosure: I personally don't feel threatened by the big bang theory or direct criticism of it.
posted by Brian B. at 6:46 PM on March 6, 2011


the big bang theory was actually proposed by a Catholic priest and approved by the Pope in 1951, precisely because it implied a creator and/or is not falsifiable as an event

The Big Bang theory states that the universe is expanding from a point. It does not imply a creator. It is extremely falsifiable because we can observe the past actions of distant matter due to the limited speed of light.

I reject the idea that scientists will do anything to maintain the status quo. Self-interest scientists want to get on the ground floor of any new revolutionary discoveries. Any scientist who uses evidence and water-tight argument to overturn the status quo will eventually be heralded as a genius. It is not so impossible to get crazy counter-intuitive ideas accepted in science if they are based on hard data.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:09 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rosie Redfield's take on it: Is this claim of bacteria in a meteorite any better than the 1996 one?
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:43 PM on March 6, 2011


Brian B.: The journal's reason for existence, it seems, is for outside-the-norm criticism of the science concerning the cosmos.

The thing is, the regular astrophysics/cosmology journals are perfectly happy to publish outside-the-norm theories and research. It just has to be conducted rigorously and according to good scientific practices. There's no scientific mafia that prevents you from criticizing the Big Bang or promoting Panspermia, you just have to have decent evidence. The reason you don't often see papers on those in legitimate journals is that the Big Bang has a ton of supporting evidence and is difficult to convincingly attack, and Panspermia has very little supporting evidence. Still, you do see legitimate papers on those topics from time to time.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:10 PM on March 6, 2011


The thing is, the regular astrophysics/cosmology journals are perfectly happy to publish outside-the-norm theories and research. It just has to be conducted rigorously and according to good scientific practices.

I don't disagree with anything you wrote, but the theme, contrary to supply and demand, of something not being worthwhile because it isn't in the more prestigious journal maybe sometime next year is simply betting on a failure without seeing other possibilities. This information, if true, is urgent in the real world, and working a time-table on a singular discovery often goes beyond the slow moving nuts and bolts of measuring things and into the realm of production, as in the case of industrial patents, or publishing, as in the case of potential major discoveries like this one.
posted by Brian B. at 8:37 PM on March 6, 2011


usagizero's misplaced complaint reminds me of this great episode of PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper):

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174
posted by intermod at 8:46 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


This information, if true, is urgent in the real world, and working a time-table on a singular discovery often goes beyond the slow moving nuts and bolts of measuring things and into the realm of production,

Oh lordy. So now this "research" is too important to go through legitimate channels!

Tell me, how exactly is this "urgent in the real world"?
posted by kmz at 8:56 PM on March 6, 2011


This is Time Cube level stuff. If it got past their "peer review" process, then their peer review process is meaningless.

I'm not setting out to defend JoC (I've never read it). I was just pointing out that it's likely Hoover couldn't get it past the editors of more highly-ranked journals, and that the work likely didn't get a chance to be properly reviewed. I certainly don't believe that it has been properly reviewed, based on what else can get through. But it is about to get a proper vetting, we'll get to find out what's wrong with it soon enough.

Part of the issue is that this guy doesn't seem to be a crackpot. On the contrary, he's apparently a pretty well-respected guy and the argument put forth isn't off-the-deep-end-looney. So it's all a bit strange that it has ended up in where it is. I would be interested to know if he tried for the major journals, and what their responses (if any) were. It is one thing to send it to 20 different places and get stuck in an undesirable journal, quite another to aim straight for the bottom.
posted by kisch mokusch at 9:02 PM on March 6, 2011


Brian B.: This information, if true, is urgent in the real world, and working a time-table on a singular discovery often goes beyond the slow moving nuts and bolts of measuring things and into the realm of production, as in the case of industrial patents, or publishing, as in the case of potential major discoveries like this one.

The idea of 'Hey, we need to publish our preliminary data! It's too important for verification!' has bitten the scientific field in the ass more times than I can count. The truth is, a lot of evidence is misleading, and statistical laws alone provide a constant background noise of things that could be incredibly important discoveries, but aren't. You simply cannot treat them as true without strong evidence; look at cold fusion, for example. Every time it is done the entire field loses credibility.

Furthermore, the very worst times to do it are when the information is urgent in the real world. One of the fields most affected by this is medical science; lives are at stake and evidence is often statistical in nature and obscure or conflicting. When people have taken studies without sufficient proof and just run with them, dangerous, damaging, or ineffective treatments have been the result. Real people have been hurt and killed.

