The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Alien Life in a Meteorite? Ummm, Not So Much

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 13, 2011

Last week the media was all abuzz about a story that a NASA scientist had discovered “definitive evidence” of alien life in a meteorite.  In fact, they apparently even had photos of the little critters…

Here’s the headline:

NASA scientist finds evidence of alien life

Aliens exist, and we have proof.

That astonishingly awesome claim comes from Dr. Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, who says he has found conclusive evidence of alien life — fossils of bacteria found in an extremely rare class of meteorite called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites. (There are only nine such meteorites on planet Earth.) Hoover’s findings were published late Friday night in the Journal of Cosmology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“I interpret it as indicating that life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet earth,” Hoover, who has spent more than 10 years studying meteorites around the world, told FoxNews.com in an interview. “This field of study has just barely been touched — because quite frankly, a great many scientist [sic] would say that this is impossible.” …

The “field of study” to which Dr. Hoover is referring is astrobiology, and it is a legitimate scientific endeavor that attempts to study the question of life beyond Earth.  Unfortunately, Dr. Hoover is somewhat of a crank, and his claims are quite overblown, as evidenced by the ruthless criticism he and the “peer-reviewed” Journal of Cosmology received from the wider scientific community.  Here are just a few samples of how these trumped up claims of “alien life” simply wither under scrutiny…

From Pharygula:

Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites?

No.

Fox News broke the story, which ought to make one immediately suspicious — it’s not an organization noted for scientific acumen. But even worse, the paper claiming the discovery of bacteria fossils in carbonaceous chondrites was published in … the Journal of Cosmology. I’ve mentioned Cosmology before — it isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth. It doesn’t exist in print, consists entirely of a crude and ugly website that looks like it was sucked through a wormhole from the 1990s, and publishes lots of empty noise with no substantial editorial restraint. For a while, it seemed to be entirely the domain of a crackpot named Rhawn Joseph who called himself the emeritus professor of something mysteriously called the Brain Research Laboratory, based in the general neighborhood of Northern California (seriously, that was the address: “Northern California”), and self-published all of his pseudo-scientific “publications” on this web site. …

**ETA: If there are any doubts about the scientific veracity of the Journal of Cosmology, just take a few moments to read this crazed rant – titled “Official Statement The Journal of Cosmology, Have the Terrorists Won?” – from them.  I think it speaks for itself, and the language which it is speaking is paranoid conspiracy mongering… wow.

From the Bad Astronomy blog:

Followup thoughts on the meteorite fossils claim

… As I predicted (like it wasn’t obvious), this story is spreading like wildfire. A lot of people reading the story see this as a legitimate and conclusive scientific finding, because it was certainly phrased and designed to seem that way. Buzzfeed, for example, has the headline, “NASA Scientist Finds Extraterrestiral [sic] Microbial Life In Meteorite”. Other examples abound.

So here’s what I think:

1) When I read the paper, my first reaction was pretty strongly of the “Not buyin’ it” variety. The science seemed shaky, and Hoover’s techniques doubtful, but my lack of expertise prevented me from drawing strong conclusions. However, experts in the field of micro- and astrobiology are starting to weigh in, and clearly think the claims of ET life are bogus.

2) The method of publication is decidedly odd, avoiding the big, reputable journals and instead going with a journal that has published clearly inaccurate articles in the past. I consider this very suspicious but not necessarily evidence the research is wrong.

3) The method of publicizing is also decidedly odd, avoiding going through NASA channels to issue a press release and instead approaching one news venue directly. Again, as in (2), this is suspicious but not conclusive for or against the results.

4) Publicly asking for other scientists’ opinions was shrewd, but given the opinions I’m seeing from them so far it’s likely to backfire. Hard. But the media won’t cover that as much as the original announcement — it’s not as sexy, frankly — so it’s unlikely to make much of a difference there. It’s up to blogs and other venues to make sure people get the actual, scientific, and skeptical viewpoint out.

5) Bottom line: given what scientists are saying now, together with my initial reactions and further thought, it’s my personal opinion that Hoover’s claims are wrong. There are way, way too many red flags here. As a scientist and a skeptic I have to leave some room, no matter how small, for the idea that this might be correct. But that room is tiny indeed, and it looks to me that the search for life beyond Earth will continue, and in time will eventually produce scientifically rigorous results.

But that time is not yet here.

And, thankfully, the mainstream media has also clued in.  From the Washington Post:

Scientists skeptical of meteorite alien life claim

The gaps and stringy fibers in these space rocks sure look like bacteria, and a NASA researcher has caused a stir with claims that they’re fossils of alien life. But as NASA found 15 years ago, looks can be deceiving.

Top scientists in different disciplines immediately found pitfalls in a newly published examination of three meteorites that went viral on the Internet over the weekend. NASA and its top scientists disavowed the work by noon Monday.

Biologists said just because it looks as though the holes were made by bacteria doesn’t make them fossils of extraterrestrial microbes. The meteorites could be riddled with Earthly contamination. And both astronomers and biologists complained that the study was not truly reviewed by peers.

There are questions about the credentials of the study’s author, Richard Hoover. And the work appeared in an online journal that raises eyebrows because even its editor acknowledges it may have to shut down in June and that one reason for publishing the controversial claim was to help find a buyer. …

So, there you have it.  What started off as an extraordinary claim seems to have led to an extraordinary fizzle.  And that’s what I like about the scientific process: it is amazingly good at weeding out the cranks & charlatans or, more usually, the people who have just plain gotten it wrong.  Science is a self-correcting process which eventually gets it right because, unlike various media outlets or gullible people who can be swayed by a sexy sounding story, the natural world around us doesn’t cater to our whims or desires.

Rest assured, if/when we do find real evidence for extraterrestrial life (if it happens in my lifetime), I’ll be very excited.  But that evidence must pass scrutiny.  As Carl Sagan so aptly put it: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

About these ads

5 Responses to “Alien Life in a Meteorite? Ummm, Not So Much”

  1. jaswrites said

    Perhaps there could be some merit. Dr. Hoover’s field is astrobiology. The organisms/entities seen through the TEM or SEM look very much like microorganisms we know.
    But perhaps they could not be. Perhaps they could be rock formations.
    Either way, the way science and mathematics are progressing is amazing.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Seeing as how some of Hoover’s most severe critics are also in the field of astrobiology, I think it’s a pretty fair bet that his conclusions are incorrect & overblown.

  2. RickRay said

    Geeze, and I thought there was a chance of finding some form of life that was more intelligent than homo sapiens! Oh Wise One, what shall we do?

  3. paranormal said

    paranormal…

    [...]Alien Life in a Meteorite? Ummm, Not So Much « The Skeptical Teacher[...]…

  4. Gus said

    Hangon – this is the previous head of NASAs astrobiology dept – not some crank. History has shown that people with new ideas can expect heavy criticism – and it is notable that none of his critics will debate with him in an open scientific forum – this is cowardice masquerading as academic integrity. So how does anyone explain the existance of amino acids in the meteorites. I just see a lot of instant dismissals but nobody seems to be adressing the particular details of the research. Astrobiolgists all seem to agree that the structures are not the results of contamination on earth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 114 other followers

%d bloggers like this: