Alien asteroid dinosaurs? The junking of science
One-time editor of Encyclopædia Britannica, author of How to Know and a contributor to The American online magazine, Robert McHenry, explains how easily science can be junked – with obvious damage to its reputation. The culprit? Public relations.
McHenry explains how Ronald Breslow’s ‘Evidence for the likely origin of homochirality in amino acids, sugars and nucleosides on prebiotic Earth’ triggered news headlines like ‘Claim: Advanced dinosaurs may rule other planets’ and ‘Do intelligent dinosaurs really rule alien worlds?’
McHenry explains the chemistry in the academic paper, but it’s the domino effect triggered by Breslow’s last lines that are the key to the junking that happened next.
Breslow concluded, ‘An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarised light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favour the L α-methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth.’
As McHenry observes, ‘He should have quit while he was ahead.’ The headline – not that the story would ever have been picked up – might then have read, ‘Chirality or other unknown process favouring L α-methyl amino acids could influence life forms elsewhere in the universe, in the event that life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, maybe.’
Of course, Breslow didn’t quit. Asks McHenry, ‘What imp of the perverse induced him to add two more sentences?’
And what did Breslow write?
‘Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.’
Conclusions or predictions or even laws made in science depend on hypotheses that are tested through evidence obtained by observation and experiment, with those conclusions or predictions or laws expressed in terms of probability, which are accepted in the scientific community until someone comes up with evidence that does not agree with it. That, of course, is the trouble for scientists addressing climate change: scientists accept probability, while the media wants certainty; hell, the media wants alien asteroid dinosaurs.
Read McHenry’s ‘Science vs PR’ here.
Read ‘Evidence for the likely origin of homochirality in amino acids, sugars and nucleosides on prebiotic Earth’ here.
Pictured, pebble on black background photo by Randy Kun courtesy of stock.xchng Dinosaur photo by Manuel Droide courtesy of stock.xchng
What does McHenry’s article say about scientific literacy, which includes the ability to understand science articles in the popular press and make judgements about the validity of the conclusions?