No, there are historical reasons that rigorous treatment of the data, independent verification, and peer review are done in the sciences. The alternative has been tried, and it was ugly.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:12 PM on March 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


On the contrary, he's apparently a pretty well-respected guy and the argument put forth isn't off-the-deep-end-looney. So it's all a bit strange that it has ended up in where it is.


Actually, judging from the reception here, I can see why an editor would shun it. The concept is too easy to understand. But a living cell from space? It has religious tension all over it. People who pretend to be intellectually normal and functional can suddenly break out in denial and confusion, not realizing that it's barely an inch away from the last theory on evolution.
posted by Brian B. at 10:08 PM on March 6, 2011


So you admit you are dismissing the research before the fact then?
I've already stated otherwise.
I'm not dismissing research because I don't like what it suggests or because of where it is published. I'm simply refusing to accept it based on where it is published.
Also, again what kyrademon said.
posted by edd at 10:50 PM on March 6, 2011


I'm not dismissing research because I don't like what it suggests or because of where it is published. I'm simply refusing to accept it based on where it is published.
Also, again what kyrademon said.


Well the funny thing is, it ISN'T PUBLISHED YET!

Its been put on the website, and given to all sorts of scientists so they can critique the research BEFORE IT IS PUBLISHED!
posted by hal_c_on at 11:27 PM on March 6, 2011


Fine, based on which website it's put on. There's also perfectly viable alternative ways of making a preprint available for review that wouldn't raise concerns like this has.
posted by edd at 11:37 PM on March 6, 2011


Sorry edd, but your assessment isn't part of the scientific method. You actually have to READ the stuff, not just talk about the paper its written on.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:58 PM on March 6, 2011


hal_c_on: Sorry edd, but your assessment isn't part of the scientific method. You actually have to READ the stuff, not just talk about the paper its written on.

People have limited time and can't read everything, and there are a lot of cranks putting out irrelevant stuff in the sciences all the time. If the only place willing to publish a given article is a crank website attempting to be a journal, you can probably avoid wasting your time. Or, at the very least, the press should wait to get excited about it until it's been looked over a bit first.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:05 AM on March 7, 2011


Well the funny thing is, it ISN'T PUBLISHED YET!

Its been put on the website, and given to all sorts of scientists so they can critique the research BEFORE IT IS PUBLISHED!


WTF? It's an online journal. Putting it on the website is publishing it. If they really wanted to do it "right", they would have emailed the paper to those 100 scientists before publishing it on the site.

You actually have to READ the stuff, not just talk about the paper its written on.

How have you missed the multiple links to real scientists who have read the paper and have critiqued it?
posted by kmz at 12:33 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry edd, but your assessment isn't part of the scientific method. You actually have to READ the stuff, not just talk about the paper its written on.
I don't think you've fully thought about what I'm saying. If anything I'm saying someone competent should read it because the place it's been released gives it no extra authority, which it sounds like you should be agreeing with.
posted by edd at 1:17 AM on March 7, 2011


Brian B., I was not attempting to imply that the statement "Georges Lemaître was a Catholic priest" was factually incorrect.

And I continue to be perplexed as to why you think the points raised about the legitimacy of the JoC's peer-review process must stem from some deep-seated opposition to Dr. Richard Hoover's theories. It's like being told that if I distrust a weather report because it appeared on the Psychic News Network, I must have some kind of rabid hatred of the notion that tomorrow will be sunny.
posted by kyrademon at 1:38 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


This information, if true, is urgent in the real world, and working a time-table on a singular discovery often goes beyond the slow moving nuts and bolts of measuring things and into the realm of production, as in the case of industrial patents, or publishing, as in the case of potential major discoveries like this one.

Hoover has made extremely similar claims before over the past ten years or so; I don't see why this particular episode is so urgent.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:17 AM on March 7, 2011


And I continue to be perplexed as to why you think the points raised about the legitimacy of the JoC's peer-review process must stem from some deep-seated opposition to Dr. Richard Hoover's theories.

Not necessarily to you. Just look at the comments from others. Paraphrasing: We don't need this journal...I don't see the rush...this should be discouraged...Don't forget the 'shit' tag. It's just caustic, and for what? Abiogenesis? Absolutely not. It's a deal breaker for creationism, and if you think people here aren't concerned, you should consider the number of people who play both sides against each other for wider acceptance.
posted by Brian B. at 7:11 AM on March 7, 2011


Scientists Skeptical that meteorite shows alien life

"There has been no one in the scientific community, certainly no one in the meteorite analysis community, that has supported these conclusions," NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Carl Pilcher told The Associated Press Monday. "The simplest explanation for Mr. Hoover's measurements is that he's measuring microbes from Earth. They're contamination."

