Alien Life & Scientific Skepticism: The Sequel
In a bit of deja vu this week, a new paper stirred up fevered online debate about the existence of aliens among us – and the traditions of scientific publications. This time, ground zero for the debate was not the bacteria of arsenic-laced Mono Lake, but microscopic filaments on a rare group of meteorites collected in Antarctica in the 80’s and 90’s. In a paper published last Friday by the Journal of Cosmology, NASA scientist Richard Hoover argued that these filaments are bacterial fossils, of species that fell to Earth with the meteorite – a conclusion that was breathlessly reported by Fox News with the lede “We are not alone in the universe.”
Panspermia, the idea that life on Earth may have been seeded by alien organisms that arrived on the backs of meteorites, is a seductive idea. But as the old saying goes: once bitten by reports of alien bacteria, twice shy. Far fewer science reporters fell for the meteorite alien bacteria as they had on the arsenic-based bacteria story of last December, perhaps because of a lesson learned or merely because of the lower-profile journal in which the new paper appeared. And while the criticisms over the arsenic study took a few days to seep from science blogs to mainstream media, the travel time was much shorter this time around – Phil Plait’s skepticism on his Bad Astronomer blog was quickly trailed by an AP story that carried a chorus of criticism. Questions about the qualifications and objectivity of the author and the journal soon followed, as the Columbia Journalism Review recaps.
As with the arsenic story, the meteorite episode was almost more fascinating for what it says about modern scientific communication than what it said about science itself. On the surface, the Journal of Cosmology appeared to take some progressive steps for publishing research, including making the article free and open access and soliciting commentaries from “100 experts” on the findings, 24 of which were published soon after the original article. That move would appear to address one of the critiques of the team that published the arsenic bacteria paper, regarding their attitude that criticism was only valid through traditional (and slow) peer-reviewed channels, instead of online discussion that is able to react more immediately.
However, a very thorough, critical commentary by microbiologist Rosie Redfield (who also sounded the first alarm about the arsenic bacteria research) has not been published by the journal, while some very odd commentaries have, such as one concluding “Hoover’s findings are incompatible with the creationist model of life based on biblical Genesis and Aristotelian philosophy.” The journal has also reacted petulantly to criticism, posting an editorial called “Have the terrorists won?” that claims “Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study.” So while the latest alien bacterial invasion of Earth’s media is showing some steps in the right direction, it also signals that the growing pains of adapting scientific discussion to a faster media age are still present.
Last week, the Medical Center was part of a four-way kidney swap that spanned the country, from the Bronx to California (we should have a video of the event posted next week). Coincidentally, in a New York Times editorial published Sunday, the Medical Center’s Lainie Ross argued that such swaps or “donor chains” were a better option than proposed revisions to the current organ allocation system that would prioritize younger recipients.
The FDA held a two-day meeting this week about the future of personal genetics, from sequencing services such as 23andme to home tests for diseases. As recapped by Genetic Future and Genomics Law Report, there are hints that the regulatory agency may choose to require that test results with clinical implications be routed through a physician, rather than served directly to consumers. Some observers don’t like that possibility, at all.
I just finished reading Moby Dick for the first time, and was surprised at how much of it was pure science writing, particularly in Melville’s many, many descriptions of whale anatomy and size. Primed for more whale news, I enjoyed this piece by Carl Zimmer on a biological puzzle – with so many cells making up their enormity, why don’t blue whales die at a young age of cancer? “The mere existence of whales suggests that is possible to suppress cancer many-fold better than is done in humans,” the authors write (rather beautifully, I think). The article also teaches an awesome new term: Peto’s Paradox, the lack of correlation between body size and cancer risk.