Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

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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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