...

On Monday, NASA issued a statement by Paul Hertz, chief scientist in the science division, questioning the validity of claims that have not gone through peer review. NASA said Hoover failed to advise the agency he had submitted the paper to the Journal of Cosmology after it failed to get published in a more established peer-reviewed journal.

"NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts," Hertz said in the statement. "This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission."
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:36 PM on March 7, 2011


NASA heads are just pawns of the Creationist conspiracy.
posted by kmz at 2:39 PM on March 7, 2011


NASA heads are just pawns of the Creationist conspiracy.

They're funded by the same people who want to kill NPR and Planned Parenthood, but are much more vulnerable because those two have outside donors.
posted by Brian B. at 4:11 PM on March 7, 2011


It just goes to show you never can be too careful.
posted by Artw at 4:18 PM on March 7, 2011


Wait.

Brian B., are you seriously suggesting that the NASA Astrobiology Institute -- the branch of NASA whose mission statement includes "research into the origin, early evolution, and diversity of life" and considers one of its three fundamental research questions to be "How does life begin and evolve?" --

The branch that offers seminars such as "Potential Origin of Early Functional Proteins", "A Changing View of Viruses in the Evolution and Ecology of Life", and, I must point out, "L-Amino Acid Excesses in Meteorites and the Implications for the Origin of Homochirality on Earth" --

Are you saying that you think *this group* is so terrified of losing funding if they challenge the notion of Creationism that they are conspiring to quash any research that might hint at extraterrestrial microbes?

... And that Institute Director Carl Pilcher, who got into astrobiology in the first place, in part, because he was excited about possible evidence of biological activity in the Martian meteorite ALH 84001, is a tool of this Creationist conspiracy?

... And that the International Journal of Astrobiology, which has published papers including "Recognizing Life in the Solar System: guidance from meteoritic organic matter", "The astrobiological case for our cosmic ancestry", "Liquid water and organics in comets: implications for astrobiology" --

That *this* journal was somehow pressured to reject Dr. Hoover's paper because they are afraid of being associated with the idea of an extraterrestrial origin of life? And that this fear stems from an unwillingness to challenge Creationism?

... That you think, in short, that these things are MORE LIKELY than the possibility that Dr. Hoover wrote a crap paper that could only get published in a fake journal?

Because, it sure sounds like that's what you're saying.
posted by kyrademon at 5:54 PM on March 7, 2011


Are you saying that you think *this group* is so terrified of losing funding if they challenge the notion of Creationism that they are conspiring to quash any research that might hint at extraterrestrial microbes?

In this political climate, those mission statements spell doom. Sorry I was the first to break it to you.
posted by Brian B. at 6:18 PM on March 7, 2011


So that was, in fact, pretty much what you were saying, then? Oh.

Well, I suppose that explains why I was continually baffled trying to figure out your point of view.

I probably should have figured out where you were coming from more quickly -- in retrospect, the clues were pretty much all there in what you've been saying.

But, I'm not sure there's much point from my end, at least, to continuing to have a discussion with you on this subject past this point, so I'll just note that I believe you are mistaken in your interpretation of what has gone on here, and leave it at that.

It sounds like, at least, we would be in agreement that the more pro-science, pro-research, and pro-analysis the political climate is, the better, so hey, there's that.
posted by kyrademon at 6:57 PM on March 7, 2011


So that was, in fact, pretty much what you were saying, then? Oh.

No, I'm saying that no matter how valid the research is, people who write the memos and submit the budgets will downplay it, The very idea that Hoover didn't trust his superiors is politically telling to me; but to you, it's evidence of some sort of bad science. We're from different perspectives.
posted by Brian B. at 7:02 PM on March 7, 2011


My previous comment is still my response. Going to sleep now.

'Night!
posted by kyrademon at 7:23 PM on March 7, 2011


NASA Science Mission Directorate states Richard Hoover has no PhD.

Bugs from Space? Forget it.

Meteoriticist Edward Anders, retired from the University of Chicago in Illinois, recalls an earlier episode of intriguingly lifelike objects in a meteorite. In the early 1960s, the late chemist Bartholomew Nagy claimed to have found fossil organisms in a meteorite. Anders and he commenced an exchange in the pages of Nature and Science. It ended with general agreement in the meteoritical community that Anders and others could show that the most intriguing objects were pollen grains that had infiltrated the meteorite after it had been found and were blown up into fascinating shapes by Nagy's analytical pretreatment.

