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:
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…
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:
… 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:
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.”