Should You Believe That Alien Bacteria Have Been Discovered on Meteorites? And if You Do Believe It, How Strongly Should You Believe It?

Perhaps you noticed (as I did this afternoon) that DrudgeReport and Fox are pushing a “big” story that alien bacteria have been discovered on meteorites.

Of course, nowhere else is there much buzz about this.

So what gives?

Biologist PZ Myers has the scoop, answering the question, “Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites?” this way:

No.

No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.

No, no.

No.

Fox News broke the story, which ought to make one immediately suspicious — it’s not an organization noted for scientific acumen. But even worse, the paper claiming the discovery of bacteria fossils in carbonaceous chondrites was published in … the Journal of Cosmology. I’ve mentioned Cosmology before — it isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth.

PZ Myers’s characteristically caustic and emphatic response to a science paper written by a colleague raises an interesting critical thinking question: what’s a non-expert to believe about this matter?

In this instance, the expert who wrote the paper in question (NASA astrobiologst Richard Hoover) comes from a respected institution, but it’s not at all clear what his status is among his colleagues, and he appears to have chosen an iffy journal to publish in. It makes you wonder: if his paper is really good, wouldn’t it have found its way into one of the best journals? PZ Myers certainly honed in on this anomaly rather quickly. It matters where something gets published. 

And Dr. Hoover’s view—that he has found evidence of fossilized bacteria in meteorites—is not one shared by the majority of his colleagues. In other words, expert consensus on this matter is a long way off.

So what’s the next step for a nonexpert? Short of going to graduate school and becoming an astrobiologist yourself, if you’re going to apportion your beliefs to the good reasons and evidence that you actually have access to (and can understand), the answer is the following: you should give this claim, as it stands now, little belief.

Or no belief at all.

Or agnosticism.

What you wouldn’t do is apportion a lot of belief to it.

Unless, of course, you interpret the Bible to have expressed an opinion on it. In that case, you can shit-can belief warrants of any sort and rest assured in your interpretation of the Bible. The scientist would be bolstering your faith, for he’d be confirming the Bible as you read it, and so you might believe that single scientist against the majority of his or her expert colleagues completely and without the least mental reservation.

Remember, they laughed at Noah too.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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