Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 55: Interview on Extraterrestrial Life with Dr. Brian Hynek


This nearly hour-long interview on a just-over one-hour episode is with the V-est of VIPs, my boss and former thesis advisor, Dr. Brian Hynek.

Brian is a professor in geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he studies Mars with a focus on understanding how and when Mars could have been habitable by life as we know it. This research program includes studying craters (me!), valley networks, other evidence for water, and traipsing around Earth for analogues for Mars, including studying extremophiles on active volcanoes.

The interview is mostly main-stream, covering a lot of the basics, but we get into some of the “PR Fails” of NASA, including the GFAJ-1 “arsenic” bacteria from two years ago and the ALH84001 Martian meteorite “nano-bacteria.” And, no discussion about Mars would be complete without a Hoagland name-drop once or twice.

Since this is an interview episode, and since it’s an hour long, only the Puzzler segment is present in addition to the main interview.

July 12, 2012

Phosphorus-Replacing Bacteria (with Arsenic) Falsified – Creationists React


Introduction

About a year.5 ago, I wrote a parody of the response of the creationist, intelligent design, and UFO crowd to the announcement of a paper that had been published – and for which NASA held a large press conference – about the discovery of arsenic-based bacteria. (Note that I had some real responses by the creationist and UFO folks in the comments section of that post.)

I presented the announcement on this blog in the context of creationism and UFO=aliens folks because, after all, the implication (and the whole reason that NASA held a big press conference) was that if there is this bacteria that can replace one of the key atoms (phosphorus) in DNA with another atom (arsenic), it has serious implications for extraterrestrial biology. For example, a perhaps obvious implication is that you could thrive in an arsenic-rich environment as opposed to a phosphorus-rich environment.

At the time, this was a HUGELY controversial claim – as well it should have been (which I’ll discuss more in a bit). Many biologists criticized the study’s authors because they did not do some basic tests that would have made their case more convincing. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe spent nearly half an episode discussing why the original study’s authors did not do as much work on it as they should have.

Perhaps most egregious, the study’s authors were incredibly unprepared for the every expected media frenzy that followed. When questioned, the lead author responded with (paraphrased), “I don’t have those slides with me, I left them at home because I didn’t think I’d need them.” Also, there was (paraphrased), “That’s a conversation that should play out in the scientific literature.” I’m sorry, but that’s a really naïve response to someone if you’re in the middle of a press conference about your work.

Not that NASA is not to blame. I would hope that it’s the NASA press office that made most of the mistakes here, but as an organization, NASA should have more safeguards in place for this sort of thing if they’re going to hold a MAJOR press conference about a new study.

Now, time has passed, and new studies have been done on these bacteria, and the end result is what most had thought at the time: The claim was pretty much falsified. This has been shown in several now-published articles in prestigious scientific journals.

Media Reaction Now

Most “mainstream” media outlets are often criticized by scientists and skeptics because they rarely do follow-up articles. It makes sense to their profit margins because the stories that people are most likely to read are the “more interesting” original stories that have the sexy new result — regardless of whether that result turns out to be accurate or not in the end. Three years later if fifty new studies come out that all refute the original, it’s unlikely that it will be reported because no one cares anymore (except us).

With that said, you can probably expect the reaction in the media from these papers: Almost non-existent.

Original Authors’ Reaction Now

I can understand how one would feel if a major paper of theirs’ was later disproven, especially when there was a media frenzy surrounding it and it practically made their career. The original paper’s first author is now on a NASA fellowship, for example. Her public response has been that there was probably contamination in the transport process of the bacteria from her lab to the independent ones, so she still believes her results.

Young-Earth Creationist Claims Now

Meanwhile, creationists are pulling an, “I told you so” with these new papers. It’s another case where the reporting has been reasonably good from the creationists, likely because it’s a result that they think supports their beliefs. Creation Ministries International calls this “A Publicity Stunt Gone Bad” in one of their sub-headings on the new papers.

For background as to why, as I’ve written about before, young-Earth creationists tend to completely reject any idea that life exists off-Earth. My understanding on the reason for this is two-fold. First, it’s because the Bible says nothing about God creating life anywhere except Earth. Second, it’s because Jesus would apparently have had to reincarnate on every planet with life and die for their sins, too, and again the Bible says nothing about this.

So, when the initial study came out, the creationists didn’t like it and reported what the dissent side said more than the press release side. Now, they feel vindicated.

How Science Works

I’m writing this blog post while sitting in a workshop discussion at “The Amaz!ng Meeting” (TAM) 10, and Steve Novella is currently talking about how journalism fails these days because they report on EVERY preliminary study as though it is now THE answer. The lay public gets the idea that, “Oh, this paper is out, there’s a press release, it’s picked up in the media, it must now be what Science Sez.” This is even though, to quote Steve just 15 seconds ago, “Most of the preliminary studies are wrong … not only [are they] mostly wrong, but [they're] mostly falsely positive[s] … and that’s massively misleading.”

This is more applicable in medicine (what Steve is talking about at the moment), but it’s applicable in probably every field of science. And, it definitely applies to this case.

Science is messy. It is a process that is usually long and involved. It takes time, it takes repetition, and it takes many people doing independent replications of the original work to verify the result (or, often, refute it).

The internet is a wonderful thing for science with collaboration and the ability of scientists to talk directly with the public. That’s what this blog is, in part — I’m a scientist talking directly with you. But it also means that, for one of the first times in history, the average person sees the intermediate science results before they become consensus. They see the mess.

The public is used to scientists knowing what they’re talking about and being The Authority on an issue, and most don’t realize that it’s really a long process that takes time and many different and independent studies. They learn about Newton’s Laws of motion and don’t understand it took years of development and trial-and-error to figure them out. They know about the atomic bomb, but they don’t realize it was a massive effort with many people working and many tests that failed or false leads that never worked out.

That’s really what this is: An example of how science works. It is self-correcting. It may take time, but in the end, it’s self-correcting.

Final Thoughts

And since this blog post is in part about creationism, I do feel the need to point out that Christianity is not self-correcting. That is pretty much the definition of dogma. People may ignore some of its tenants (how many different fibers are in your clothes today?), but those rules and apparent laws and facts are still part of the religion.

Why do our textbooks cost more? Because we revise them in light of new information. Bibles are cheap to produce because they don’t have to pay authors to revise them when new data is available.

That’s what this is: The scientific process in action. A paper was published that suggested a radical departure from what we thought was established, people disagreed with its methods and conclusions, and they did their own independent analyses. Many of those have now been done and are published, and as far as most scientists are now concerned, the original paper has been falsified. The scientific consensus is that we do not have any examples of bacteria that have replaced the phosphorus in their DNA with arsenic. Case 99% closed.

Except for the UFO people and conspiracy people who have incorporated it into their mythos. I’m sure they’ll still be referencing the arsenic-based life paper for years to come.

December 19, 2011

Follow-Up on Creationists Not Liking ET Life


Introduction

In my last post, “Creationists Really Don’t Like ET Life,” I talked some about the philosophy young-Earth creationists (YECs) seem to have about ET life and discussed a few specific factually wrong statements that an article from Creation Ministries International had on its website regarding the discovery of the planet Kepler-22b.

In the “Final Thoughts” section, I stated that I had submitted feedback to them pointing out the two factual mistakes, and that I would post here if I actually got any reaction. I didn’t expect one.

