Followup thoughts on the meteorite fossils claim

Bad Astronomy
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March 7 2011 9:21 AM

Followup thoughts on the meteorite fossils claim

On Saturday I posted about the claims of Richard Hoover, a NASA scientist who says he has found evidence of fossilized microbes in a meteorite. As soon as I saw the story (thanks to a tweet from my friend Sheril) I knew the 'net would explode with the news, so I wrote a quick post about it. My intent was to be as scrupulously fair as I could be while still trying to rein in the usual speculation that follows sexy news like this.

I've had a day to mull all this over, and I wanted to write some more thoughts about it. My initial thought was, of course, extreme skepticism -- we've seen claims like this before which haven't panned out, and this one has a lot more, um, hyperbole than most before it -- but not being an expert in biology I didn't want to make any firm conclusions until the experts weighed in.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Well, now they're weighing in.

You can skip down to my conclusions -- let's just say here it doesn't look good for the microaliens -- but what follows is a more in-depth analysis.

The Science

My friend Penny Boston is an astrobiologist at New Mexico Tech (if her name is familiar, she was a guest scientist on episode 2 of "Bad Universe", when we went into Spider Cave to look at extremophiles). She sent me a note about Hoover's claims, saying:

Rocks, even the most high density materials, are prone to microfractures. Microorganisms are notoriously splendid at working their way into incredibly minute microfractures...

Showing that the bug that you have actually is NOT a contaminant organism that made its way into a meteorite is a practically unsolvable problem. If you turn up an organism whose chemistry, way of coding information, or something else (besides morphology) indicates that it is significantly (and I MEAN significantly) different from anything that has ever been seen on Earth, THEN you might have a chance of proving this. Pictures of tube shaped structures don't do it.

I wondered about this as well. As I said in my first post, the major problem here is contamination. Even if we assume the things Hoover is seeing are fossilized life forms -- and that's not established! -- can he show beyond a reasonable doubt that they are not from Earth? The meteorite in question is not a hard, dense rock, but actually very soft and friable (crumbly). Contamination in such a specimen is very likely. Hoover does not and really can not make a strong case that contamination is ruled out.

Another concern of mine was that he is basing a lot of this on the shape of the structures he sees... but looking like a microbe doesn't make them a microbe! And Hoover goes farther than that. In an earlier work, he states flatly that these objects are fossils, and that they have bacterial structures inside them:

Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) and 2D maps indicate that these filaments in Orgueil are permineralized with magnesium sulfate, encased within carbon-rich sheaths and depleted in Nitrogen. Many of the large and complex forms are polarized filaments that exhibit highly differentiated and specialized cells for nitrogen fixation (heterocysts) and reproduction (hormogonia, akinetes and baeocytes).

Look at the phrasing there: he is stating these things have structures that perform biological processes. There's no "maybe", or "perhaps" in his claims. He is saying quite simply these things were once alive.

I have a serious problem with that. So does Dr. Boston:

I find many morphologies for which I am not sure that it is actually an organism. I have to find many of them repeatedly in the same context to increase confidence, and ideally I am only really sure I have a true beast in those instances when I can actually grow them in the lab and match them up to the morphology.

Shape may be interesting, but it is not nearly enough to make claims of ET life.

Others agree. Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist in British Columbia, has a lot to say about these claims as well. Her conclusions are pretty clear, saying:

As evidence for life this is pathetic.

Yikes. She goes into a lot of detail about Hoover's methods, analysis, and conclusions, and her opinion is pretty clear.

At MSNBC's Cosmic Log, science journalist Alan Boyle talked to some scientists, and they are clear as well. Rocco Mancinelli at Bay Area Environmental Research Institute said:

As a microbiologist who has looked at thousands of microbes through a microscope, and done some of my own electron microscopy, I see no convincing evidence that these particles are of biological origin.

I'll admit these are falling into line with my own initial feelings -- but I wanted to be as sure as I could that my own "Oh come on" reaction wasn't biasing my own opinion. Scientists in this field at best seem to be saying that Hoover's claims are not supported by his evidence. Others are saying he's outright wrong.

