Someone let the panspermists out of their cages again

I’m rather astonished that Salon chose to publish this article, Why some scientists believe life may have started on Mars. The operative words in that title are some – we’re talking about a tiny fringe minority – and believe, because they sure don’t have any evidence for their ideas. I guess Salon is desperate for news, so they’re letting writers invent some.

They don’t provide any evidence for their claim, only a weak chain of rationalizations.

  • Some Mars rocks have been found on Earth. True enough. Meteor collisions with Mars can splash rocks into space, and they occasionally fall to Earth.
  • Maybe early Martian life was adapted to survive meteor impacts, and was so hardy it could have survived the accidental launch and long journey? I had to laugh. Nothing evolves to survive meteor impacts.
  • Maybe early life was fine with harsh environments? Early life would have been adapted to aqueous environments; “harsh” is floating away from food sources and warmth and a predictable pH, not drying out completely and surviving a vacuum.
  • Life on Earth evolved “quickly”, too quickly. Yeah, we think replicators evolved shortly after the planet cooled enough to have liquid water. We’re talking within…200 million years. That’s not enough time? How do you know?
  • Mars cooled before Earth, therefore life could have evolved there first. Wait, you think 200 million years is inadequate for life to evolve on Earth, but there was time enough for it to evolve on Mars?

The real reason this fact-free idea is getting promoted is because a couple of crackpots from Harvard, Gary Ruvkun and Avi Loeb (remember him? The Oumuamua guy?) said it, and “Harvard” is a magical incantation to the rubes. They don’t have a speck of evidence, though. It all sounds like something someone would have babbled about over lunch, and then the speculation went critical, and because they’re Harvard guys, they think it’s worth announcing to the news agencies. That’s it. That’s all this is.

They’re not even particularly clever Harvard guys.

“To me the idea that it all started on Earth, and every single solar system has their own little evolution of life happening, and they’re all independent — it just seems kind of dumb,” Ruvkun said. “It’s so much more explanatory to say ‘no, it’s spreading, it’s spreading all across the universe, and we caught it too, it didn’t start here,” he added. “And in this moment during the pandemic — what a great moment to pitch the idea. Maybe people will finally believe it.”

“Seems kind of dumb” is not an argument. It seems kind of dumb to me to suggest that the first life on earth, which would have been fragile and relatively simple, happened to be so robust and stable that it could have survived a massive shock that threw it into space, where it drifted for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years, in a vacuum, bathing in radiation, to survive a super-heated re-entry to an alien atmosphere, crashing to Earth to resume where it left off on a Martian ocean. And that this was a more significant contribution to early life than countless chemical reactions churning out organic molecules at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.

These people are fine with reciting silly arguments about the great improbability of chemicals coming together to form a self-perpetuating metabolism, but hey, chance survivors on rare random rocks flung into an immensely empty space happening to coincidentally hit a dot of a world a hundred million kilometers away, or even hundreds of light years away, no problem.

And they think a pandemic will help them? Aside from the tastelessness of that notion, we can’t even convince millions of people to wear a mask, yet they think this will convince them that we’re all descendants of Martians? At best it means these guys think people are gullible enough to fall for their crackpot ideas now.

The Noah’s Ark/DNA guy is back

Earlier, I posted those emails from a creationist telling me that he had a “theory” that united human genomics and Noah’s ark. I told him I was uninterested in the conversation. Of course, he wouldn’t shut up and sent me another email today.

Yesterday I sent you my theory on human genetics and Noah’s Ark. Today, I am sending you the theory again in hopes that you’ll read it. It only takes 10 minutes of your time and it’s finding may be life changing. If you will just suspend your disbelief and are willing to entertain the idea that everything we know is wrong, you may find this theory interesting. I am a college graduate in the field of Biology and a former atheist/evolutionist. I am well studied in the theory of evolution as well as new atheism, so I understand this idea might seem absurd at first. However, with an open mind this theory will be life changing.

I’ll give you his “evidence” now. First of all, there is no theory to read: he sent me a pdf titled Theory that is nothing more than a list of biblical patriarchs and the haplogroups he assigns to them. That’s it! A list is not a theory.