The Response

But I got one. My comment to them, in full, with my full name was:

Hi, I just wanted to let you know you have at least two factual errors in your article. First, “astrobiology” was coined in English in 1903 from the French according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=astrobiology). NASA was not created until 1958, and NASA’s Origins program was not formed until the 1990s (http://history.nasa.gov/factsheet.htm), well after this term was in use.

Second, exoplanets have been directly imaged, over three years ago. A simple Google search for “exoplanet imaged” yields headlines like, “Astronomers Capture First Exoplanet Images” and “Hubble Takes First Visible Light Image of Extrasolar Planet.”

I recommend correcting your article.

In my e-mail inbox this morning, in its entirety:

Dear Mr Robbins

Thank you for your constructive criticism.

All the same, I don’t think there are errors that you claim. It may well be that “astrobiology” is not a new term, but it is a new field of research as the article claimed. Similarly, one could call “computers” a very new development, certainly for most of the public. But the word “computer” is actually over two centuries older than the word “dinosaur”.

As for the other claimed error, We don’t deny the existence of extrasolar planets, as should be clear from articles on http://creation.com/solar-exoplanet-qa, and a recent overview article in Creation magazine. But this doesn’t mean all claims are right; so the phrase is not wrong. We wrote a while ago http://creation.com/focus-211, and indeed it’s about the very man quoted in the article you wanted us to find:

Paul Kalas, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, is one evolutionist who believes that other planets will be found. But he asks whether many claims are the result of ‘planet mania.’

This is ‘a bias among astronomers in which every cavity and blob, even a wiggle, in circumstellar dust disks [disks surrounding a star] is taken as evidence for extrasolar planets.’

Kalas also points out there are huge leaps in logic. For example, some astronomers argued that a star called HR 4796 is the right age to form planets, so certain observations should be explained by planets. Kalas points out that this is like a doctor diagnosing cancer because you are the right age to have cancer.

The Argumentum ad Googlem is something of a fallacy in itself. The rare point image of a planet is fairly recent but again a point of light is a bit different from a real surface image. Until fairly recently, even stars were only seen as points of light; only in the last 15 years has an actual surface of a star been seen, and that was the huge supergiant Betelgeuse. Hubble was very excited at the time http://zuserver2.star.ucl.ac.uk/~idh/apod/ap960122.html “the first direct picture of the surface of a star other than the Sun. “
The article has now been re-worded a bit to incorporate the above.

Regards

Jonathan Sarfati

You may vaguely recognize that name as I mocked him in this post for listing his full name and title in a CMI article he wrote on Earth’s magnetic field: “Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.M.”

Is Astrobiology a New Term?

No, as I discussed last time, it’s not. This is the text of the CMI article I was critiquing:

NASA’s Origins program is dedicated to looking for habitable planets that might harbor life. Their endeavours spawned a new field of research called ‘astrobiology’, which is to specifically search for the evolution of life wherever it might occur in the universe.

I can see now that perhaps they weren’t saying NASA invented a term, but now unequivocally they are claiming it spawned “a new field of research.” To quote from a conference abstract entitled, “Some elements for the history of astrobiology:”

A study about life in the Universe [appeared] in a French journal of popular science as early as 1935 (Sternfeld 1935). … As early as 1941 the word “astrobiology’ was defined by Lafleur as “The consideration of life in the universe elsewhere than on Earth.” … The first American symposium in astrobiology was held in 1957 (Wilson, and following papers, 1958) … . Astrobiology is not a science as young as generally thought.

The Correction

Out of potential interest to readers, here is the exact text of the original CMI posting (I was critiquing the second sentence):

Although many extrasolar planets are assumed to exist, we should keep in mind the methods used to detect them. Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation. In the case of this latest find, Kepler 22b was detected using the transit method. This is where the planet’s host or nearby star’s light is seen to dim when the alleged planet passes in front of it and between our line of sight from the earth.

The new posting states, with some links left in, and strikethroughs indicating removal and underline being additions (my markup):

Although many extrasolar planets are assumed to exist, we should keep in mind the methods used to detect them. Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation. In the case of this latest find, Kepler 22b was detected using the transit method. This is where the planet’s host or nearby star’s light is seen to dim when the alleged planet passes in front of it and between our line of sight from the earth. We have not seen the surface of a planet directly. In fact, until recently, not seen stars as anything but points of light. Only in 1996 did the Hubble Space Telescope see “the first direct picture of the surface of a star other than the Sun”—the red supergiant Betelgeuse, 1000 times the sun’s diameter. However, in 2008, a planet was observed from direct light reflection around the big, close, white star Fomalhaut.

Final Thoughts

First, no, I’m not going to respond as I don’t think it’s worth belaboring the point further. I was impressed I got a response at all.

I still disagree with the first one on NASA founding astrobiology for the reasons I pointed out above (it’s wrong …).

I’m impressed that they actually corrected the other point. It goes from pure denial originally to a basic news report that they seem to be struggling to spin their way but not really being sure how to do so anymore. Originally it was “None exist, we can’t see them,” to “Okay, some definitely exist but we still don’t think these others do and even if we do we can’t see their surface so so what?” It’s potentially colored by my own view of YECs, but it seems like a 5-year-old who’s lost an argument but still trying to stamp away with some thoughts of dignity.

I also wasn’t aware of an “argumentum ad Googlem.” Fascinating logical fallacy, though I think incorrectly applied in this case. I was pointing out that if they were at all familiar with the topic or had done any simple research, they would have not made a factual mistake of stating that no planet had been directly imaged. Now, if I were trying to use the argument to say they needed to include the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, then that might be considered an “argumentum ad Googlem.”

December 17, 2011

Young-Earth Creationists Really Don’t Like ET Life


Introduction

Sometimes, I’m fascinated with young-Earth creationist (YEC) positions on certain topics. It kinda falls under the category of “Why are you wasting energy worrying about THIS?” Like with Conservapedia taking the time to complain that black holes are liberal pseudoscience.

The issue du jour has to do with extraterrestrial life. For some reason, YECs just can’t even entertain the idea that there may be other life off this planet that did not originate here.

Possible Explanation

I think that the root of this is in a literal interpretation (yes, interpretation) of the Bible. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, but stick with me a moment longer. YECs and other biblical literalists like to say that everything in the Bible is 100% True exactly as it was written by their deity. In the Bible, it apparently says that Jesus died for all our sins and they were all the sins of mankind. Well obviously that means that Jesus did not die for aliens’ sins and therefore aliens don’t exist.

Other Bible readers have no problem with ET life, though. They say things like the Bible was written for us and just left out all the stuff about aliens. That believing life isn’t out there is limiting their god because why couldn’t it have created life out there, too?

YECs counter that the Heavens Declare the Glory of God (I think that’s a psalm or something) and that Jesus would have had to go to every planet with intelligent life and died for the sins of that species and the Bible doesn’t say anything about that. Since the Bible is a complete record of all that stuff, then since it’s not in there, it didn’t happen (I swear folks, I’m not making this up). I guess that means that cars aren’t real but wizards are.

As evidence for my hypothesis, I offer a full CMI article on the subject or several quotes:

“The Vatican astronomer’s comments about the possible existence of extraterrestrial life are the inevitable outcomes of allowing man’s word preeminence over God’s Word, instead of using the Bible as our starting point with which to interpret the universe.” from AiG.

Or “As we’ve written before, the Bible does not teach that God did not create life beyond earth; it is silent on that possibility. Yet, reading Scripture holistically, the implication is that earth (and especially humanity) is at the center of the cosmic stage. That view, combined with the lack of evidence for either evolution or extraterrestrial life, leaves us quite doubtful about ET—truly skeptical, unlike many modern scientists who have put their faith in evolution.” from AiG.

