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Me or your lying eyes
On the recent signs of life on Mars
My jaw dropped. I started sweating, I jolted up with excitement, and then I ran out onto the porch and out into the dark lawn and looked up.
I had just finished reading this scientific paper published last night, May 6, a paper that is an analysis of images taken from a number of Martian rovers. The images are incredibly convincing evidence of alien life. Microbial alien life, but alien life. I mean really convincing.
Robin Hanson had retweeted the paper out late last night saying it was “BIG NEWS” so I dove headfirst in, maybe without checking out the journal’s credibility or the author like I should have. The paper itself is incredible, and very convincing, so I know why Hanson described it as such. It is basically just going through old Mars rover images and arguing that they are better explained by biological life, like fungi, rather than more common explanations, like say, weird rocks.
Here are some samples:
There’s also a number of interesting comparisons across different days of the same location, which looks like growth.
At first, I was incredibly excited (even tweeting it out), but as I investigated further the situation around the paper I began to doubt. Could not one go through thousands of images of rover images and find a number that do look convincingly lifelike? As Kierk says in my novel The Revelations “It’s mere pareidolia. It’s seeing faces in the rock structures of Mars.”
More relevantly to an initial reaction: the first author is Rhawn Joseph, who has no academic affliction other than his website cosmology.com. I will not go through his own personal website and break down how he gives, say, long descriptions of how much sex he has. I find it unpleasant to do this, and feel like I’m saying “gotcha.” There are sex scenes in my own published fiction (although luckily not, you know, in the professional bio of my own website). Plenty of people do write publicly about sex, and we’re all sexual beings.
But beyond just that, a lot of things about that website makes it at least seem like Rhawn Joseph may be the Craig Wright of science. Craig Wright, if you don’t know who that is, has claimed he is Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous inventor of bitcoin, and is notoriously bombastic (he posts a lot about how women love him and how much money he has and entering “billionaire mode”). Many in the crypto community, if not most, consider Wright a sociopathic scammer, albeit strangely charismatic and convincing in his self-confidence.
Watching Wright’s journey has reminded me a lot of the work of Robert Trivers on self-deception and how masters of deception are mainly after the classic evolutionary wants like mate choice (although of course, I don’t know for sure, I’m just describing both a personal vibe I get and also the opinion of the majority of the crypto community).
Still! The paper is an interesting take on those images, and the paper itself offers a number of counterarguments against the “it’s just rocks” hypothesis. I’m not saying that doubts about a first author is some sort of conclusive disproof of a scientific paper. Nor am I saying that Rhawn Joseph has lied in any way here. He may be making this argument in good faith. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t consider papers from outside the mainstream scientific community. But I think a base position here for this sort of explosive claim should be highly skeptical given its origin, and while I’d love to see more analysis of rover images, it should be done with a background assumption of no, needing to be extremely convinced to be changed to a yes.
But in the moment, why was I so willing to believe that an amateur scientist found something no NASA scientist did? I think it reflects a crisis of faith in institutions. Some of these images are from 2004. But honestly, isn’t it possible to imagine a bunch of high-prestige NASA scientists just completely ignoring what’s right in front of their eyes? I find it possible. It’s clear that Hanson himself still thinks these results might be correct, and I suspect his dismissal against the anti-arguments is significantly based on his mistrust in current intellectual authorities.
Overall, my current opinion is that this is not life. But it is a good argument for a manned missions to Mars, or the establishment of a Martian colony. No machine can actually give us completely convincing information. It’s pretty impressive that there’s a little helicopter on Mars, but it can only fly a few hundred feet at a time. Ultimately, to really know and understand the Red Planet, we need boots on the ground. One scientist could do more in an hour than all our machines put together, because scientific investigation can’t be pre-programmed, it’s always contextual, fluid, shifting, and all too human. But in the meantime, I’ll keep looking up at the stars at night and hoping.