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March 07, 2011

Extraterrestrial life!!?!?!? Not...

NASA recently denied a claim made by Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist, that alien life was found in a meteorite sample. The astrobiologist published a paper on his research on the topic in the online Journal of Cosmology, which was believed to be a refutable source. After Hoover challenged any scientist to test his claim and gave an interview to Fox News, NASA issued a statement. Apparently the fact that Hoover's journal was not peer-reviewed seriously impaired its potential credibility. In a sense, he seems to have jumped to conclusions without properly proving his theory. Below is NASA's statement:

"NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper's subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper." - Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington


What I find interesting is that this entry does not give any other reason as to WHY this claim was discarded, other than the fact that the journal it was published in was not peer-reviewed. NASA does not make clear in their statement why this is, or if they plan to have others review the research. They pretty much just say it wasn't peer-reviewed....soo...what?? I want to know what they're planning on doing with it.

Posted by kailjoyb at March 7, 2011 10:04 PM


I think that because NASA prides themselves on having the most accurate information, they have a very strict policy when is comes to supporting and further publishing new findings. Although Dr. Hertz does not state other reasons why they did not publish the article, I think that not having the journal peer reviewed is a good enough reason. When it comes to discoveries like this, NASA must be 100% positive that the findings are correct or else they might run the risk of losing their credibility, which would take years to rebuild and could be potentially devastating to the agency.

And in regards to your question about whether or not NASA plans to have others review the research, considering Dr. Hoover's findings have already surfaced and caused an incredible amount of hype, it seems it is in NASA's best interest to review the journal. If they do not and someone proves them wrong, then that would look bad on NASA's part and if they do, they have the opportunity to prove Dr. Hoover right or wrong, neither of which would harm NASA; therefore, I believe NASA will review the research and make a final decision about the journal.

Posted by: ccastel at March 8, 2011 05:37 PM

Some additional context: Astronomy uses what is called a pre-print service (xxx.lanl.gov) where articles can be posted *before* they are peer reviewed. Although many researchers use this pre-print service to provide early manuscripts for papers that have already passed the refereeing process (but have not entered "print"), others do put up papers prior to even being reviewed. So the concept of non-peer reviewed articles in astronomy is quite normal.

On the other hand, the point of these pre-review services is that a researcher can get input to their paper to help make it better, or even to refute it.

Science is science, and so long as someone else can independently verify the result, all will be fine. The danger of the route Hoover took was that if we all just dump our research in the public domain, how will professionally researchers separate the garbage from the good science? Having an initial peer review process (which is never perfect) at least helps other scientists decide which research has passed some minimal level of vetting before they choose to dig further.

Posted by: christoq at March 9, 2011 05:24 PM

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