The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Can't ignore it, but ...

... the claim that micro fossils of bacteria in the interior of CI1 carbonaceous chondritic meteorites comes with a whiff of libenter homenes(1).

The claim is big: evidence of extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately, the researcher, Dr. Richard B. Hoover, and the journal in which his paper is published are essentially dedicated to proving the principle of panspermia, the idea that life is strewn all over the universe and spreads itself by means of asteroids, meteorites, comets, and planets bashing into each other. Of the several views of life outside Earth, this one has always seemed less likely to me than, for example, the notion that here and there a set of conditions (not necessarily the same ones) permit life to kick start itself. This has, for me, a ring of truth in that it mimics the other completely random ways the universe behaves. Obviously, I know less about the topic, technically, than my dog (who may be an expert, for all I know; she may in fact be an alien who's landed an easy job.)

The journal, whose status as "peer-reviewed" and even "scientific" is questioned by some experts, went to a certain amount of trouble to get input on the article (whether they implemented any suggestions received is not stated.(2)) They have published the comments -- some of them, anyway -- along with the article, and most seem to be complementary; there is a strange emphasis on the amount of work Dr. Hoover had to do, and how respectable his credentials are. Almost as though the commenters were anticipating the firestorm of criticism that will surely appear, from the religious groups who contend that life exists nowhere else but here to academics whose work is somehow challenged. Just for example: "Carl Pilcher, who heads NASA's Astrobiology Institute, said the rocks have been handled for more than 100 years. He said they are likely contaminated with Earth microbes. The space agency released a statement distancing itself from Hoover's study."

The pile-on will now commence, just as it did the last time somebody said they found fossil bacteria in a meteorite (There have been a number of such claims, it turns out, all set aside after intense scrutiny.) Because I love this kind of scientific, um, discourse, I guess you'd say, I'll be watching with interest. We'll keep you posted.

2011 03 09: Let the games begin. The Journal of Cosmology admits that " reason for publishing the controversial claim was to help find a buyer (for the journal.)"

2011 03 10: Another discussion of the article; highly critical. Something else I'd missed: one of the names most frequently cited by Hoover and the people who commented favorably on his work was that of Chandra Wickramasinghe, who turns out to be the Journal of Cosmology's Executive Editor for Astrobiology. [2011 03 20 Micro update: Wickramasinghe has been canned from his job at the University of Cardiff -- according to this blog post, anyway.]

2011 03 14: The Editor in Chief of the Journal of Cosmology, Rudy Schild, posted what he apparently believes is a rebuttal of the criticism, saying, in part:

"The publication of Richard Hoover's paradigm shattering discovery of microfossils within carbonaceous meteorites, unleashed an ugly storm of violent, histrionic invective not seen since the Middle Ages when they burned scientists for making discoveries that threatened the established order. Charlatans and quacks quickly emerged, and the media unabashedly published their ravings, recklessly casting delusional filth upon the reputations of the Journal of Cosmology and its editorial board..."

Here's an example of the violent, histrionic invective he's talking about. Not exactly Charlie Sheen, in my view, but maybe I'm inured to it.

Oh, and if you'd like a sample of just how high above histrionic invective the Journal holds itself, have a look at this press release (which directly contradicts, by the way, an assertion on the website that they are NOT going out of business.)

20110318: Apparently the whole thing had driven the Editor (or someone -- the latest screed on Journal of Cosmology's home page isn't signed) barking mad. Here's an example of his (or someone's) deepest and most professional take on the topic:

"The choice is simple: Science as advocated by the Journal of Cosmology, or religion masquerading as science as advocated by our critics."

Our way or the highway. You might also be interested in the characterization of NASA executives as demonic defenders of religious faith; there's also a claim that they "threatened" the article's author, Dr. Hoover, including "...demanding that he recant, even as his wife lay dying and he was sick with cancer." No one expects the NASA inquisition!

The lesson would seem to be: you can get a PhD and still lose your mind. You can start a vanity press (not my term -- someone else called JOC that) and still lose your mind. You can even get advanced degrees from prestigious institutions and work for important and well-funded government agencies and still be stark, staring mad. It's a freedom we all enjoy. Some abuse it more than others.

20110322: maybe the last word on all this, from Hugo Chavez: "I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet..."

(1) Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt; People believe what they want to believe. Julius Caesar - also the motto of the Wood-Charles News Service.
(2) The journal in question could stand some process improvement in its editorial department. The synopsis of the article has the word "date" used in place of "data," meaning that they're relying on a spell checker.

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