OMG ALIENS!!1!! Or is it Just More Fake Science News?

by on March 6th, 2011 2 comments

A young Richard Hoover with Werner Von Braun, 1972. NASA image.

OMG ALIENS!1!!!

Richard B. Hoover, a scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, has an article in this month’s Journal of Cosmology (reported by Fox News) in which he claims that components of CI1 Carbonaceous meteorites show evidence of bacterial life that could not have come from Earth. There are only nine such meteorites on Earth, but Hoover’s conclusion is explicit: the life came from the meteorites’ “parent bodies,” which means asteroids, comets, or other planets.

Like I said, OMGALIENS!11!!!!1, right?

Not really. Or, at least, not yet. Or, at least, “yeah maybe,” with a very strong emphasis on the mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm in “maybe.”

Y’see, some of us aren’t so convinced that this is a discovery. That bastion of technical reporting, Gawker, points out that Hoover has been made a suspiciously similar claim before, in 2004. His 2007 presentation “for the general public” described at the website of Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers seems more cautious. But Gawker calls the Fox story “fake” and adds, concerning Journal of Cosmology:

Why couldn’t Hoover place this amazing discovery in a more prestigious journal? In 1996, when NASA scientists claimed to have found evidence of bacteria life on a meteorite from Mars, their paper appeared in the most prestigious science journal of all: Science. (The discovery was later debunked.)

[Link.]

That 1996 claim, by the way, is described here on the NASA site, and the Science article is here. It has a bunch of scientists names on it, led by David McKay. The Journal of Cosmology article has ONLY Hoover’s name on it.

The paper was posted on Journal of Cosmology late Friday night, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything — but that does happen to be a very common technique in PR circles for “burying” news, since everyone wants to go home for the night. I’m not sure it really works any more, though, now that most of the news in the world is written by people in their underwear. Anyway, Yahoo News published its initial article on the report, following on the Fox article, Saturday in the 5pm hour. Yahoo called  Journal of Cosmology a “peer-reviewed scientific journal,” which it is, more or less, as if that means anything. Then they added this update:

While the Journal of Cosmology says that “no other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough vetting,” some highly respected names in the scientific community are challenging the validity of Cosmology, and the findings of Dr. Hoover…So there you have it — this is either reality-altering news, or the work of kooks. Our hearts believe, but our brains are kind of bummed.

The assertion that Journal of Cosmology is a peer-reviewed scientific journal may be true, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. Saying something is a peer-reviewed journal can be a red herring. “Peer” does not necessarily mean “respected mainstream scientist.” “Peer” can mean “other global warming deniers,” or “other creation theologists,” or “other Bigfoot hunters.” Some UFO journals have been said to be peer reviewed, because articles are reviewed by other UFOlogists. Just because an article contains improbable or controversial assertions does not make it the work of bad scientists, but neither does peer review per se guarantee anything at all, if you don’t know who the peers are.

Yahoo News helpfully points me at PZ Meyers at Science Blogs, who leads his post by pointing out that the story originated with Fox News, not exactly known as a bastion of accurate science reporting. Fox headlined it “exclusive” and interviewed Hoover for their article. Furthermore, Meyers has had beefs with JofC before. Wanna know Meyers’ opinion of Journal of Cosmology in general? Glad you asked!!!

It isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth. It doesn’t exist in print, consists entirely of a crude and ugly website that looks like it was sucked through a wormhole from the 1990s, and publishes lots of empty noise with no substantial editorial restraint. For a while, it seemed to be entirely the domain of a crackpot named Rhawn Joseph who called himself the emeritus professor of something mysteriously called the Brain Research Laboratory, based in the general neighborhood of Northern California (seriously, that was the address: “Northern California”), and self-published all of his pseudo-scientific “publications” on this web site.

Meyers had a beef with Journal of Cosmology back in 2009, so maybe PZ Meyers is just a dick, right? Well…if you look at the 2009 article from Meyers, on ScienceBlogs.com — note the “s” — it looks like there are a whole truckload of DING-DING-DINGs that say “asshattery” at Journal of Cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean the research isn’t good. But it serves as a helpful reminder that people who say “I’m a scientist” aren’t necessarily good ones.

So here’s PZ Meyers again, this time from a 2009 post:

There is a site called ScienceBlog, at scienceblog.com. Note that it is a little different from scienceblogs.com — it lacks the “s”. There are a few other differences, too: it’s a site that simply reprints press releases. Send ‘em anything, and they’ll spit it back up on the web for you.