To make it even worse, he sent an assortment of images organized by each of the biblical patriarchs — photos of modern people of different races. This is also not a theory. (I’m not attaching that here — it’s pointless.)

Then he sent a map of “Noah’s World”, showing the imaginary migration routes of Noah’s descendent. It’s a map. Not a theory.

And finally, there’s a Y DNA haplogroup map. Not a theory.

My life has not changed, and I don’t find the “theory” very interesting. It is absurd. And stupid.

Jordan Peterson is a woo-merchant

Lately, on my YouTube channel, I’ve been plagued with Peterson fanatics suddenly popping up on old videos and leaving weird, unfocused comments like “Strawman!” and “Fallacies!”, without bothering to tell me what I’ve strawmanned or what my fallacy was. But then, if you’re a Peterson cultist, you’ve probably already got serious logical deficits. So anyway, for this week’s Bad Science Sunday (it’s early, but calendars are merely a social construct anyway), I decided to infuriate them even more. It was fun.

As usual, I end with a plea to subscribe to my channel, or to sign up for my Patreon, but also with a request that everyone pray to Skaði, Goddess of Winter, because it’s almost the end of November and we have no snow on the ground, and it’s freaking me out.

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The Grand Prize for Pseudoscientific Gobbledygook goes to…the University of Pittsburgh!

This is an amazingly demented paper, titled Can Traditional Chinese Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis. It’s such a tangle of random inferences and wild-ass leaps, all built on a foundation of disbelief in the germ theory of medicine. And it goes on and on! Just the abstract is nuts enough!

Thoracic organs, namely, the lungs and kidneys in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-associated coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), exhibit silicate/glass-like (hyaline) and iron oxides-like deposits, which are like serpentinization-induced minerals. The discovery of the chiral-induced spin selectivity effect suggests that a resonant external magnetic field could alter the spin state of electrons in biogenic molecules and result in the magnetic catalysis of aberrant molecules and disease. We propose here that carbon dioxide-rich water-peridotite (a ferromagnesian silicate) interactions generate abnormal lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies (LWMAs) via serpentinization, during conditions with increased terrestrial water storage and atmospheric carbon dioxide, and a weakened geomagnetic field. Furthermore, we provide evidence supporting a hypothesis, which posits, COVID-19 is a pathologic manifestation of resonant LWMAs-induced magnetic catalysis of iron oxides-silicate-like minerals from biogenic molecules and the coronavirus from endogenous viral elements, with the virus particles capable of replication and transmission to other hosts. We propose that those LWMAs are associated with the production of iron oxides-silicate rock minerals in tectonic plates with Proterozoic cratons. Thus, severe COVID-19 outbreaks are/will predominately occur in Eurasia and the Americas and are governed by the spatiotemporal dynamics of terrestrial water storage and the semiannual oscillation of the weakening geomagnetic magnetic field. We propose that the ferromagnetic-like iron stores in humans are the unifying determinant for COVID-19-induced morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, we propose that Nephrite-Jade amulets (a calcium-ferromagnesian silicate) developed by Neolithic Chinese Medicine to prevent thoracic organ disease, may prevent COVID-19.

I read the whole paper by Moses Turkle Bility. It was a wild ride. Let me try to summarize the whole thing in non-gibberish.

  • They had two rooms full of immunocompromised experimental rats.
  • These rats had been surgically implanted with fetal human hematopoietic tissue for reasons unknown, but for an experiment that had been approved by the university.
  • A respiratory disease swept through the colony, affecting one room more than the other. Nothing is made of this observation.
  • COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. Therefore they called this a COVID-19-like disease. Gotta cash in on the hot topics, you know!
  • They dissected the dead rats and found hemorrhagic patches and silicate/glass-like structures in their lungs. These are not clearly evident in the photos, but OK…
  • Silicate/glass-like structures? Surely, this means the phenomenon is similar to the phenomenon of serpentization in geology! (I’m wobbly on what serpentization is, but here’s a short definition.)
  • Therefore, we must immediately delve deep into geological processes and oscillations in planetary electromagnetic fields. Ta da!