The Journal

Also, as a skeptic, the journal that published Hoover's paper raises alarms to say the least. As I pointed out yesterday, the pedigree of the Journal of Cosmology is not exactly sterling. For example, they published an error-laden article on a purported planet in the outer solar system, where the author, Gabriel Beck, took the opportunity to issue a grade-school insult at me. I say this not in retribution or because his words stung (trust me, I hear worse all the time), but because it shows the journal may be somewhat less than academic. Now, you might say the same thing about my blog, but the difference here is that this is a blog, where I am free to state opinions or be silly if I want. A journal that claims to be scientific may wish to hold itself to a different standard.

Again, this is not evidence that Hoover is right or wrong, but it provides a context for the claims. As Ian O'Neill points out in his review of this, why didn't Hoover publish this in Science or Nature, or a scientific journal with a solid history? Why isn't this all over NASA's site? That's not an ad hominem attack; it's a legitimate concern. Hoover is a NASA scientist, and it's odd, to say the least, that this work wasn't published and publicized with NASA's imprimatur.

The News

A lot of folks (in blogs and social network comments) are making hay about Hoover and the Journal going to Fox news with this story, the obvious implication that the words Fox and news shouldn't even be in the same language. While I am no fan of Fox -- to say the very absolute least -- I don't think this is a fair point; it's neither here nor there. Obviously, Hoover and the editors at the journal think this is big news, so they approached a news organization. I do think going to just one group is a little weird, and it smacks of publicity-hounding (which in science has a deservedly bad reputation -- <cough cough> Pons and Fleischmann <cough cough>). However, recently, most of the big online news media have published ridiculous science stories with no fact-checking at all. From asteroid impacts to Betelgeuse exploding, the quality of science reporting has dropped precipitously in many of the so-called mainstream media.

I will note that it's interesting that the journal didn't issue a general press release, though. Given the above, clearly a lot of news venues would've uncritically jumped all over the claims.

It's also interesting that the journal sent word of this to scientists and asked for their opinions; while it smacks of publicity stunt it's also not a terrible idea for a paper that is making an extraordinary claim (although that should be done after a very thorough vetting by referees before publishing, something that is not clear happened with this paper). The real test will be if the journal actually publishes quotes from scientists eviscerating Hoover's work. Given what Drs. Boston, Mancinelli, and Redfield have said, I imagine that will be a common reaction. Will the journal see fit to print them?

The Conclusion (for now)

As I predicted (like it wasn't obvious), this story is spreading like wildfire. A lot of people reading the story see this as a legitimate and conclusive scientific finding, because it was certainly phrased and designed to seem that way. Buzzfeed, for example, has the headline, "NASA Scientist Finds Extraterrestiral [sic] Microbial Life In Meteorite". Other examples abound.

So here's what I think:

1) When I read the paper, my first reaction was pretty strongly of the "Not buyin' it" variety. The science seemed shaky, and Hoover's techniques doubtful, but my lack of expertise prevented me from drawing strong conclusions. However, experts in the field of micro- and astrobiology are starting to weigh in, and clearly think the claims of ET life are bogus.

2) The method of publication is decidedly odd, avoiding the big, reputable journals and instead going with a journal that has published clearly inaccurate articles in the past. I consider this very suspicious but not necessarily evidence the research is wrong.

3) The method of publicizing is also decidedly odd, avoiding going through NASA channels to issue a press release and instead approaching one news venue directly. Again, as in (2), this is suspicious but not conclusive for or against the results.

4) Publicly asking for other scientists' opinions was shrewd, but given the opinions I'm seeing from them so far it's likely to backfire. Hard. But the media won't cover that as much as the original announcement -- it's not as sexy, frankly -- so it's unlikely to make much of a difference there. It's up to blogs and other venues to make sure people get the actual, scientific, and skeptical viewpoint out.

5) Bottom line: given what scientists are saying now, together with my initial reactions and further thought, it's my personal opinion that Hoover's claims are wrong. There are way, way too many red flags here. As a scientist and a skeptic I have to leave some room, no matter how small, for the idea that this might be correct. But that room is tiny indeed, and it looks to me that the search for life beyond Earth will continue, and in time will eventually produce scientifically rigorous results.

But that time is not yet here.



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