“Creation scientists maintain that we will never receive messages or entertain intergalactic visitors from deep space simply because there are no such civilizations out there. “As far as the Scriptures are concerned, they teach unequivocally that the earth is uniquely the abode of man [Psalm 115:16 and Acts 17:20]… It seems grotesque and blasphemous to suggest that the tragedy of Calvary’s cross should be repeated on millions of other planets, for the benefit of other unknown and hypothetical members of God’s creation.”5 Theoretical speculations and imaginative evolution-based predictions aside, all research beyond Earth has shown that when it comes to organic life — we’re it.” from ICR.

Full Disclosure

Even though I don’t think it’s relevant, I figured I should insert my own opinion on the issue. After all, it’s only fair considering that I’m analyzing someone else’s. I’m an ET life agnostic. I personally think that the hypothesis that ET life exists is not science because it is not falsifiable – we can never prove it doesn’t exist because you can always say, “Well, we just can’t detect it yet.”

Does that mean I don’t think it’s out there? I think it’s possible. I think that the study of extremophiles – lifeforms that exist in seemingly toxic environments like extremely acidic or temperatures above boiling or below freezing – is really interesting. I think the recent studies that have found amino acids on asteroids is really neat.

I also do think that if life arose here, it’s quite likely to have arisen elsewhere. But that’s really as far as I’m willing to go on the issue.

The Topic At-Hand

The reason for this blog post is a Creation Ministries International (CMI) article on the subject that came out December 15 entitled, “Has the Kepler spacecraft found an ‘alien world’?” This was followed up today by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article “Another ‘Goldilocks’ Planet Stirs ET Hopes” I’m going to focus more on the CMI article because Peter already talked about the ICR one.

First, I’m actually a bit surprised it took over a week since the press release for CMI and then ICR to come out with their take on the discovery of Kepler-22b, the first Earth-sized (ish) planet that orbits within the habitable zone around its parent star (the distance needed for the temperature range such that H2) can be in a liquid state). It’s a neat discovery and of course all the news stories – perhaps rightly – played up the astrobiology/ET possibilities.

After all, for life to exist as we understand it, we basically need two things — first, a liquid to act as a solvent and medium for metabolic reactions, and second, an energy gradient that metabolic reactions can take advantage of. This may sound different from how you learned it in school (I know it’s different from how I learned it) where you were probably taught that life needed some protection, water, and sunlight. Well, the first isn’t really true (bacteria survived for years on the moon being exposed to the vacuum and radiation of space), the second one doesn’t need to be water but we still think it’s the most likely, and the third one really just means energy where we use sunlight but you could take advantage of favorable chemistry, too, or geothermal heat.

Anyway, my point was that the media spin was somewhat hyped, but I don’t blame them. NASA is a public governmental agency that requires the good will of Congress to remain funded and so whenever it can play up stories that are of interest to the public, it will. And a story like that is so much more interesting than Britney Spears being the first person to get a million friends on Google+ that just came out today.

Studying Astrobiology

The third paragraph, though, of the CMI article states: “NASA’s Origins program is dedicated to looking for habitable planets that might harbor life. Their endeavours spawned a new field of research called ‘astrobiology’, which is to specifically search for the evolution of life wherever it might occur in the universe.”

This is wrong. According to NASA, the Origins program began in the 1990s. According to the online etymology dictionary, “astrobiology” was formed in the English language in 1903, well before NASA was founded over half a century later (1958).

The next paragraph of the CMI article is a not subtle hint that life on Earth is complex and CMI thinks that NASA should be studying that to show that only God coulddadoneit.

Then we get to the crux of the issue: Evolution. Apparently, the entire endeavor of astrobiology is to prove evolution is true because as we all know, abiogenesis or even a non-abiogenetic origin of life has anything to do with evolution. (For those of you who could not tell my tone in the written word, that was sarcasm. Origin of life study has NOTHING to do with evolution.)

The sixth paragraph of the CMI article deals with money. The Kepler observatory, which is what made the discovery of this planet, cost $600 million to build and launch. Gosh. That’s a lot of money. For that money, we could fund people to do research on the ground. Ahem … I couldn’t find any solid numbers, but as an example of some that were repeated when I searched (source), the city of Boston Catholic Archdioces alone has around $600 million in assets. That’s just the Catholic church. In one city in the US. Or we have, “The Catholic church, once all her assets have been put together, is the most formidable stockbroker in the world,” according to a church official. Or “The Vatican’s treasure of solid gold has been estimated by the United Nations World Magazine to amount to several billion dollars.”

Finally: “The Catholic church is the biggest financial power, wealth accumulator and property owner in existence. She is a greater possessor of material riches than any other single institution, corporation, bank, giant trust, government or state of the whole globe. The pope, as the visible ruler of this immense amassment of wealth, is consequently the richest individual of the twentieth century. No one can realistically assess how much he is worth in terms of billions of dollars.”

In contrast, NASA’s annual budget for FY2011 is $18.724 billion. The science division gets $5.006 billion of that (source). I think if a religious organization wants to study life, it has more means to do so than NASA. So stop complaining.

Do Extrasolar Planets (Exoplanets) Exist

Yes.

But following the reasoning they use with comets, I guess I’m not surprised that they question the existence of exoplanets. CMI states, “Firstly, we have never witnessed or directly observed (i.e. with our eyes through a telescope) a planet outside of our own solar system. They are presumed to exist through indirect methods of observation.”

Again … wrong. Spend 2 seconds on Google and you come up with headlines like, “Astronomers Capture First Exoplanet Images,” or “First True Exoplanet Images” … you know, vague and hard to understand headlines. From 2008 (this is why I felt it important to point out that CMI’s article was posted on December 15, 2011).

The Rest

The rest of the CMI article is basically reverting to the standard, “Science has made mistakes before therefore what we say God did he did.” Yes, I may be sounding irreverent, but they’re irreverent towards me (or my field, anyway).

They also have a whole section on, “Should Christians be concerned by this?” Again, I’ll go back to my beginning statement that this is just one of those cases where I can’t figure out why YECs feel the huge need to fight and argue against it. If the Bible contains everything about the universe, then why doesn’t it talk about computers? But it does imply it’s okay to offer up your daughters to an angry mob. Sigh. But Biblical weirdness isn’t quite the subject of this post.

Final Thoughts

The article as I’m viewing it now has two comments posted. One of them is from Jack of Australia who basically asks about the Fermi Paradox: If aliens exist, then we should’ve found them by now? The author of the CMI article responded and gushed at Jack answering with normal complaints against science.

Paul in the UK is the other commenter who just takes the article a bit further emphasizing that us evil scientists will believe anything so long as God is not a part of it.

I’ve actually submitted a comment because I find the factual mistakes somewhat annoying. and I’m curious to see what they’ll do. I’m hypothesizing that they will ignore it, especially because I’m putting in my full name. In the event they don’t, then I will post about it.

Edited to Add: And here’s the follow-up.

April 1, 2011

April Fools: A Serious Post for the Day


Introduction

In the past, I’ve had a bit of obvious fun on April 1 with my posts, such as last year’s where I explained how I had seen the light and was giving up science. And apparently it wasn’t too obvious to all that I was joking, as Michael Horn apparently thought I was serious.

