Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 23, 2009

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


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.

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