Friday, 11 March 2011

SOS: Save our Science - Yet More Alien Bacteria. Really!

I saw James Watson last night! and I have his autograph. :D He was in London, in conversation with Brenda Maddox, who wrote Rosalind Franklin's biography. It was fascinating, although I have to admit that he was clearly on his very best behaviour and kept the outrageous comments to a minimum. I'd also like to take this as my excuse for any 'enthusiastic' comments in the post below, which is a great peiece of storytelling. This week was also my first outreach talk to school children, I think it went rather well, although I'll be writing much more on that in a few weeks.
OK, so this is another story that I was asked to write (Yay!). Once again there have been reports of alien bacteria in meteorites (that’s the third time in 14 years, if you’re counting).Here is the latest story, I suggest you read it first as it makes what I’ll be saying more surprising. Go on, I’ll wait. Sounds good doesn’t it, highly acclaimed doctor with a paper in a prestigious sounding journal, with authoritative quotes and everything. Not only that but the journal seems to have gone to great lengths to ensure extensive peer reviewing of the findings before publishing. Well, as with many stories that get NASA plastered to them, it’s got a lot of people rather riled up and for a lot of different reasons. Read on and I’m sure you’ll see why.

This is a fantastic story, I’ve never seen so many mistakes made by so many people in so many different ways, it’s quite a feat of engineering really. Also it does go to show that some people really do never learn. The roots of this story lie all the way back in 1997 when NASA scientists reported finding bacterial fossils in a meteorite from Mars.

This astonishing and revolutionary finding was reported by Richard B. Hoover who works at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre. This was discounted shortly afterwards when it became apparent that the structures observed were probably contaminants from the time the sample spent on Earth before being studied. Now some people would learn from such a colossal mistake that was a huge embarrassment for NASA and Hoover personally.

This bacterium from Earth looks strangely like some observed in these meteorites (source)

Hoover, however, is made of stronger stuff. After his error in 1997 I’d like to say that he improved his working scheme, ensuring all samples were properly sterilised and cross checked before announcing proof of alien life to the public. But he didn’t. He returned in 2007, although with less impact (mainly due to lack of a successful publication), to say that he really had found life, this time in a totally different type of meteorite. Thankfully this time he attracted less attention.

Now, to the delight of many, Richard B. Hoover has returned to the public stage, thanks in no small part to the lovely people at FOX news, with another attempt. He’s still looking at the same rocks from 2007 but this time he REALLY thinks he’s got it.

This is all funny enough already but this is just the beginnings of the story. Firstly, I feel that, to save on confusion, I should point out now that Richard B. Hoover, the head researcher and main author on all of these published works does not hold any form of doctorate, and this has been confirmed by an official press release from NASA, although at times it seems that even NASA has got this wrong. Despite this, Hoover has given himself the title in his latest paper and this has been subsequently misreported by numerous journalists worldwide. Hoover’s highest qualification is in fact a BSc.

Richard B Hoover BSc, on ice (source).

You might at least expect him to be a qualified microbiologist, an expert in identification of bacterial life forms. Especially when he goes around making claims like this about his bacterial fossils, “There are some that are just very strange and don’t look like anything that I’ve been able to identify, and I’ve shown them to many other experts that have also come up stump.” Once again, you’d be in for a surprise since Hoover is qualified as and is employed as an engineer, with no background in biological sciences.

My personal favourite quote was this, “The exciting thing is that they are in many cases recognizable and can be associated very closely with the generic species here on earth.” This is a tremendous failure of the application of the scientific principle called Occam’s Razor, which states that one should always assume the simplest and most obvious explanation that fits with all the available data until something arises to contradict that view. Some of the rocks that Hoover studied in his latest report have been on Earth for over 200 years (Alais, fell 15/02/1809)! Hence, the simplest explanation is to assume that bacteria came to live on or in these rocks since they fell, and not that there were fossils present in the rocks which came from space. These living bacteria would still appear as fossils when imaged by Hoover. It would actually be more surprising to find that there were not Earth bacteria on the meteorites. Taking this view, it is no surprise that most of the ‘fossils’ observed were surprisingly similar to native species, whilst Hoover’s background makes it unsurprising that he was unable to recognise all the species observed, and I suspect that, given Hoover’s past record, few experts in bacterial identification were willing to discuss findings with him.

The simplest solution that fits all of the available data (source)

Right, I think I’ve gone far enough with that. “Dr. Richard B. Hoover” it looks really good in the news stories, and calling him things like “lead researcher.” But what really impresses is that this is a published paper in an important sounding journal, the “Journal of Cosmology.” A nice simple name like that, it must be prestigious, it must be the leader in the field. Right? Nope, not by a long shot.