Anyway, this year I thought I would use the day to look over several ideas and concepts that I address on this blog or that, in general, the modern skeptical movement takes issue with. The purpose of this is that, often, people who believe in any of these topics will claim that skeptics can’t have their pet idea be true because it would upset their worldview, destroy everything they “believe” in, etc. On the contrary, I would absolutely love for many of these things to be true. Let’s take a look …

Near-Death Experiences, Spirit Contacts, Ghosts

Any and all of these things, if real (and by “real” for NDEs I mean they actually cannot be explained by biology), would mean that there is some form of existence after we die in this one. Seriously, I would be delighted if this were true. I don’t care what people say about how I can’t have this be true because it would mean there’s accountability, or that I can’t just do anything in this life ’cause I’d be reincarnated as a cockroach, or whatever.

Living for maybe 75 years and then ceasing to exist is a scary thought. Occasionally late at night, it crops up in my mind and I get freaked out. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that there is a form of existence after this one. I see no hard, reproducible evidence for it, and all the purported evidence that people have put forth is generally easily refuted (especially when we’re talking about ghosts and mediums).

But I would love it to be true. I asked a friend of mine once what he believed and he unabashedly said he was an atheist. As did his wife, who had grown up in some form of Christianity in a very conservative town. I asked her why, and if that meant she didn’t believe in life after death, either. She explained the usual reasons, but then it was this that got me: “No, I don’t think there’s life after death. But believe me, if someone were taking a vote and if I had any say in the matter, I would vote ‘yes.'”

I agree: If I have a vote in the matter of whether there will be a life after this one, I would vote “yes, I want there to be one.” But do I actually believe there is one? No.

Present-Day Visitation by UFOs and Aliens

In what you’ll quickly discover is a theme with this post, I think this would be cool, assuming of course some sort of benevolence as opposed to an Independence Day style of alien invasion. More Vulcans, less Borg. But do I think that tiny light in the sky that I happen to not be able to explain at the moment is an alien craft? No. Do I “believe” the Betty & Barney Hill story? No. Do I think Billy Meier’s laughable evidence is proof of visitation? No.

Ancient Aliens and Alien Artifacts in the Solar System

Following from the last section, this would again be pretty cool. Though I find it odd some people think Earth was the brothel of the galaxy eons ago and the idea that deviant aliens came here to make sweet sweet monkey love is wacked out. Again, actual real evidence of alien visitation in the past would be very neat. Evidence of an alien civilization on Mars or some other body in the solar system would likewise, I think, be cause of great interest and people would flock to it.

Does that mean I think the Nazca Lines are ancient alien landing strips? No. Or that aliens built the pyramids? No. Just because we may not have a mundane explanation for something now does not mean that “aliens did it.” Or, following perhaps a frequent refrain of creationists, it does not mean that “aliensdidit” (a la “goddidit”). Similarly, Richard C. Hoagland’s ideas of crystal tunnels and ancient sculptures on Mars, Andrew Baggiago’s ideas of fossils on Mars, and – closer to home – Hoagland’s “Data’s Head” find on the moon are obvious and clear examples of pareidolia and bad image processing, not the desired evidence of ancient advanced civilizations.

Young-Earth Creationism

To be perfectly fair, I really don’t “care” how old Earth is. As far as I’m concerned, I only “know” for sure that it’s just under 28 years old. Or really, it could have been created just a second ago but with the appearance of age and with all of our individual memories forged and everything made with the appearance of age. After all, that’s what you have to believe to be a young-Earth creationist, that every single piece of geologic, historical, astronomical, archaeologic, etc. evidence that points to a planet – much less solar system, galaxy, and universe – older than 6000 years was planted there by some sick, twisted omnipotent being to make us scratch our heads in the fashion of a chimp. Or you have to invent new science that doesn’t fit with anything else in order to make your models work out.

I think that in the coming decades, young-Earthers are going to be looked upon the same as flat-Earthers: People who ignore all evidence to the contrary, invent ways around what they can, and otherwise stick their fingers in their ears and shout, “La La La! I can’t hear you!”

Magic (Powers/Abilities like psychokinesis, Elves, Fairies, etc.)

I’ll be honest here (as elsewhere) and admit to a guilty pleasure: The TV show Charmed was one of my favorites. And I’m a Harry Potter fan, though that’s more socially acceptable for a guy. Anyway, I love the idea of magic existing, either out in the open or the concept of a hidden world “beyond the veil” that exists alongside our everyday lives but is hidden from us normal folks. In fact, for the past 4 years I’ve been working on and off on my own novel exploring that idea. But here you have the problem of not just a lack of even shaky evidence or suggestions that it’s true, but a solid lack of any suggestions that it’s true beyond the stray anecdote from the mentally questionable.

[Pick Your] Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are interesting because many of them actually could be true when first broached. It’s when people ignore all evidence to the contrary of a conspiracy theory that it begins to get stupid. For example, the Apollo Moon landings. Every claim by conspiracy theorists have been appropriately answered by reasonable explanations that adequately fit the model that the astronauts landed on the moon. And now we have Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Apollo landing sites. This particular conspiracy theory may have made some sense WAY back in the day, but no anyone who clings to it is willfully ignorant or simply delusional. There really is no other, kinder way to say it.

2012 Doomsday

Do I want this one to be true? Of course not. I want to see the solar eclipse in 2017. I have plans set for 2013. I’d prefer not to die in some cataclysm at the end of next year. Does my desire for this not to happen cloud my judgement on whether it will? No. Again, much like with the conspiracy theories above, every idea put forward by 2012 doomsdayers has been shown to be simply wrong, not physically possible, or just an outright lie. If there were actual evidence or even a physical mechanism that could occur, then I would reevaluate my conclusion and start eating more ice cream and Doritos.

Vaccines Cause Autism

Actually, I think it would be great if there were any kind of simple cause of autism, be it the thimerosal that was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines, parents playing Beethoven to the pregnant mom’s stomach, or solar flares. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in the US a decade ago, and autism rates didn’t go down at all. No one knows what actually causes autism, but it’s definitely not vaccines. Concerned parents should be concerned, but they shouldn’t blame something that protects a child’s health and has conclusively been shown by every study to not cause autism.

Final Thoughts

That about wraps it up. Now, yes, this was posted on April 1st. No, this is not a “fake” nor joke post. In the end, this really boils down to this message for a “true believer” who harps on the “skeptics:” Get over yourselves. We are not “scared” that your-supernatural-belief-of-choice may be true. We would welcome it. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with that straw man, how about actually addressing the legitimate criticisms of the methodology instead of the claims?

What I’ve written above are my honest thoughts on the issues. What are yours?

December 2, 2010

NASA’s Announcement of Arsenic Life: A Parody by Creationists, Intelligent Design, and UFO Crowd


Introduction

In this blog, I try to be reasonably respectful to the claims made by other people, meticulously breaking down fantastic claims and showing how they do not fit the science, data, observations, etc.

This post is a bit different. It is meant to parody what I fully expect will be done in the next few days with today’s announcement by NASA of the discovery of life using arsenic in place of phosphorus in cells. I’m not going to get much into that and its implications, since practically every science news source is talking about it.

Instead, I’m going to provide three parodied views that I expect will be taken up almost verbatim in the next few days. If you get offended by parody, are a young-Earth creationist, etc., by further reading you are removing me from liability for the bile that may build up in your gut.

Creationist Response

The discovery of a new form of life by evolutionist NASA researchers today shows just how much our glorious Creator can do that Darwin never thought possible. All life that scientists had known of until now operates with a few basic atoms, and evolutionary researchers had thought that substitution of any one of these would be impossible, especially substitution of the poisonous element arsenic.