Anders can't say what Hoover's objects are, but he sees no reason to think they are biological. The filaments are too simple to even hint at a biological origin, Anders e-mails from his home in Burlingame, California. "Despite [Hoover's] generous sprinkling of fancy names, these structures are in a morphological no man's land," Anders says. Their shapes could easily have been generated by nonliving chemical reactions, he says.

The latest brouhaha over curious shapes in meteorites will be short-lived if reactions here are any indication. Rather than taking a look themselves, researchers have other things in mind. One leading scientist half-jokingly suggested hanging Hoover in effigy in the conference center lobby.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:47 PM on March 7, 2011


Meteoriticist Edward Anders, retired from the University of Chicago in Illinois, recalls an earlier episode of intriguingly lifelike objects in a meteorite. In the early 1960s, the late chemist Bartholomew Nagy claimed to have found fossil organisms in a meteorite. Anders and he commenced an exchange in the pages of Nature and Science. It ended with general agreement in the meteoritical community that Anders and others could show that the most intriguing objects were pollen grains that had infiltrated the meteorite after it had been found and were blown up into fascinating shapes by Nagy's analytical pretreatment.

This episode is mentioned by Hoover in the original link:

Claus and Nagy (1961) studied the Ivuna and the Orgueil CI1 meteorites and found a large number of forms that they originally interpreted as indigenous microfossils. After intense criticism, they subsequently designated them as “organized elements” so as to not make any judgement as to their biogenicity. Since they used standard palynological methods to dissolve the rock matrix in acids for extracting the insoluble kerogen-like bodies, any unseen pollen contaminants on the exterior surfaces of the meteorite would remain intact and be concentrated in the acid-resistant residue they analyzed. They failed to recognize a pollen grain and erroneously included an image of it in their original paper. This resulted in their work being discredited and it is still widely believed that all of the the “organized elements” they described were either abiotic mineral grains or pollen. Subsequent work by Rossignol-Strick and Barghoorn (1971) revealed that the “organized elements” type microstructures were in fact not pollen grains and were indigenous to the meteorites, but their forms are too simple to make any decision regarding whether they are abiotic or biogenic in origin.
posted by Brian B. at 8:01 PM on March 7, 2011


21 comments so far.

Most seem cautiously favorable so far, though I haven't seen the kind that want to hang him in effigy yet. Here's a quote which curiously adds more information to the story:

In my opinion, Dr. Hoover was overly cautious in referring to the observed subjects as "complex filaments." Any experienced microbiologist can see these are fragments of cyanobacterial mats. In nature cyanobacterial mat represents a complex system, where symbiotic relations between algae (usually dominated by Cyanobacteria) and bacteria create tissue-like formations. Members of such a mat coexist on base of closely depended upon physiological functions, and the location of each participant is determined by red-ox potential, links in trophic chain, etc. Modern studied types of Cyanobacterial mats form the stromatolite structures that according to the paleontological records represent lithified remnants of predominant life forms on Early Earth (Precambrian). At least three to six months would be required to form such a mat, and the complexity of such structures is typically much higher than that associated with ordinary biofilm of contamination, which is usually dominated by monoculture of a substrate surface colonizer. In other words, Dr. Hoover discovered evidence of established bacterial colonies.

Another important fact: The evidence that C/N and C/S ratios in investigated filaments were similar to ancient fossilized bio-materials and kerogens but very different from biological samples of living organisms proves that studied samples did not contain any modern bio-contamination.

I would like to add several words about Taxonomy and Systematics of microorganisms. At present, Cyanobacteria are the subject for both botanical and bacteriological nomenclature. Bacteriological taxonomy uses phenotypic description and data of 16S rRNA sequence analysis. In botanical Systematics, the morphological description plays a central role in the determination of appropriate taxa for studied species. That is why algologists as well as paleontologists classify their samples exclusively based on observations, and why specialists of these fields can easily identify the species and the genus of well preserved fossils just by looking at images of cells. It is precisely for this reason that Dr. Hoover dedicated his time to a scrupulous description of found fossils. However, he was also aided following numerous consultations at the Institutes of Microbiology, Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, and Paleontology at Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Pasteur, Geological Institute at Royal Society of Belgium, etc.. It was the efforts of hundreds of scientists who made this work possible. As one of the results of this collaborative work, was the publication of the first atlas for astrobiology and paleontology with the best images of phosphorites in microfossils.

posted by Brian B. at 9:11 PM on March 7, 2011


Sorry edd, but your assessment isn't part of the scientific method. You actually have to READ the stuff, not just talk about the paper its written on.

