This is a cross-post of the article I originally posted on the SkepticTV blog.
If I wasn’t very sceptical and allergic to bad science I probably wouldn’t be the tech guy for SkepticTV. And yesterday a story about the discovery of extraterrestrial life hit the news that raised a lot of red flags.
I’ll kick this off with a part of an article that I’ve written about this on my blog:
Yesterday, the 5th of March, Fox News released an article on their blog where they announced that Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, thinks he has found evidence for extraterrestrial life. And since Fox News published this article I’ve seen this crop up on more and more places on the internet.
What Hoover found were structures inside a rare type of meteorite, a CI1 carbonaceous chondrite – the one Hoover analysed fell in France in 1864 – and it contains something that looks very much like remains of microbes.
But such a claim is hard to substantiate, as a similar claim was also made for the meteorite ALH84001. Which in 1996 hit the news when David McKay, a NASA scientist, announced that this meteorite may contain evidence for traces of life from Mars. Till this day the debate is still continuing if these structures are biological in origin, and if these are, if they aren’t caused by contamination from terrestrial bacteria.
And this is the reason I take this news with a very big grain of salt. It’s extremely difficult to rule out contamination of the sample. And as such it is wise to wait to get independent confirmation that this indeed might be remains of extraterrestrial life. As Hoover has already made a similar claim during a presentation in 2007 which has not been confirmed.
But this is just me being sceptical about an article that announces a possible find of remains of extraterrestrial life in a meteorite. There is one part that raises really big red flags with this find, and that is that it was published in the Journal of Cosmology.
Where they have such lovely rules as “all articles must avoid jargon” and “do NOT Use Footnotes” for submitted articles. I hope everyone realises that there is not a single respectable journal out there that discourages this, it is actually expected that you do use jargon and footnotes.
They also have articles up like “Myth of the Big Bang” where Rhawn Joseph, a neurologist, argues that there wasn’t a big bang. And he makes the following statement, among several other really weird claims:
The myth of the Big Bang cannot explain why there are galaxies older than the Big Bang, why fully formed galaxies continue to be discovered at distances of over 13 billion light years from Earth, when according to Big Bang theory, no galaxies should exist at these distances.
It is true that the size of the observable universe is at least 93 billion light years, but the universe itself is only about 13.75 billion years. But this is understood and widely accepted that this is caused by the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. But this is telling about the quality of the publications on the Journal of Cosmology.
But this hasn’t stopped people from spreading the news of the discovery and getting really excited about it:
People are neglecting to check this thoroughly. What I’ve written here took me 10 minutes to discover so there’s no excuse for not checking this before you repeat it. Especially by organisations like Fox News and Yahoo who have more than enough resources and knowledge for this. MSNBC is one of the few that gives a good representation.
But this isn’t the worst part yet, people are actually using this to cast doubt on legitimate science and organisations. The blog Watt’s Up With That, a known global warming denier site, took a shot at the Union of Concerned Scientists (it is a science-based non-profit working for a healthy environment and a safer world):
While this so-called discovery may be entirely correct, perhaps Hoover should have called up the Union of Concerned Scientists instead of Fox News in order to peddle his wares.
Is this a legitimate press release by a scientist with a profound new discovery or another example of “science by press release”?
This is the danger of jumping the band wagon and less than “ideal” venues of publications. It will get people all excited when there is a large chance that it doesn’t even merit this excitement. And even gives ammunition to anti-science blogs like Watt’s Up With That.
Groups like SkepticTV work hard to be a voice of reason in these debates and lets not forget all the work our viewers are doing to represent science as best as possible. Although their, and our, job would be a lot easier if the media would pay more attention to checking the sources they report on.