But in a lake in California, a research team discovered the inconceivable: A bacterium that survives on arsenic instead of phosphorus.

The response from evolutionists is once again to “rewrite the textbooks,” NASA’s astrobiology website proclaiming, “Get Your Biology Textbook…and an Eraser!” A biogeochemist associated with the research calls it “fantastic.”

But as Christians we know that God can do anything He wants. If evolutionists don’t want to constantly be “erasing” words in their textbook, then they should take up the unchanging and infallible Word of our Lord as written in the Bible. It should not surprise us that discoveries such as this will be made because they are only a further testament to the glory and wonders of our Creator.

Intelligent Design Response

Evolutionists are hailing a new discovery today of a microbe named GFAJ-1 that has the remarkable property of using arsenic in place of phosphorus in its metabolism. All life as known before and described by Darwin uses phosphorus — the six elements essential to life were thought to be carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. In fact, in the energy molecule of cells – ATP – the P stands for phosphorus, and the DNA double helix is intelligently designed with a phosphorus molecule.

Arsenic is so poisonous to life because it is easily confused for phosphorus and used in its place by cells, killing them.

Until now. This microbe, of the marine family Halomonadaceae, was placed in a growth medium of arsenate and it thrived, completely baffling darwinists who were studying it.

How could such a system arise with no simpler precursor? The system needed to use arsenic could not have arisen through random evolutionary chance because of the myriad of places in the cell that use phosphorus. The ability to use it in one location in the cell would still be poisonous to another.

In celebrating this, evolutionists are glossing over the fact that it shows yet again how improbably Darwin’s theory really is.

UFO Response

It seems like it’s from an episode of the Twilight Zone, a bacteria that survives on poison. All life from planet Earth uses six essential atoms, but scientists from the space agency NASA today announced the discovery of a strange form that substitutes one of those – phosphorus – with arsenic.

The scientists are claiming that this has huge implications for the field of astrobiology, or at least the civilian one. Of course they completely ignore all the hundreds of thousands of UFO sighting reports, cattle mutilations, crop circles, government coverups, crashes like Roswell and Bentwaters, and abduction stories that we know prove alien life already exists.

But at least this is a first step. The “red rain” from India was apparently not convincing enough, but now the scientists are embracing the idea that this is unlike any life they have discovered before. This is just a small step in the road to full disclosure.

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. I hope you at least laughed a little. If not, I apologize for my unrefined parody-ing skilz. And, by the way, if you do find any print reports from any of the crowds I identified above in the next few days about this event, feel free to post links in the Comments section. I’d be interested to see how well I did. Though I will note that I purposely went a bit overboard on all of them, or at least tried to.

November 5, 2009

Pareidolia and Pixellation … Or, Why Blowing Up Photographs Beyond 100% Resolution Is Bad


Introduction

Pareidolia: (noun) /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ — The tendency to interpret a vague stimulus as something known to the viewer; such as interpreting marks on Mars as canals or seeing shapes in clouds. From the Greek para- (“beside,” “with,” or “alongside”—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)) and eidolon (“image”; the diminutive of eidos (“image,” “form,” “shape”)).

Pareidolia is something that I addressed in my “Pareidolia – The Face on Mars” post in January 2009. In this post, however, I’ll be addressing a different twist on pareidolia that has a different genesis given the modern age of computers, where everyone with an internet connection can be an armchair geologist.

In this particular case study, I will not be talking about Richard Hoagland and his glass cities on the moon and Mars, but rather a more obscure person, Andrew Basiago, of his self-made “Mars Anomaly Research Society.” In 2008, he put out a “research paper” entitled, “THE DISCOVERY OF LIFE ON MARS,” with the first sentence of the abstract being five simple words, “There is life on Mars.”

His evidence? Read further to find out …

What Does Basiago Say He Found, in General?

Basiago is a lawyer and self-described “amateur scientist.” In late 2008, he made headlines by complaining that National Geographic was refusing to publish his work. The following quote is from his press release:

“I was astonished by what I found,” he said. “There, on the Red Planet, were beings in blue bodysuits and the abstract artwork of a Martian civilization. I was looking at the first evidence of life beyond Earth!”

In his letter to the National Geographic Society, the lawyer writes that careful evaluation of PIA10214 reveals “a cosmic treasure trove of pictographic evidence of life on Mars, including humanoid beings, animal species, carved statues, and built structures.”

According to Basiago, the humanoid beings photographed in PIA10214 have bulbous heads and elongated bodies, like the extraterrestrials described in alien contact accounts. Some have two arms and legs like human beings, while others have multiple appendages and segmented or larval bodies, as if they are human-insect hybrids.

Here are two news stories about it (link 1, link 2).

The original image in question can be found here.

A Famous Photo

This photograph, or panorama of photographs, from Mars was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) “Spirit” during the last few months of 2007. It is within the Gusev Crater on Mars on the plateau that NASA has named, “Home Plate.” What makes this photograph interesting is that it itself caught the news cycle due to a fairly “obvious” piece of pareidolia, the “Big Foot” on Mars.

If you download the full version of the panorama from NASA, the “Big Foot” is located about 30″ down, 12″ over (2150 px down, 850 px over to the right). Below is a FULL-RESOLUTION version of just that section. Note that the figure itself is about 37 px tall and 18 px wide. At full resolution. And, it really does look like a person sitting with a hand resting on one knee.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "Big Foot"

However, with MER Spirit having photographed well over a million rocks on the planet, some are bound to look like something that we’re familiar with. Just like the cloud I saw today looked a lot like Mr. Spock.

While the image of “Big Foot” on Mars garnered some press on its own and made the rounds on Coast to Coast AM, it quickly came out that the rock in question was just a few inches tall and it fairly quickly dropped from the public consciousness.

Expanding Beyond 100% Size

The etymology of the word “pixel” dates back to the 1960s, when it became an abbreviation for “picture element.” In other words, the smallest part of a picture. The smallest “piece” of information that was recorded. A pixel cannot be subdivided into more than one pixel to yield more data because it simply does not exist in the image.

And yet, graphics programs have no problem expanding an image beyond that 100% scale, to make 1 pixel into 2, 3, 4, or more. Software does this through a variety of algorithms, and it may really look like it has smoothly added information to the image, but it has not. It has also introduced artifacts through the expansion process that were not previously there. If, for example, you expand a photograph to 250% its original size, and then you shrink it back to the original 100%, you will not have the same photograph you started with, and you will have lost a little bit of information.

This basic concept is not something that Basiago seems to understand. He took NASA photograph PIA10214 and blew up various parts of it, stretching objects that may have originally been only 5 pixels tall and 7 pixels wide into something 50x that size. In other cases, he has stretched the aspect ratio, making the image much wider or taller than it should be if given a simple expansion.

Let’s look at two examples. In the example below, Basiago describes as: “These and other animals on Mars defy classification by any known system on Earth. We would include among the new forms of fauna on Mars the animal whose giraffe-like head can be seen peering from behind the cliff literally within feet of Spirit. This animal has red lips, a patch of blue beneath its bulging eyes, and a crest atop its head like some dinosaurs. Even the most spirited disinformation that this report will inspire will have difficulty finding a mundane, non-biological explanation for The Spying Giraffe.”

Basiago Pareidolia Example 1

Basiago Pareidolia Example 1

In this second example below, Basiago describes: “Maybe the creatures seen – including both living plesiosaurs (left) and dead ones (right) – are plesiosaurs that survived on Mars the extinction that befell plesiosaurs on Earth.”

