Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bugs in the Arithmetic

So, did the Viking landers really find life on Mars, way back in 1976? Headline writers and breathless bloggers across the Internet sure think so.

What did they really find?

Gullibility. Or at least evidence that an as-yet unverified mathematical process that could detect signs of life in data from the Mars Viking landers might possibly have found proof of life in that data.

But there’s a problem with their method: It’s unverified. Writes
Critics counter that the method has not yet been proven effective for differentiating between biological and non-biological processes on Earth so it's premature to draw any conclusions.

"Ideally to use a technique on data from Mars one would want to show that the technique has been well calibrated and well established on Earth. The need to do so is clear; on Mars we have no way to test the method, while on Earth we can," planetary scientist and astrobiologist Christopher McKay, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., told Discovery News.
Sounds like the researchers used a complexity analysis to see if Viking’s readings showed biological chemical reactions in tested soil, rather than geological reactions, as the scientific consensus lies. I don’t pretend to understand the math, but apparently there is some caution urged when using such analyses, as data showing, for example, poor results as compared to another analysis could, in the longer run, actually show better results over time.

I don’t doubt there is life on other planets; to disbelieve such is ludicrous. Finding life, however, is going to take more than mathematical analysis. It’s going to take money, and the political will to send more accurate probes to places such as Mars to discover that life. It’s romantic to think that you’re going to find proof in data that’s been lying around since he 1970s, but if that proof relies on unverified methods, it’s not really proof at all.

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