NASA speaks out boldly on the ‘bacteria from space’ claims

That was sarcasm in the title, everyone. NASA has released a public statement in which they gingerly edge away from Hoover’s paper.

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.

In other words, “What paper? We don’t know nothin’ about that paper.”

It’s disappointing cover-their-butts bureaucratese from an organization that, as a science and engineering institution, ought to have a rather more demanding attitude about rigor and evidence. Oh, well. It’s one small step for a bureaucracy; one giant leap…which a bureaucrat won’t take.

By the way, my phone has been busy over this nonsense today. I don’t quite know what it is, but for some reason the initial claim of “Life in space!” struck a chord with many people, and the fact that a number of scientists are quickly replying with “No, it isn’t” is making some people very, very angry. We’re also seeing a lot of that infuriated rejection of the rejection in the comments here.

I think many confuse their wish to see evidence of extraterrestrial life with the evidence for extraterrestrial life. Personally, I’d love to see the discovery of life that originated elsewhere other than our world — that would provide a radically different insight into evolution. I know there has been evidence of organic molecules in space, and I suspect that life does exist on other planets (possibly even other planets in our solar system), but I’m not going to accept a claim of discovery without adequate evidence.

And I’m sorry, but Hoover’s paper is poorly written, sloppy work that uses a non-biologist’s impressions of complex textures in a mineral to imply morphological evidence for fossilized bacteria. You’d think NASA would know better: we had a similar phenomenon a few years ago, in which people claimed to see a “face on Mars,” a claim that NASA effectively debunked. This is the same thing. It’s a shame that NASA isn’t being as quick to dismiss bad science this time around.