Basiago Pareidolia Example 2

Basiago Pareidolia Example 2

I’ve been kind with these examples. In the many, many photographic blow-ups that he includes in his paper, these are among the best few that actually sorta kinda look like what he claims. However, any normal reader with pretty much any amount of common sense can tell that these are simply rocks. Or, at the very least, one would need higher-resolution photographs to really tell anything, as opposed to just blowing up a low-resolution image (e.g., the far-right one in the first example).

Final Thoughts

What automatically enters my mind when someone claims they see something anomalous in a photograph, or that they see “data’s head” on the moon or subway systems on Mars, I first think “pareidolia,” and my second thought is, “what’s the resolution?” In other words, is the object they’re describing actually fully resolved, or are they stretching the pixels to bring out something that’s not really there? As was the case in the examples of “amateur scientist” Andrew Basiago, both of these were at play, and what he was really looking at was simply a bunch of rocks.

January 23, 2009

Methane Discovery on Mars – The Conspiracy Theory (NASA Already Knows of Intelligent Life on Mars) Reaction


Introduction

I have now made two posts of the recent confirmation/discovery of release of methane on Mars. In my first post, I discussed the basic discovery and its implications. In my second, I discussed the Creationist (specifically, young-Earth creationist) reaction to it. The purpose of this post is to discuss the reaction of the NASA conspiracy crowd – the one that thinks NASA has been hiding evidence of intelligent life already there.

This post is based on comments made during the second hour of the Coast-to-Coast AM radio show from January 15, 2009. They were made by Richard Hoagland and Robert Zubrin as well as a little by the host, George Noory.

Basic Claims

Note – I’m not going to be laying out all of the claims as quotes because the conversation lasted about a half hour during the program. Feel free to listen to the actual show if you doubt the veracity of my summary points.

Before I get to the claims, though, I think it’s important to give a brief background on each person: Hoagland’s position is that a technologically advanced civilization has been on Mars and NASA knows it, they’ve just been covering it up for decades, but Hoagland has discovered the proof. Zubrin is more someone who thinks we should go to Mars and we need to terraform it for human colonization, that it had at least microbial life at some point in the past, there is present-day subsurface liquid water, and he also holds some other fringe ideas about the planet, its origins, and astronomy in general. Noory is the host and while I cannot speak for what he truly believes, he has made Hoagland the general science advisor to the radio program and seems to affirm nearly everything Hoagland posits.

Now, for their claims, in no particular order, but ordered for easy reference to my responses:

  1. Hoagland believes that NASA wanted to announce that yes, this was definitive evidence for life, but that “politically, they couldn’t” – at least under the Bush administration.
  2. Hoagland claims that the announcement was “forced to be conservative because of the requirements of this stupid peer-review system.” According to his own secret sources, the original draft of the paper was much more “forthright” in its implications for biology. But, the journal Science – one of the most prestigious of professional science journals – apparently forced them to remove that in order to get the paper published. But, more data will be published later and we’ll get the real information later.
  3. The methane vents seasonally, which is just like life on Earth (hibernating in the winter).
  4. The methane is destroying the methane almost immediately, as opposed to lingering for a few hundred years and being destroyed by photodissociation. Hoagland thinks that this is all due to not only organisms making the methane, but then other organisms “eating” it – citing a comment by a chemist independent of the NASA announcement.
  5. We have to completely change our strategy for Mars – robots can’t look for this kind of life in part because it would be below the permafrost and we’d need actual human scientists to do the kind of work necessary to verify if life is there. Oh, and the next mission, Mars Science Laboratory, won’t get there until 2012 (“Isn’t that interesting?” – in reference to the “end” of the Mayan calendar).
  6. If future experiments show that the methane is made with Carbon-12 instead of Carbon-13 (where Carbon-13 has an extra neutron and life prefers Carbon-12 much more over 13), then “to any reasonable biologist anywhere on Earth, that will say, ‘it’s bugs down there.’ … But there will be hold-outs!”
  7. We may find Earth-like life on Mars that is far more simple, since the bacteria found here are much too complex to be the first cells (take that, Creationists – your straw man that single-celled life is too complex to have originated from a bunch of slime is just a straw man). Regardless, it may be a separate genesis from Earth or it could be the same as Earth – either one would be very interesting.
  8. The story broke through a London news source because they refused to “play the politics of America and Science,” because the journals “have an enormous strangle-hold on the information” and have embargoes on it such that authors cannot necessarily talk about results until the journal comes out with the article. This is despite the data being gained through tax-payer-funded missions, but because of the “blackmail” of the journals, which is “absurd,” they could not talk about them.

My Responses

1. This is part of Hoagland’s standard conspiracy claims, that NASA knows more than it’s letting on but whatever political or black-ops powers that be won’t let them do it. From an objective standpoint, you cannot read body language, you cannot read into the word “no,” etc., and Hoagland has no legitimate basis for claiming to be able to read peoples’ minds, and hence he cannot say whether or not NASA folks “wanted” to announce that this is life.

2. I covered a little of this in my post about the peer-review system that I made just prior to this post. The next sentence – about his own secret sources – is another part of standard conspiracy claims. “The official word says this, but my own super-duper-secret-sources says something completely different.” This is a double-standard, or the simple “inconsistency” logical fallacy. He refuses to accept a peer-review system of standard science, but he won’t let other people peer-review his own sources. He’s also using an argument from authority, saying that you should believe him because he has a secret authoritative source. I will address the specific part about journals and editing in #8.

3. Seasonal venting of methane could also be explained by needing the additional heat that summer provides for the chemical reactions to take place. It could also be due to heating of the immediate subsurface making any near-surface ice cap melt, allowing the methane to escape only seasonally. And this also assumes that the seasonal venting correlates with Mars’ summer. I don’t knkow if that’s the case, but I noted that they conveniently left that statement out of their discussion.

4. I don’t know about this part – whether or not it’s actually the case that’s been made. However, destruction of the methane could be explained just as easily by an abiotic chemical reaction than as yet a second form of life that uses it in its metabolic process(es).

5. I mostly agree with this statement. Robots are great, they’re much cheaper and less life-threatening than peopled missions. However, people can do much more than robots in terms of manual dexterity and just interpreting results.

6. I don’t know about this one, either. I’m not a biologist nor biochemist, nor do I play one on TV. I would assume that Hoagland’s assertion that life prefers Carbon-12 is correct. However, just as the chemistry in cells may prefer carbon-12 to 13, I’m certain that there are many other chemical reactions that prefer it, as well, and hence this possible future discovery could yet again have nothing to do with furthering the case that this methane was produced by a biological source.

7. Other than my pointing out that I agree with this statement by Zubrin, and my own commentary that it points out the straw man that creationists and IDers use all the time, I have no further comments on this point.

8. As far as I know, this account is factual in terms of it being a British news source that first broke the news and there was an embargo on the information release until Science put out the story. I disagree with the language Hoagland uses, but I personally agree with at least part of the sentiment, but I understand it. When a scientist writes a paper and submits it to a journal, if it is accepted then they are required to sign over all copyrights to the journal. In the past, this was a benefit to everyone because the professional journals were THE source for science news and individual authors would have a much more difficult time protecting their own copyright. But this is the 21st century. We have the internet. Information can literally be sent and received at speeds of less than a second around the globe. The traditional embargoes on information that journals once and currently hold is – in my opinion – out-dated. These are the same copyrights that don’t legally permit researchers to put copies of their articles on their own websites, or e-mail them to colleagues.

