“There’s life in outer space!”


Does inspection ensure quality?

Is bad science necessary assure life on other planets?

Are we so lonely that extra-terrestrial bacteria would bring us comfort?

Does sending non-sterile spacecraft to other planets prevent there ever being certainty about where any life there might have originated?

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At least one of these questions is answered by Rosie Redfield’s blog post which debunks the Science paper, Wolfe-Simon et al. 2010, A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.  Just like the inspection cartel, NASA is again making superficially plausible claims to preserve it from reality.  The Agency’s glory days have passed.  NASA is always keen to make claims about purported life on other planets and to create elaborate films about how they’re going to get there.  This is to ensure the taxpayers’ money keeps flowing in.   Why should a man land on an asteroid while others have to pay the cost?  We’ve already had Teflon, Fisher pens and those embarrassingly economical pencils that the crafty Russians used.

Angry Birds mars update. Credit: Rovio

Rosie summarises on the sloppy science of the NASA paper:

“Bottom line:  Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information.  The mass spec measurements may be very well done (I lack expertise here), but their value is severely compromised by the poor quality of the inputs.  If this data was presented by a PhD student at their committee meeting, I’d send them back to the bench to do more cleanup and controls.

“There’s a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true.  The authors have done some of the latter, but not the former.  They should have mixed pregrown E. coli or other cells with the arsenate supplemented medium and then done the same purifications.  They should have thoroughly washed their DNA preps (a column cleanup is ridiculously easy), and maybe incubated it with phosphate buffer to displace any associated arsenate before doing the elemental analysis.  They should have mixed E. coli DNA with arsenate and then gel-purified it.  They should have tested whether their arsenic-containing DNA could be used as a template by normal DNA polymerases.  They should have noticed all the discrepancies in their data and done experiments to find the causes.

“I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.  I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.”

ISO accreditation has little published evidence to criticise, so it never gets this much scrutiny.  NASA’s “There’s life in outer space!” agenda has more low quality evidence than the inspection cartel’s “There’s quality in inspection!” agenda.

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