Saturday, July 25, 2015

No, there was not a major discovery of life on comet 67P by the Philae lander

...but a lot of journalists have once again shown that they love to fall for quackery

This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on 15 June 2015 (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)

Earlier this month, The Guardian posted an article which started a brief but infuriating internet fire of gossip about the possibilities for life on comets. Specifically, the article announced that Max Wallis and Chandra Wickramasinghe had claimed during a talk at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting that the organic-rich crust of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is best explained by the presence of microorganisms. Indeed, Wickramasinghe (whom the author of the article titled as a "maverick astronomer and astrobiologist") was quoted as saying that their finding of life on the comet was "unequivocal".

As an astrobiologist and a fan of ideas about the possibilities for alien life out there, I like to wonder about whether there could be living organisms on cometary material. Based on that, you might think I would have been excited about this "news", but a quick read into the announcement and where it came from (more importantly, who it came from) quickly suggests that these findings are a bunch of bunk. 

Chandra Wickramasinghe has become known in the astrobiology community as someone who has a conclusion that alien microbes are everywhere and who will stop at nothing to try to prove his belief. This makes him less of a "maverick astronomer and astrobiologist" and far more of a pseudoscientist and a threat to real science. 

Taken from a page of Skeptical Raptor's blog, where it's shown that
debunking quackery can be fun as well as rewarding 

In this announcement of "finding" alien life, Wickramasinghe and Wallis take the findings of organic-rich materials on the surface of comet 67P by the Rosetta mission and make the claim that such materials are "not easily explained in terms of prebiotic chemistry". They went further and told their audience at the National Astronomy Meeting that they have conducted simulations which suggest that microorganisms with antifreeze proteins could explain dark, organic-rich features as well as certain icy structures on the comet. Wickramasinghe was quoted as saying " coming from the comet seems to unequivocally, in my opinion, point to micro-organisms being involved in the formation of the icy structures, the preponderance of aromatic hydrocarbons, and the very dark surface."

You should always be cautious in trusting someone who uses statements like "unequivocally" and "in my opinion" in the same sentence. As Chris Lee pointed out recently in an Ars Technica article titled "Magic carbon layer not a sign of extraterrestrial life", the finding of organic carbon on the surface of a comet is by no means surprising from the stance of modern surface chemistry. In fact, we now know that organic compounds are abundant in the universe. We've discovered organics in meteorites, on comets, on other worlds, and in interstellar space. It's no surprise that the Philae lander discovered organic material on comet 67P, but just because there is organic material there in no way implies that there is also life. Decades ago, it might have seemed that organic material automatically implies life, but we now know that the conclusion of life does not follow simply from the presence of organic material in a sample. Such thoughtful approaches to science, however, are not in Wickramasinghe's realm of thought. It seems that Wallis and Wickramasinghe have taken the approach of dressing up their hopeful belief as a scientific certainty.

This isn't the first time that Wickramasinghe has been involved in unjustified claims that alien has been discovered. Wickramasinghe has previously claimed that viruses like SARS, the bird flu, and the 1918 flu epidemic were extraterrestrial in origin. This pseudoscientist has also been involved in "publishing" claims of finding alien microbes in meteorites and in the atmosphere through the fake science source called the Journal of Cosmology. Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomy book and blog, has written several articles pointing out Wickramasinghe's fallacious claims. Phil even tackled this recent claim of life on 67P with his article "Life on a Comet? I’m Gonna Go With “No.”" Dan Evon also briefly covered this non-discovery of life in an article on Snopes.

It gets tiring sometimes battling against the fraudulent and the quacks, and some people might even ask why we then do it. The answer is simple: in our age of abundant information, where disinformation and misinformation run rampant and many people are illiterate in science and technology, the frauds and the quacks pose a serious danger to the future of our civilization. If we lose the scientific method, if we allow ourselves to dwell in unjustified claims, and if we forego evidence for satisfaction, then it's only a matter of time before a new dark ages befalls us and we have to start all over again.

It's not always easy to determine the differences between science and pseudoscience (indeed, philosophers of science have been trying to figure out how to do that for quite some time). Claims like those made by Wickramasinghe and his fellow pseudoscientists seem legitimate to many people, especially when news sources claim these people are "experts", "maverick astronomers", or "top astrobiologists". Yet people like Max Wallis and Chandra Wickramasinghe are a threat to modern science and to the public. Their approach of accepting their preformed conclusions without significant evidence or even rational skepticism is a bane to modern science. I sincerely hope that, moving forward, we will see more scientists taking to social media and more reporters seeking input from real scientists to fight the bunk of people like Wallis and Wickramasinghe when they start to peddle their snake oil.

We may one day, perhaps very soon, discover evidence for extraterrestrial life. I've dreamt of that moment since I was a child. Many of us have. Yet jumping the gun with false assertions of alien life does nothing to improve our pursuits in astrobiology. Certainly, if and when we do find actual evidence for life outside of our biosphere, you will hear the news coming from far more reliable sources than Wallis and Wickramasinghe.

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