  • We assume Long-Wavelength Magnetic Anomalies Induces COVID-19 Via Magnetic Catalysis, not that silly germ theory or zoonotic infection by a zoonotically-derived virus. I guess we know what causes COVID-19 now, and it isn’t a virus.
  • Nephrite-Jade Amulets Interacts With LWMAs (long-wavelength magnetic anomalies) and prevents disease in thoracic organs. I guess we know what cures COVID-19 now.
  • There was no test of the effect of LWMAs on the rats. They also didn’t make itty-bitty jade amulets for them.

That’s all remarkable bullshit presented in a kind of rabid stream-of-consciousness form, with the major conclusions neither tested nor even logically implied by the circumstances that triggered the “study”. It was not so much a “study” as some guy’s rat lab being devastated by a disease, so he retreats to his office to make a lengthy rationalization based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and half-assed geology. No experiments were done, yet he leaps to all these bizarre conclusions. Just look at the diagram above, most of which is irrelevant noise stitched together with unjustified premises!

There is nothing in Bility’s CV to suggest anything but a background in competently executed biomedical research. He’s an untenured assistant professor, though. This is the kind of paper that, if presented to the tenure committee, would instantly call his stability and his ability to do good science into question. Poor guy.

Also, that Elsevier would publish such an idiotic, science-deny paper would question their competence as a publisher if we didn’t already know that Elsevier was an evil, corrupt company.

Uh-oh. This wasn’t a one-off weirdness. Bility has also published Stonehenge as a public health intervention device for preventing lithospheric magnetic field-induced emerging diseases and megadeath during periods of severely weakened geomagnetic field. Way to scuttle a career, guy!

How can you tell when a creationist is making stuff up?

I read this paper, “Using statistical methods to model the fine-tuning of molecular machines and systems”, a while back, and it was obvious crap. You can tell right there in the abstract where it makes a promise it does not deliver on, that “molecular fine-tuning…challenges conventional Darwinian thinking”. It then goes on to make a statistical argument that the probability of producing a functional protein with chance and selection is infinitesimal, that the waiting time problem is a killer for Darwinian mechanisms (it isn’t), and cites Behe extensively. The authors, Thorvaldsen and Hössjer, might as well have fired off a flare that exploded in flaming glitter letters that spelled out “I AM A CREATIONIST”, followed by Thorvaldsen doing a happy dance because he got his garbage published in a legitimate journal.

Now the journal has published an apology (not a retraction, an apology — it’s weird).

The Journal of Theoretical Biology and its co-Chief Editors do not endorse in any way the ideology of nor reasoning behind the concept of intelligent design. Since the publication of the paper it has now become evident that the authors are connected to a creationist group (although their addresses are given on the paper as departments in bona fide universities). We were unaware of this fact while the paper was being reviewed. Moreover, the keywords “intelligent design” were added by the authors after the review process during the proofing stage and we were unaware of this action by the authors. We have removed these from the online version of this paper. We believe that intelligent design is not in any way a suitable topic for the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Hold on there, cowboy. Your reviewers and editors were unable to figure out that this was a creationist/intelligent design paper except that the authors added the keywords “intelligent design” post review? And you think removing the keywords now is sufficient action? If “intelligent design” is not a suitable topic, why is the paper still there with only the most superficial change?

I am not impressed with the perspicacity of the Journal of Theoretical Biology, and suspect that whoever wrote that strange disendorsement is lying.

Don’t be fooled by the Barrington Declaration

Even as COVID-19 infection rates are rising, there are people out there lobbying for decreased diligence. Open all the businesses! Party on! If everyone gets the disease, we’ll acquire herd immunity! That latter is from people who previously pooh-poohed the concept in order to defend anti-vaxxers, who now don’t give a damn if a few million people die in order to reach the unreachable goal. Worst of all, the right-wing think tanks are backing the nonsense. A small group of conservative shills have formulated something they call the Barrington Declaration.

