There have been three great traumas to the psyche: the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian. I suspect the remaining trauma is that of the Alien.
A couple days ago, Fox News broke a story with the unbelievable headline, “Exclusive: NASA Scientist Claims Evidence of Alien Life on Meteorite.” The claims are obvious bunk, but if you don’t believe me, here is PZ Myers with an entertaining demolition of the paper and its credibility. Myers’ main argument is that if the paper was real, it would probably have shown up in Nature or Science, been better written and argued, and received more than a blurb on Fox News’ website.
Discover’s own Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has a wonderful summary of other opinions, and gives an excellent conclusion of how a real scientist thinks about an astounding announcement in a field that isn’t his own. Myers’ and Plait’s respective posts are exemplary demonstrations of scientific skepticism.
True to form, Plait ends with this interesting little notation:
As a scientist and a skeptic I have to leave some room, no matter how small, for the idea that this might be correct.
Though the announcement that alien bacteria was found on a meteor is almost certainly false, eventually a scientist may in fact discover real evidence of alien life. I grant Myers’ point about a prestigious journal publishing the direct evidence would probably be the first place we would hear about such a discovery.
But then that evidence would be challenged by every reputable scientist breathing. There is a simple rule in science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I thank Bill Nye for teaching me that little tidbit when I was a youngster. It has done me well.
But if the evidence is legit, other scientists will analyze, test, and, ultimately, verify the evidence. There would be proof that Earth wasn’t the only place in the universe where life came to be. Which begs the question: How would the evidence of extraterrestrial life be broken to the public? How would the President react? The Pope? How would you react?
How would the real discovery of alien life happen? Let’s do a thought experiment…