One such example is a press release titled Life on Earth came from other planets. It purports to be a summary of a peer-reviewed, published research paper.

This one:

“Life on Earth Came From Other Planets,” by R. Joseph, Ph.D. Cosmology, Vol 1. 2009.

There are a few funny things about this article. The journal Cosmology doesn’t seem to exist. Then notice “Vol. 1″…this is the inaugural issue. It contains a grand total of one (1) paper, the aforementioned article by Rhawn Joseph.

Wait! It does exist! The “journal” exists as a web page only; go ahead, here’s Cosmology, 2009, Vol 1, pages 00000. You can read the whole article, which you know was peer reviewed, because it says so in the upper left corner: “Peer Reviewed”.

Guess who the web page can be traced to? Rhawn Joseph.

I think you begin to see a pattern here. If you can’t get your crappy paper published in a legitimate journal, invent one!

[Link.]

According to his bio, Meyers is a “biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris.” He should watch that wording, as “biologist and associate professor” could mean he is an amateur biologist and an associate professor of Russian Literature. But Meyers really is a Biology professor. Here’s his Wiki page, hata. Hoover is a real scientist, too; he’s an astrobiologist who got NASA’s 2009 SPIE medal from the Society for Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers, and is a specialist in extremophiles. But he’s made similar claims before, and it hasn’t panned out.

What does this mean?

Just that the mainstream, general-interest media doesn’t have the faintest idea what it’s talking about when it comes to science of any form. In another bogus Fox News article last week that I took to task yesterday at the NSFW TinyNibbles.com, the information is fragmentary and largely non-technical. That article is about online porn use and involves social science — behavior, that is — more than physical science, so the underlying facts carry the patina of comprehensibility to the casual reader.

With the Hoover story, we’re deluged in the Fox article and elsewhere with ba-da-bing, flibby flibby, cyanobacteria hummina!! It all sounds very good. Is it? Does the reporter have any idea?

Sure, I should theoretically be able to trust Hoover, as a “real” “scientist,” to know what he’s talking about. But this is a HUGE claim — if it is credible — to be published in a fringe journal with a single author’s name on it, instead of somewhere far more prestigious. If it is not credible, of course, well, then…that would explain why it’s published there.

I don’t trust Fox News to know the difference. Claims of “peer review” seem to be enough for them, and for most news writers.

When the media reports that something is published in a “peer-reviewed scientific journal,” they are implying that it has been published in a respected, prestigious scientific journal. Ideally, they should know what they’re talking about when they report that.

Scientists who publish in fringe publications but benefit from the media’s ignorance when that media implies that it is a prestigious source cannot then complain about the “monolithic” nature of the scientific establishment — hostile to innovation and terrified of radical ideas — something that UFO researchers, extremophile believers, life-after-death investigators and ghost hunters often do.

You get it one way or the other.

Either publishing in prestigious scientific journals doesn’t matter, because science doesn’t know where it’s at…or it does matter, and journals like the Journal of Cosmology are suspect.

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  1. March 7th, 2011 at 07:04 | #1

    What’s funny about articles like this dubious aliens story is that my interwebs bullshit detector is set so sensitive, I never even see them.

    Oh, don’t get me wrong, I see the headlines … this one crossed my consciousness in two different places yesterday, with an auto-generated mental tag that said “Bullshit!” attached. I didn’t click, so I never saw the article.

    This internet BS filter is so strong and active for me that I cannot even tell you the specifics of how it works. I’m not sure whether it was the content of the headline, the sources where I saw it (already forgotten), or the breathless nature of how the headline was written — but I “knew” there would be no substance if I clicked, just some poorly-supported claim from a dubious source.

    I can tell you that there’s a sort of volume effect that kicks in on stories like this that are relevant to my interests but likely to be bullshit. If a headline I’ve been ignoring (because it’s mentally tagged as bullshit) starts repeating in more of the places I frequent, or I start seeing follow up confirming headlines, I’ll adjust the BS filter and start clicking through for details. When they really do find alien fossils, I trust the internets not to let me ignore the story forever.

  2. March 7th, 2011 at 07:13 | #2

    Bacchus — I think you can say that with confidence — if they really discover alien fossils, the headlines will keep coming and will escalate… maybe a “Stephen Hawking says reports of alien fossils may not be bullshit” or something…