Actually, considering the source is a pretty scientific thing to do. If you have a journal that publishes 100 articles, 99 of which are nonsense, then you can calculate the probability P(nonsense) = 0.99, or 99%. Your expectation for whether a new article is nonsense, absent any other information, is then also 99%.

Now of course we need to take into account the evidence presented in the paper itself. If we can evaluate its quality, then we can use Bayes' rule as follows to calculate the updated probability that the paper is nonsense:

P(nonsense|evidence) = P(evidence|nonsense)P(nonsense)/[P(evidence|nonsense)P(nonsense) + P(evidence|!nonsense)P(real)]

P(evidence|nonsense) is just a p-value: the probability of seeing an equally good result under the null hypothesis. P(nonsense) is our prior from earlier. We may not necessarily know P(evidence|real), but let's give our hypothetical authors the benefit of the doubt and let it equal 1.00 (equivalent to assuming the test performed is perfectly sensitive and would never miss a true case).

Now let's say the evidence presented has a p-value of 0.05, the usual minimum for "significance." This means P(nonsense|evidence) = (0.05)(.99)/[(0.05 * 0.99) + (1 * 0.01)]. But actually this only evaluates to 0.83 -- so the probability that the article is nonsense is still at best 83%! If we assume the test isn't perfectly sensitive, then the situation gets even worse.

So okay, this is a toy example - most journals don't have a P(nonsense) of 0.99, comments from the peanut gallery notwithstanding. But my point remains: prior probabilities matter and it is absolutely not unscientific to take them into consideration.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:11 PM on March 7, 2011


Followup Thoughts on the Meteorite Fossils Claim

Showing that the bug that you have actually is NOT a contaminant organism that made its way into a meteorite is a practically unsolvable problem. If you turn up an organism whose chemistry, way of coding information, or something else (besides morphology) indicates that it is significantly (and I MEAN significantly) different from anything that has ever been seen on Earth, THEN you might have a chance of proving this. Pictures of tube shaped structures don’t do it.

...

Rocco Mancinelli at Bay Area Environmental Research Institute said:

As a microbiologist who has looked at thousands of microbes through a microscope, and done some of my own electron microscopy, I see no convincing evidence that these particles are of biological origin.

posted by Comrade_robot at 6:45 AM on March 8, 2011


Interesting read about past suppression of cosmic ancestry theories:

SM: Did you have any trouble getting published?

CW: Up to a point in time, we did not. As long as we said the building blocks of Life came from space and didn't refer to Life itself coming from space, it was OK. There was a degree of opposition but we managed to get our papers published.

posted by Brian B. at 7:09 AM on March 8, 2011


Is that site supposed to convince us this is less timecubey?

Look, I don't have a problem with panspermia as a theory in general, but all these links (Journal of Cosmology, perceptions.co.uk) are not helping.

21 comments so far.

OK, let's look at these hand-picked comments, shall we?

1. Rhawn Joseph. Known crankpot and intimately associated with the Journal of Cosmology. Nothing on the science of Hoover's paper.

2. Hey, an actual measured positive comment on Hoover's paper.

3. Spends very little time talking about actual scientific content and more about the surrounding issues. Also seems to imply perpetual motion has the same scientific status as evolution and climate change. Hey, maybe this whole thing does have something to do with Steorn after all!

4. Doesn't mention science at all.

5. Talks mostly about weaknesses in the paper, instead of the "extraordinary evidence" that they see. MA Line is also a frequent ontributor to Journal of Cosmology.

6. Barely talks about the science in the paper. Also frequent contributor to the journal.

7. Doesn't talk about the paper at all. Not a scientist.

8. Says Hoover's finding are obvious and then goes on from there to other conclusions unrelated to the science in the paper.

9. Heavy doubts about the paper.

10. Posits a scenario where the paper's conclusion could work. But not exactly evidence that it's true.

11. There is no 11.

12. Frequent Hoover collaborator.

13. Talks about positives and negatives in the paper.

14. Says article doesn't prove its conclusions.

15. There is no 15.

16. Same as 14.

17. Doesn't talk about the science of the paper at all.

18. Again doesn't talk about the science of the paper. Also seems to think bizarrely that evolutionary theory is incompatible with extraterrestrial life.