The leader in this field is the Journal of Astrobiology, which I should mention rejected Hoover’s paper as with most respectable journals it publishes online and in print and takes great care over peer-reviewing all submissions to ensure all findings are of a high quality. It has a distinct business image and is generally professional and well presented. By contrast, the Journal of Cosmology is one of the most unprofessional websites I’ve ever seen (I'm sure they're all very nice, skilled people, but they really need to get someone to make them a website), although I’m sure they had fun pulling all of those images from the NASA archives. It is an online ‘publication’ which has been running for 2 years now. I am also very wary of any journal that feels the need to tell you quite so many times and quite so often how thoroughly it peer reviews all papers before publication, it all feels a bit too much like a smokescreen. Every issue is a compilation of the most outlandish, fringe hypotheses known to the field, with the major focus squarely on proving that life came from outer space on a meteorite.

This is a very cute idea and I have nothing personally against it, but if you’re going to try and prove a point you should try and use reliable data from people with relevant qualifications. Also the theory of Panspermia, as it is called, as many often point out, doesn’t really solve anything. Whilst it pushes the origins of life away from our planet it doesn’t put us any closer to an answer to how life began in the first place, which is the real question everyone is interested in.

An image of alien bacteria? (source)
What I find most interesting is the Journal’s approach to this paper. They have made a very big point of inviting many scientists to read this paper before publication, stating that “no other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough vetting.” However from the few commentaries that have been posted (21 of an invited 5000) it is apparent that few of those invited have any specialisation in relevant fields, and I suspect that many who are experts are unlikely to have been ready to provide any extensive feedback to a journal that is widely accepted by the field as promoting unusual and unsubstantiated viewpoints. The comments also highlight that these same rocks have been under scrutiny since at least the 1960s, so this work isn’t exactly new. Unsurprisingly the comments are remarkably supportive of all of Hoover’s “revolutionary work” but given the online firestorm that has followed this publications I get the impression that the scientific community doesn’t agree with Hoover quite as much as the Journal of Cosmology would like you to think. It is also fun to note that the journal is very careful not to accredit Hoover the title of Doctor and any point in its commentary on the paper.

The response of the Journal to criticism by the scientific establishment, and even by the more intelligent parts of the press, is a source of great entertainment. It is a litany of overinflated generalised claims, carefully avoiding mentioning too many specifics and pulling in any establishment the author could possibly think of to prove the validity of the journal. Whilst I don’t dispute the truth of these claims, mostly because I don’t want to go through their whole back catalogue to check, it all seems rather childish and desperate and we must remember that the bigger and more prestigious associations tend to have the most eccentrics. There is, after all, a fine line between genius and insanity. And once again they feel they need to remind you that the DO peer review. Although with little indication of who is involved in this process. It’s quite a fun statement to read overall, although try not to get sucked into that bit at the end about how brave they are for publishing all of this stuff.

The publication of this paper of Friday was swiftly followed by a NASA announcement on Monday stating:

"NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper's subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper." - Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington

This has since been corrected to show that the findings were rejected by the Journal of Astrobiology It is of course unsurprising that NASA abandoned their many and ran screaming for the hills over this issue after the humiliation they suffered at the hands of the arsenic bacteria fiasco a few months ago and given that they are probably feeling quite tender lately as their flagship fleet slowly drops out of commission.

As with many stories on such a loaded topic, even the slightest discovery can spark responses across the board, and astrobiology is the stuff science reporters dream of. It is a hotly argued debate in the field whether life could have originated on other planets and since there’s no strong evidence either way yet it seems a bit of a moot point. I don’t know why we can’t hold off on the mudslinging until there is some nice confirmed data one way or the other, by a qualified team of specialists published in an established and respectable journal, but that’s fairly typical too. Scientists are always passionate about their work and this enthusiasm is important to doing good science, but it can be a problem of your enthusiasm clouds your objective viewpoint.

I do sincerely wish Richard Hoover all of the best, first in figuring out whether or not he did actually spend several years in a research institute trying to get a PhD and if he didn’t could he kindly stop claiming it, they’re hard to get. Second, I really do hope that one day he does find alien life, because I’ve spent too much time watching Sci-Fi shows and I think it’d be really cool.

Ed: The Journal of Cosmology is so obscure I had to create this citation for Research Blogging manually!!

Richard B. Hoover (2011). Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites Journal of Cosmology, 13


Liz said...

I am massively jealous of you meeting James Watson! And I should really read Franklin's biography at some point.

The post is great too, by the way! I'd seen the headlines, been sceptical, and not really read any further, so it's nice to have something that covers all the background and the reasons why not to believe the headlines. It's a crazier situation than I'd have guessed, though O_o Poor NASA...

SSS said...

Hey, thanks for this. it's great to see a considered view of the evidence and background. Much appreciated.