But, I understand why journals still think they can and need to do this. After all, who would buy their magazine if the information were released before the issue came out? And why would anyone buy the article later if they could just get it for free off of the original author’s website? It’s the economics of the publishing industry. I think they need to get a clue like the music and movie industries about living in an internet era, and so in that sense I do agree with Hoagland. But, as I said, I understand where they are coming from.

Final Thoughts

I remembered the discussion being much more conspiracy-like than it actually was when I sat down and took notes. Perhaps I was remembering a different episode and conversation. Regardless, I’ve now covered three different angles to this story, and I think that’ll be about it. I think it’s interesting and informative to see how people with different motivations spin the same information.

January 21, 2009

Methane Discovery on Mars – The Creationist Reaction


Introduction

Last week, there was a NASA press release that large amounts of methane were observed being released into the martian atmosphere. I posted some initial information about it here.

In the week since this has been out, the general young-Earth creationist folks (YEC, something that I often equate on this blog to general “creationist”) have started to respond to the news in their own way. Let’s take a look (and though I quote heavily, I make my own analysis towards the end, so scroll down if you don’t want to read what they say) …

Answers in Genesis Response

From AiG’s January 17 “News to Note” article:

The specific news is that NASA has detected “large amounts” of methane, which on earth is primarily produced by both live and dead organisms. The methane was detected by telescopes on Hawaii, though five years ago the Mars Express Orbiter detected some methane in the Martian atmosphere. …

The Sun quotes British UFO enthusiast Nick Pope, who calls the find, “the most important discovery of all time” and declares it an “absolute certainty that there is life out there . . . . I am certain there is other life in the universe and, most likely, intelligent life.” Pope implicated the source of his certainty—evolutionary doctrine—when he said, “If it’s happened here on Earth, then why shouldn’t it happen anywhere? The implication is this is a universal law.”

Of course, don’t be surprised that we’re not holding our breath. For one thing, discoveries of “life” on Mars have a habit of fizzling (or, more accurately, remaining unproven speculations). A decade ago scientists went crazy over the idea that an Antarctic meteorite, thought to be from Mars, contained fossilized microbial life. Other scientists quickly tore the claim apart. In the years since, the same pattern—yes it’s life; no it isn’t—has followed numerous other claims originating in chemical discoveries on the Martian surface. The only certainty is that there’s, as of yet, no evidence of life on Mars definitive enough to convince all evolutionists, let alone creationists.

Nonetheless, plenty of evolutionists—scientists and laypersons alike—are emphatic that “we’re not alone” and believe it’s only a matter of time until Martian life turns up. Pope represents this view. There’s nothing scientific about it; it’s pure dogma, but quite expectable considering the predictions of the evolutionary worldview.

There’s always that slim possibility that Mars—or some other astronomical body—is harboring something that we’d call “life” on earth. No Bible verse declares absolutely that God didn’t, e.g., put microbes on Mars or viruses on Venus, although there are plenty of good arguments against the likelihood of that. But unless tomorrow’s astronauts actually find direct evidence of life on Mars, it doesn’t take much effort to chalk the indirect evidence up to evolutionism-fueled speculation.

Institute for Creation Research Response

ICR, in an article from January 19 (slightly behind AiG) entitled, “Methane on Mars: The Stuff of Life?” posts the following:

The central question facing the NASA scientists is what caused the methane. Little living microbes can produce it, but so can heat and pressure acting on non-living water and carbon dioxide. Even if bacteria were found on Mars, it would not necessarily indicate that the bacterial cells originated there. Though unlikely, some atmospheric microbial spore could escape earth’s gravity, survive in outer space, and then colonize Mars. Some bacteria have ingenious capacities that enable them to exist in ice, and others at thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, while still others have an array of unique protein systems that can extract fuel from odd chemicals. Some bacteria even contain many copies of their entire genome, ensuring genetic fidelity even after intense radiation. Microbes on Mars, though a long shot, could be consistent with a creation science model.

However, Martian microbes would add no direct support to the evolutionary concept that non-living matter generates life. Though re-packaged as “chemical evolution” in the early twentieth century, “spontaneous generation” was experimentally disproved by Louis Pasteur in the mid-1800s.

No kind of life has yet been discovered on Mars. Since both carbon dioxide and water are known to exist there, and a natural chemical reaction of these two can form methane, the most likely cause of the gas is geochemical, not biological. NASA found that some “ongoing process is releasing the gas,” an observation consistent with Mars being a young planet. If the methane is being formed not by microbes but as the result of residual planetary heat, then this would challenge long-age thinkers to explain why the planet is still warm and why it still has enough raw materials to eject tens of thousands of metric tons of methane annually, even after at least four billion years of purported existence. This youthful feature of Mars, if accurate, would be consistent with the biblical age of the world.

While it remains unclear whether the Mars methane is the product of microbes or just geochemistry, the timing of NASA’s announcement is rather curious. Since the original discovery of methane took place several years ago, why is this news being given such a big “release” in January 2009? Another curiously-timed NASA press release proclaimed in 1996 that a “Mars rock” showed evidence of microbial life. As creation scientists predicted, further investigation revealed that the rock’s features were entirely non-biological, but the initial announcement resulted in then-President Bill Clinton calling for additional NASA funding.

NASA makes it clear that “it will take future missions…to discover the origin of the Martian methane,” and that now there are specific places—methane-releasing vents—to explore. Could NASA’s methane report have anything to do with this week’s presidential inauguration and the start of a new budget cycle?

A Fellow Blogger’s Response

Finally, there’s a YEC blogger here who likes the astronomy stories. For full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve argued a little with him in the past, but I wanted to post his take on this story, as well:

It used to be looking for advanced forms of life on Mars, now it’s just looking for the ingredients of what evolutionists believed life came from. On January 15, 2009 NASA announced that scientists found evidence for life by discovering methane on Mars. …

The origin of the methane needs more investigation in order to determine if it’s really little micro organisms or not which generally means more missions which also means more funding. …

NASA of course is pro-evolution so the discovery has to fit into the old age model. Since there is a difficulty with Mars concerning non-living causes to maintain the methane over billions of years, and the popularity with looking for little green microbes, one would assume they are leaning towards the microbes. But as far as methane, rock, and water, we know as a scientific fact could never produce life.

Some have sounded the alarm about the timing of claiming evidence for life on Mars. They might be right, there is a similar incident back in 1996 with the discovery of the “Mars Rock” with the hype, motivated the Clinton administration to allocate more funding to NASA. As it turned out, the “Mars Rock” contained no life on it. But a question remains what worked with President Clinton, will it work with President Obama? Many in the scientific community are already lining up to put their agenda on President Obama’s desk so he can approve more funding.

What Do These All Have In Common?

Well, pretty much everything. I suppose that is not too surprising given that most mainstream news outlets all carried nearly identical stories that many YEC outlets would do the same, adding their own flavor (or flavour) to the news. Specifically, they all do the following things – though I should note that because I only copied parts of their text it may not be apparent from the large block quotes above:

  1. Announce the news and admit that it’s interesting.
  2. Point out that this is not new, rather it’s just the hoopla around it that’s new.
  3. Make a specific note that the methane could be completely abiotic and so not have anything to do with life.
  4. Say that it is much more likely to be abiotic than biotic in origin.
  5. Draw parallels to this announcement and an announcement of possible life just as Clinton took office in 1992, very strongly implying – if not outright saying – that the timing was planned to try to milk more money for NASA from the new Obama administration.
  6. Point out (in some way, either direct or implied) that us evolutionists want to find life elsewhere to justify our theories that water+rock -> life.
  7. Point out that us evolutionists require it to be from an active Mars (either chemically, thermally, and/or biologically) but the new data actually fits a YEC model better because they say Mars still is young and so could have left-over methane from formation. But the evolutionary worldview doesn’t allow that.
  8. Have the caveat that IF it really is later on figured out to be life that it’s not wholly inconsistent with a literal biblical wordlview.