19. Doesn't talk about the science in the paper. Another frequent contributor to the journal.

19 (part deux). Like 10, posits a scenario that explains how Hoover's conclusions could be correct. But that's not evidence Hoover is correct.

19 (yet again). Another fluff piece with nothing on the paper.

So, out of 19 (missing 11 and 15, tripled 19) comments, maybe 1 or 2 are legitimate comments positive towards the science of the paper. Awesome! Compare this to scientists not picked by the Journal of Cosmology like PZ Myers, Rosie Redfield, and Penny Boston who all strongly refute the claims. Not to mention the negative ones even in JoC's list. But I guess they're all paid NASA stooges or something.

Also, counting is apparently not the strong suit of anybody at this "journal".

Anyway, I've spent too much time on this bullshit already. Y'all have fun now.
posted by kmz at 8:53 AM on March 8, 2011


Also I was surprised to see Tipler in the list at 17. He's not known for microbiology or meteorites, put it that way.
posted by edd at 9:02 AM on March 8, 2011


So, this thread is getting pretty inactive, but now that there’s been a little time, a clearer picture of what probably happened has emerged. NASA has issued a statement, the editor of the International Journal of Astrobiology has made a statement, and a number of independent scientists have commented outside the Journal of Cosmology. I’ve also talked with a few astronomers about some of the personalities involved, and their history and reputation.

I thought it might be nice to give a summing up post of what seems, to me at least, to have been going on.

So, there exists s a small group of astronomers who have always been attached to a particular set of hypotheses. Some of these astronomers were quite prominent in their day. Fred Hoyle, now deceased, was the leader and most famous member of the group. Almost as well known was Chandra Wickramasinghe, his frequent collaborator. They did a lot of good science, but as time went on they and their supporters became known more and more for the theories they were holding on to despite the fact that those theories were seeming less and less likely.

First, they were die-hard opponents of the Big Bang, preferring the Steady State theory, which holds that the Universe had no “starting point”. Even just a few decades ago, that was a minority view but not a crank view. But then the astronomical community went out and did the actual measurements, with COBE and then WMAP, and pretty much showed that the Steady State theory was incorrect. The Big Bang was what the data were showing.

But a few members of this group wouldn’t let it go. Some of them opposed the Big Bang theory even after doing so was ignoring the facts. And these once-prominent scientists, including Chandra Wickramasinghe, started to seem crazier and crazier about it.

Another pet theory of theirs was Panspermia – roughly, the idea that life on earth was “seeded” from outer space. There’s no evidence against this hypothesis ... there’s just no real evidence for it. And at the same time a few of them closed ranks against the Big Bang against the evidence, they began seeing evidence for Panspermia when none was there.

And as the stuff they wanted to say got crazier and crazier, and rejected from more and more real journals, they began to mutter darkly about conspiracies. NASA hiding evidence. Some kind of religious cabal that thought Panspermia and Steady State threatened Creationism, and would stop at nothing to keep it out of journals. They eventually decided to make their own “journal” – the Journal of Cosmology. It seems to have been put together by a group of older scientists turned cranks and their acolytes, a few people who were simply crazy, and perhaps some scientists who got fooled into thinking it was something legitimate and new. It aped the form of real scientific journals, claiming peer review and scientific legitimacy. But the claims were fake. They published nonsense. By then, the ones left in the movement had pretty much gone nuts, at least about this.

Which brings us to Richard Hoover (not actually Dr. Richard Hoover – I don’t bring this up in an attempt to discredit him, since a doctorate is not necessary for good science, but to point out the Journal of Cosmology kind of show how careless or deliberately incorrect they are, one or the other, by calling him one). I don’t know if Hoover was always a member of this group. He worked for decades at NASA as a perfectly good solar physicist, a field which has nothing to do with astrobiology. But apparently, not too many years ago, he decided that he would become an astrobiologist. And either before or after he did so, he got mixed up with the crowd I mentioned before, the ones who were rapidly becoming complete cranks.

He didn’t really have the background to be an astrobiologist, and the analyses of his current work suggest that he didn’t acquire it. There were problems with his methods (such as equipment sterilization), his assumptions (such as how contamination works), and his conclusions (assuming if things resembled fossilized bacteria in some ways there was a strong case that this is what they were.)

He submitted his paper to the International Journal of Astrobiology. A perfectly fine journal, although by no means the highest, hardest level of journal to get into. Speculative stuff can get in, and they publish well-researched panspermia-related stuff not infrequently.

