June 9, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

NASA Titillates Public Again with Fake Mars Life

Which is worse: NASA making hyper-exaggerated claims about life on Mars over the decades, or so many media reporters falling for it each time?

Sorry to disappoint you, reader, but there is no life on Mars. What NASA found is not life—not even close. And there are good reasons for doubting life will ever be found there, unless earthlings send it on intelligently-designed spacecraft.

  • The soil has high levels of toxic perchlorates
  • The dust is electrically charged, making the dry atmosphere zinging with static
  • The atmosphere has no oxygen and is 1/100th the density of earth air.
  • Temperatures are well below the freezing point of water most of the time
  • Mars orbits outside the habitable zone
  • Percival Lowell was proved wrong when NASA spacecraft failed to see his hoped-for canals

    Curiosity artwork (NASA/JPL)

NASA knows all of this extremely well, but continues to tantalize readers with tales of “building blocks of life” in the soil. It must be funding time at NASA again. They embargoed a story till Thursday June 7 to get the press watering at the mouth. The big announcement was: organic molecules have been found on Mars! It didn’t seem to matter that the carbon-containing molecules have absolutely nothing to do with cells, especially methane (CH4, the simplest hydrocarbon). Reporters were primed to go nuts, and on cue, they did.

  • NASA Finds Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane on Mars (JPL News)
  • Nasa: Building blocks of life on Mars found (BBC News).
  • NASA Finds Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane on Mars (Astrobiology Magazine).
  • Curiosity Rover Finds Ancient ‘Building Blocks for Life’ on Mars (Mike Wall at Space.com)
  • Rover detects ancient organic material on Mars – and it could be trace of past life (Monica Grady at The Conversation)
  • Life on Mars? Rover’s Latest Discovery Puts It ‘On the Table’ (New York Times)
  • Nasa Mars discovery: ‘Ingredients for life’ on red planet bring us closer than ever to finding extra-terrestrials, scientists say (The Independent)
  • Massive Mars discovery: Organic molecules ‘fundamental to our search for life’ found by NASA rover (Fox News)  Et tu, Fox News?
Apparent lakebed on Mars

Bedrock at site of putative lakebed.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Feb 6, 2017

Search on NASA+Mars+life and you get millions of hits. Sounds like a good business if NASA can monetize it. And perhaps they do; maybe this is their way of getting Congress to fork up more money, due to its self-generated public interest aided by a bevy of willing accomplices in the media ready to hype every tidbit. And so NASA milked the “Opportunity” to satisfy reporters’ “Curiosity” (rover names) with typical media fanfare, just like they did with the Mars meteorite back in 1996 that launched the “science” of Astrobiology, or as we call it, Bio-astrology.

Fortunately, a few reporters showed at least some epistemic modesty this time. All but the last in the following list still believes in Mars life; they just agree NASA didn’t prove it.

  • There May Be Life on Mars, But This NASA Report Doesn’t Prove It (Rafi Letzer at Live Science).
    • These are exciting findings, published as twin papers in the journal Science today (June 7). But they aren’t proof of life on Mars, or even necessarily strong evidence that there’s anything living, or anything that used to be alive, out there. The organic compounds aren’t even the first molecules of their kind found on Mars, though they are the oldest.“We can explain both of these things with geological processes,” said Inge Loes ten Kate, an astrobiologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who wrote a commentary for Science accompanying the two papers.
  • Curiosity Didn’t Find Life on Mars — But These 2 Future Rovers Might (Mike Wall at Space.com). Perhaps Wall was having second thoughts about his other headline.
  • Much Ado About Martian Organics (Evolution News).

The twin papers in Science and the internal write-ups don’t have such overblown titles:

  • Eigenbrode et al., “Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars,” Science 7 June 2018.
  • Webster et al., “Background levels of methane in Mars’ atmosphere show strong seasonal variations,” Science 7 June 2018.
  • Perspective by Inge Loes ten Kate: “Organic molecules on Mars,” Science 7 June 2018.
  • In Depth article by Paul Voosen, “NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars,” Science 7 June 2018.

Two Ways of Covering Mars News

Watch two short video clips in the news for opposite ways of covering Martian exploration.

  • The reporter on a Newsy video in the Space.com article milks the news for all it’s worth to convert the public into believers in Mars life.
  • Scientist Ashwin Vasavada shares the pure science of what the Curiosity rover has shown over its long journey. This factual clip, presented with modest enthusiasm, makes no exaggerated claims about life at all. And interestingly, it appears in the same JPL announcement that launched the press blizzard. It’s a bit of calm rational science amid the blizzard of hype.

Does the public need any more than what the science actually shows? Vasavada shows how to do it.

Meanwhile, on that supposedly life-friendly world of imaginary Martians, the Opportunity rover is hunkering down to survive another global dust storm, JPL News reports.

NASA will continue to pull this scam unless people complain. Stop the fake news! Stop the titillation! Stick to the facts! This is not just bad science; it is anti-science. Belief that mindless molecules will organize themselves into machines and functioning beings is the stuff of comic books, not of a respectable scientific institution.

What can NASA do instead of pushing this “building blocks of life” angle? (actually, better dubbed the “building blocks of lie”). As we have suggested before, NASA could just stick with two themes: (1) exploration is part of human nature, and (2) the more we learn about other worlds, the more we understand and appreciate our home, Earth. Those ideas are worth funding NASA.

 

Comments

  • Buho says:

    Analogous to the hunt for dark matter (https://crev.info/2018/06/dark-matter-hunt-comes-empty) where the places where dark matter could be hiding keeps getting smaller and smaller, likewise the hunt for life.

    Two hundred years ago people thought there would be intelligent life on the moon. Humans, in fact.

    Nope.

    Intelligent life on Venus, then!

    Nope.

    Intelligent life on Mars, then! Look at the canals!

    Nope.

    Plants?

    Nope.

    Maybe just bacteria.

    Nope.

    The bacteria must be under the rocks!

    Nope.

    Maybe just the building blocks of life will do?

    Nope.

    Dig deeper!

    To be continued this November…. Anyone want to place bets?

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