The declaration, which calls for an immediate resumption of “life as normal” for everyone except the “vulnerable”, is written by three science professors from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, giving it the sheen of academic respectability. But there is much to set alarm bells ringing. It makes claims about herd immunity – the idea that letting the virus rip among less vulnerable groups will allow a degree of population-level immunity to build up which will eventually protect the more vulnerable – that are unsupported by existing scientific evidence. The professors do not define who is “vulnerable”, nor do they set out a workable plan for shielding them. The declaration sets itself up against a straw proposal that nobody is arguing for – a full-scale national lockdown until a vaccine is made available. There is no acknowledgement of the massive scientific uncertainty that exists with a new disease.

It’s coming out of an organization called the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which, as you might guess from the name, is not a medical or scientific institution, but one focused on making money for its sponsors or throwing out noise to prevent sensible initiatives that might save lives, but reduce profits. It’s fake.

The statement claims to have been signed by more than 6,000 medical scientists, but anyone can sign up claiming to be one (there are a number of fake medical signatories on the list, including a Dr Harold Shipman). When Sky News pressed one of the co-authors on this, he said: “We do not have the resources to audit each signature.” Consider what this approach would mean for scientific endeavour were it applied more broadly. And what are scientists doing fronting a campaign whose back office is run by a thinktank that flirts with climate change denial?

(The Shipman name is fake, I hope, since Dr Harold Shipman was a serial killer who committed suicide.)

This phony declaration business is a familiar tactic used by cranks, quacks, and profiteers, and I’ve run into it many times. There are a lot of gullible people who fall for it, though — false authority is a useful tool to sway the suckers, I guess. But today I first learned that there is a handy, succinct name for it from David Gorski.

I’ll discuss why that’s the case in a moment, but first I’d like to take a trip down memory lane to revisit various examples of science denialists using similar “declarations,” “petitions,” and “open letters” to give the false appearance of strong scientific support for their positions. Why? Because declarations like this, although they can be used for good (such as when US climate scientists recently signed an open letter to Congress reaffirming the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the primary driver of climate change and the overall warming of the climate), more frequently such letters are propaganda for pseudoscience. Indeed, such “declarations,” “open letters,” and “petitions” signed by physicians and scientists represent a technique that goes back at least to the tobacco companies lining up lists of doctors to testify to the safety of cigarettes. (One particularly ludicrous example from R.J. Reynolds in the 1940s claimed that 113,597 doctors preferred their cigarettes.) The idea was (and is) to give the false impression of a scientific controversy where none exists and to appeal to the authority of scientists and doctors to support their claims. It’s a technique that John Cook has referred to as the “magnified minority”:

Nice, “magnified minority”. I’ll remember that.

As usual, Gorski is thorough in describing past “magnified minority” operations, and documents the phony signatures on this one, as well as the absurdity of their proposal and AIER’s shady history as a climate change denialist outfit funded by the Koch brothers. Really, why anyone listens to anything by them is beyond me at this point: “funded by the Koch brothers” ought to be the kiss of death for any organization.

[random attribute] + [subjective, complex phenomenon] → BAD STUDY

You’d think reviewers and journals would figure this formula out. It’s practically a guaranteed recipe for a bad paper. Pick some random feature, like, say, carrying a guitar case. Then correlate it with some messy, subjective and almost impossible to measure property, like sexual attractiveness. Bingo! You are guaranteed to generate statistics, whether positive or negative, and can find an undiscriminating journal somewhere that will publish it. Then, even better, some tabloid will pick up the story and give you publicity with headlines like, “CARRY A GUITAR TO ATTRACT THE LADIES!”

I didn’t pick my examples at random. There actually was a paper titled “Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context”, now retracted, that tried to make that claim with crappy (and probably faked) statistics.

The same author, Nicholas Guéguen, also had a paper retracted previously that claimed that high heels make women sexier. Oh, I should have mentioned — another important element of the recipe is to make sure one of the elements has something to do with sexual stereotypes.

Apparently, Nicholas Guéguen has published about 340 papers using the magic formula. Publishers still haven’t caught on. Or they have, and they don’t care, they just want more garbage to churn.

It’s depressing.