His paper, according to the editor of that journal, was peer-reviewed and rejected. It wasn’t good enough to get in.

But a friend of his – someone among the cranks – suggested he try the Journal of Cosmology. So he did, without going through the proper procedures at NASA to do so. If he had, frankly, they probably wouldn't have let him submit to what was, in fact, a fake journal.

The JoC put up the paper, barely vetting it – “pre-publication”, they said. And a media firestorm promptly ensued at the announcement that a paper in a scientific journal had found evidence of alien life. Of course, the journal wasn’t scientific. And the media firestorm was almost certainly deliberate – the JoC was going out of business, and they’ve as much as admitted they wanted a big publicity stunt to help find a buyer.

Negative reviews from other scientists began popping up almost immediately. It was immediately apparent that the JoC was bizarre and cranky. But scientists were hesitant to immediately critique something they hadn’t had time to study fully, and very rightly equivocated.

Meanwhile, the JoC pulled another stunt. If there was doubt, they would ask 100 scientists to publically peer-review it! How’s that for legitimacy! Of course, the timescale they gave for responses was ludicrous, so it’s not a big surprise that a large part of the responders were their own crazy fellows, who already had their responses in mind. Possibly they were the only ones really asked.

A few days passed, though, and real scientists got together their responses. They looked at the paper and found it was riddled with problems. And many of them were furious. Astrobiology is a relatively new science, struggling to make a case, and attracts – guess what? – a lot of crazies who try to claim they are scientists. In 1996, the Astrobiology community had gotten egg on their faces for a similar, much more legitimate and well-researched claim about a Martian meteorite, a claim that also provoked a huge media response and then gradually, as more research came in, proved to be most likely false. This was even worse. This was a nut being taken seriously and making everyone look crazy by association. NASA was embarrassed. They promptly tried to explain that they had nothing to do with this.

But this, of course, has only fed those on the conspiracy theory side of things. Of course NASA would deny this evidence! Of course there are scientists denying the evidence! It won’t get in any prestigious journal because the prestigious journals are all run by THEM.

Of course, nothing is likely to convince them otherwise, at this point.
posted by kyrademon at 4:07 PM on March 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


Maybe I missed them, but I don't see all the detailed negative responses one would expect by the negative reactions.

Apparently two different interpretations are emerging. There seems to be a general suspicion of contamination, echoing a wider belief that the structures are real; and there seems to be a general suspicion that nothing is there at all, that the structures aren't related to life. What is very prominent in all criticism seems to be personally motivated attacks on the Journal of Cosmology, indicating either a bluff by way weak argument, or indicating a separate target other than the research.

PZ Myers began his now famous blog post with this: "Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites? No.

No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.

No, no.

No.

Fox News broke the story, which ought to make one immediately suspicious — it's not an organization noted for scientific acumen."



Then Fox News quotes him the next day calling it garbage. That's just...ironic. (Note that PZ's use of emphatic noes is 15, so he's obviously using code, unless he somehow, neurotically perhaps, doesn't realize what denial sounds like). Of course, PZ probably has his own good theories about evolution that don't include this one, he being a "confrontationalist" according to Wikipedia.

Then there's Rosie, fresh off her fame as the would-be debunk-er of the NASA-funded arsenic claims, and flush with blog hits no doubt. What did Rosie say? She wondered about sterilization, storage and handling procedures. Then she suddenly refers to the evidence of life as "pathetic." But she made such a good point for potential contamination! Having it all is just so...pathetic.

It seems to me that there's good reason to hold our tongues when the two main interpretations for dismissing this research are mutually exclusive ideas, with the commentary loaded with animosity towards the messenger. Not only do these reasons not add up, but they cancel each other out.
posted by Brian B. at 8:59 PM on March 8, 2011


Note that PZ's use of emphatic noes is 15, so he's obviously using code

what

Not only do these reasons not add up, but they cancel each other out.

Hypothesis: A. And A => B. Therefore B.
Refutation: Most likely, ^A. Even if A, A => B or C, and B != C.

So B is not shown. (Nor is ^B, but absence of refutation isn't evidence for. Otherwise I claim there is a teacup made of Einsteinium in the middle of Beta Centauri, inscribed with the text "Rincewind was here".)
posted by kmz at 10:19 PM on March 8, 2011


kmz, what's A, B and C? I get the other notation.
posted by Brian B. at 10:52 PM on March 8, 2011


PZ's repeated noes seems pretty clear to me that it's the result of exasperation at being exposed to repeated misleading reporting of the nature of this research.