What Is My Reaction to Their Basic Points?

I know you may find this surprising, but I do agree with some of their points. Though for possibly different reasons.

1. Yes, this is interesting news. I think I made that point in my initial post on this topic.

2. I forgot to make the point in my original post that, yeah, this actually is old news. Methane was detected years ago in Mars’ atmosphere, but from my reading it was not a definitive discovery that the general scientific community accepted due to the noise in the data. This new data basically confirmed the original detection beyond any measure of scientific doubt, so yes, there was something new contributed here.

3. I agree. And I made that point, too. And I was not happy that most mainstream media did not emphasize that it is very possible – if not probable – that the methane was produced by non-biological means.

4. See #3. Again, I agree.

5. I was, well, 9 or 10 when Clinton took office, so I really don’t know/remember the circumstances surrounding the timing of possible ET life announcements and Clinton’s oath of office. However, while I am not a conspiracy person, I do agree that the timing could have been planned to coincide with Obama’s taking office to try to emphasize NASA’s very very meager budget. Especially since Obama has made suggestions that he may cut NASA’s spending. I obviously can’t read minds (or can I … ?), so it’s really just an argument from ignorance either way you spin it.

6. This is a straw man. I’ve pointed this out before, I think in my post about the Big Bang NOT describing the formation of the cosmos that evolution has NOTHING to do with the origin of life. Completely unrelated, and to say that the evolutionist claim that nonliving matter can become life shows a complete lack of understanding of evolution. Just as I’m actually studying creationist claims before I debunk them, they should actually take the time to study astronomy (or evolution) claims before they try to argue against them.

7. Believe it or not, I agree. Because the scientific consensus is that Mars – like the other planets and the rest of the solar system – is about 4.5 billion years old, we have to come up with some other origin for the methane other than left-over from Mars’ formation. IF the scientific model were a YEC one, then this could easily be explained by that mechanism. But they miss the point here. There are dozens if not hundreds of separate, independent lines of evidence of how we know (as much as scientific certainty allows) the solar system is old. Small anomalies such as this do not automatically overturn all of those other things. They are either fit into the current model by some method (as in, a present-day or very recent-past active planet), dismissed as a trivial anomaly we cannot presently explain, or used to modify current theories to fit with the current observations. We don’t just throw everything else out because of this one discovery, especially when it can easily be fit into the current scientific consensus by simply having an active planet — which was never ruled out, it was simply that there was no evidence before that Mars was presently active.

8. I can’t say whether or not ET life is consistent with a YEC worldview. I know that the Pope’s chief astronomer last year said that ETs were all good, though I also know that many YECs say that ET life can’t exist because in the 6-day creation story, there is no reference to it (this is mainly from AiG, which should be obvious because they get all their Answers from (’cause they’re “in”) Genesis). But this is really beyond the realm of pseudo astronomy and hence I offer no personal opinion – mainly because I honestly have none.

Final Thoughts

I’m not surprised that the YEC outlets have been running with this story. It’s a significant science article that is bound to have literal bible readers wondering how it fits with their beliefs. I’m also not wholly surprised by their main points – I expected them to play up the part about the possible (if not probable) abiotic origins and chastise others for jumping so quickly on the ET life bandwagon.

That being said, I am a little surprised on the similarities between what was stated among the three sources I read. I would not be surprised if the blogger read ICR’s post before making his own (just based on the hugely similar arguments), but that’s just my own musing.

Anyway, it’s still interesting news, and different people have placed their own spin on it. The next one I will address in a soon-to-be-written post will be the conspiracy theory folks – Richard Hoagland’s take on the story.

January 17, 2009

Life on Mars? Lots of Methane Means Cow Farts?


Introduction

Over the last week, there have been lots of headlines floating around. “Methane Could Signal Life on Mars,” claims InformationWeek. “Life on Mars is a Possibility,” says the Dispatch Online. “Methane on Mars. Does that Mean … Life?” asks the Christian Science Monitor. And “Gas ‘May Be Sign of Life’ on Mars,” adds the CBBC Newsround.

What’s the news? And why are people excited about gas that we’ve all smelled around farms? And why am I not thrilled and jumping up and down that we now have proof of life?

Why Methane Is Important

Methane is a molecule that is a gas under most circumstances. You need to get to temperatures like those of the outer planets’ moons to get methane to freeze. It’s a simple molecule, composed of one atom of carbon and four of hydrogen (CH4).

A discovery of methane on a body without much of an atmosphere is important because it does not last long. Methane will relatively quickly react with ultraviolet radiation and photo disintegrate into – I think – ethane – by losing a hydrogen atom (and then boding with another CH3 to form ethane, C2H6). It can also be destroyed in Mars’ atmosphere by other mechanisms.

What all that means is that in order for there to be methane present today in Mars’ atmosphere, there must be a very recent (as in within the last ~100 years) source of it. At least in the atmosphere.

Why this is interesting regardless is that it means that something likely created the methane recently. On Earth, the bulk of methane is produced by methanogenic bacteria (bacteria that release methane as a byproduct of metabolism). And, as the title of this post suggests, a lot of this is seriously from cows farting (or flatulating for my more refined readers). Methanogenic bacteria live in many mammalian gastrointenstinal tracts, including cows, but also humans. And that’s as far as I’ll go with that line of thought.

However, there are other sources of methane that do not involve life. Among them is the process of converting iron oxide (rust) into another group of minerals, and this releases methane in the process (along with using water, carbon dioxide, and a heat source).

So Does This Mean Cows Are Farting on Mars?

Not likely.

In all seriousness, this is an interesting discovery. It could indicate that there are or recently were methanogenic bacteria on Mars. If they’re not there now, then they could have been there in the very recent past, produced the methane, and it is now being released, slowly.

However, and I hate to agree with the folks over at Answers in Genesis on this one, the history of “life on Mars” is fraught with announcements and then retractions. And often, the media make a sensational headline, get people all worked up, and then don’t follow-up with the story when it turns out to be less interesting. Seriously, does anyone remember the media owning up to ALH84001 NOT having bacterial fossils?

Regardless of the source of the methane, however, this is an interesting discovery because Mars is effectively saying, “Hey, I’m still an active planet! I’m not telling you what is going on right now, but I’m dropping little teasers like this.” Methane is a teaser. Because it has a short lifetime in Mars’ atmosphere, it needs to have a very recent source. This indicates either active geology and/or active biology. Either one is interesting.

Final Thoughts

The reason that I’m not jumping on the “Life on Mars” bandwagon – unlike UFO people who say this is just prepping us for Obama disclosing the UFO presence on our planet, or the Hoagland crowd who say NASA knew all along – is that life on Mars should, in my opinion, be the last conclusion, reached only after all the other known possibilities are exhausted.

Why? Well, to quote a clichéd phrase from Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would be amazing – it would redefine humanity’s role in our li’l corner of the universe. But, it’s an extraordinary claim, and it needs more evidence than methane that could have other sources.

That’s why this is very interesting news, but most headlines are very premature. If you would like to read the actual real, original NASA press release, click here.

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