It seems to me that there's good reason to hold our tongues when the two main interpretations for dismissing this research are mutually exclusive ideas
To suggest two alternatives to the proposed hypothesis means that you think there are at least three possibilities, and in this case of the three possibilities - contamination, non-biological origin, and extra-terrestrial life, the first two are a priori much more likely, and the evidence for the latter needs to be made much more strong before it is a convincing result. That contamination and non-biologicial origin of the structures are mutually exclusive does not somehow make those two cancel out and make extra-terrestrial life more likely.

with the commentary loaded with animosity towards the messenger
There's legitimate reason to take a careful look at the messenger, when peer-review is an important part of how science is done. There's en forme de poire's description of the sort of reasoning I certainly make when considering where research has appeared. And there's reason to be concerned and indeed angry that potentially important research has hit the wider media without this having happened yet - something that was a bit of a disaster with cold fusion as well. It's even worse when it turns out the research has already outright failed peer review (not just started the process and failed to complete it) 3 or 4 years ago, much worse when it is described as being published in a peer-reviewed journal when it isn't peer-reviewed by them and arguably not published at all (and the link I was going to use for that is now dead as the media fixes its errors) and when there are entirely legitimate questions about the JoC's publication history.

Potentially ground-breaking results need to be released by the media when they've had a chance to be criticised properly, or the media needs to handle early announcements appropriately and research the story properly themselves, although one can see why they might want to be first to break a story or not get left behind. I'm not sure exactly what the best way to do this is in the internet age, but I imagine sending it to at minimum a respected journal, and ideally one of the juggernauts (Science, Nature) is a sensible procedure if you're about to announce alien life. This was how it was done last time, even if it later turned out not to be the correct interpretation of the result.
posted by edd at 1:31 AM on March 9, 2011


It seems to me that there's good reason to hold our tongues when the two main interpretations for dismissing this research are mutually exclusive ideas

It doesn't matter if they're mutually exclusive. The point of review is to assess the quality of the work, not to provide alternative hypotheses and narrative. The question a reviewer asks is "do the experimental data support the claims made in the paper?"

This paper essentially makes two claims: (i) that the squiggles on the electron micrographs are of biological origin and (ii) that they can't possibly be of terrestrial origin.
A reviewer of the work is quite entitled to say "There is insufficient evidence to convince me of claim (i) because (technical details); there is insufficient description of the experimental protocols to give confidence that claim (ii) is true.
If a reviewer's opinion is that the work is shoddy and has not been done with enough rigour to support the author's claims, that doesn't make it the reviewer's responsibility to provide an alternative narrative. There is no inconsistency in saying that "you haven't convinced me that these squiggles are biological in origin; even if they are, you haven't presented a compelling argument that there is no possibility of contamination of the samples by terrestrial life".
The reviewer's job is not to determine the nature and origin of the squiggles, but to assess the quality of the paper as presented by the author.

Having read the paper and a few reviews written by people with more expertise than myself, were I to review this I would suggest that the author submit a revised manuscript with (i) a much more thorough analysis of the elemental composition of the squiggles and substrate (derived from many more sample points than the current version, especially of the substrate) and (ii) describing in much greater detail the fracturing process and all the steps that were taken to prevent contamination of the samples from discovery up until the present work.
posted by nowonmai at 3:26 AM on March 9, 2011


Of course, PZ probably has his own good theories about evolution that don't include this one

Would you quit with this black/white world bs already? It is perfectly reasonable for someone to remain open to the possibility of something while still rejecting specific claims that do not have sufficient evidence. If I conclude that the evidence of a face on Mars as indicative of proof of life is total bunk that does not mean I'm rejecting the entire concept of there being evidence for past life on Mars, just that to prove such a supposition requires much stronger evidence. I am quite confident that PZ Meyers would fully accept a panspermia theory if there was compelling evidence for it -- any decent scientist would. Rejecting bad evidence and embracing compelling evidence is pretty much a bedrock feature of what science is and how it is practiced. You don't need to bring conspiracies or ulterior motives into the picture.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:51 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Others have explained it far better than my sparse notation, but just in case:
A: there's biological material on the meteorites
B: that biological material is extraterrestrial in origin
C: that biological material is terrestrial contamination
posted by kmz at 7:52 AM on March 9, 2011


No.

No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.

No, no.

No.
posted by warbaby at 3:26 PM on March 21, 2011


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