WATERY MARS AGAIN
Emily Lakdawalla thinks everybody should calm down about NASA’s much-trumpeted latest discovery of liquid water on Mars. The discovery, which is probably not flowing water but rather something more like damp sand, doesn’t, she argues at the Planetary Society’s blog, make Martian life any more likely than it has been.
“An incredibly salty, corrosive, transient water environment is not a very good place to look for life,” she says. More likely possibilities are the thin films of water that Phoenix observed in the soil at its near-polar landing site, or maybe deep underground, which would offer life protection against radiation, and where the planet’s internal heat could keep groundwater liquid.
Elizabeth Howell describes how researchers arrived at this latest discovery of Martian water at LiveScience. Corey Powell gives you the bad news and the good news about the finding at Out There. This latest discovery, he says, strengthens the case for missions that will bring back Marian samples.
Lakdawalla (and others) also point out that the announcement is yet another example of NASA’s hard-working (and successful) hype machine. “Of course, NASA didn’t lead the story by saying “Cool New Incremental Result!” They said: “Mystery Solved!” and “Major Announcement!'”
THERE’S LIFE ON MARS ALREADY
“We know there’s life on Mars because we sent it there,” John Grunsfeld, a science director at NASA said during a press conference Monday, according to Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic.
That’s potentially a serious problem, which is why the Planetary Society advocates that any human-led mission to Mars stay in orbit. “If we keep our filthy meatbag bodies in space and tele-operate sterile robots on the surface, we’ll avoid irreversible contamination of Mars,” Lakdawalla argues.
At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne doesn’t see Earthling contamination as such a big deal. All Earth life stems from a single source and contains DNA. Whatever alien life looks like, it probably doesn’t operate with Earthlike DNA. So in principle it ought to be possible to distinguish Martian life from our contaminating microbes.
LIFE ON MARS IN THE MOVIES
Ridley Scott could hardly have asked for a better concatenation of events for his Matt Damon movie The Martian, opening today (Friday, Oct 2.) In fact, I can’t help wondering just how accidental the timing was, given NASA’s aforementioned hype machine and the fact that the movie was made with NASA’s cooperation.
At The Conversation, Helen Maynard-Casely describes how both the movie and the Andy Weir book it’s based on work hard to emphasize science in this science fiction account of an astronaut stranded on Mars. However, according to Mike Wall at Space.com, the very authentic-looking spacesuits were an exception.
ABORTION, PLANNED PARENTHOOD, FETAL TISSUE RESEARCH
The folks who are trying to bring down Planned Parenthood have chosen lying as a strategy. Kinda stupid, since they have been exposed as liars repeatedly. But I suppose they’re counting on most people hearing only their claims, not the proof that the claims are false. And, sigh, they are probably right.
Here’s a particularly marvelous example of their data perversion, which Timothy Lee presented at Vox. This graph was an exhibit at Congress’s hearing on Planned Parenthood this week. It was achieved by simply dispensing with the vertical or y axis of the graph, creating a false equivalence between the large number of preventive services and smaller number of abortions. An apples to oranges comparison if there ever was one, not to mention an exceedingly unKosher data display.
Here’s the correct display of the same data, with the y axis restored. It’s still accurate that the number of preventive services Planned Parenthood offered went down dramatically between 2006 and 2013. The organization said this was in part because of new official recommendations that Pap smears be done less frequently.
The major point of attack on Planned Parenthood has been that doctored video claiming, falsely, that the agency profits from selling aborted fetus parts for fetal tissue research. At XXfactor, Amanda Marcotte does the math and shows, in her words, “You can make more money selling bottles to recycling plants.”
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s lie about seeing a video of an aborted fetus still alive and being readied for brain harvesting for research has been exposed repeatedly; the video doesn’t exist. Now an anti-abortion group has come up with another video that it says proves Fiorina wasn’t lying.
Anna Merlan at Jezebel’s The Slot has collected expert commentary arguing that the graphic new video actually shows a late miscarriage, not an abortion. Her post also includes a transcript of a CNN interview with an official of the Center for Medical Progress, sponsor of the video attacking Planned Parenthood. The official sorta kinda admits that the fetus in its video is the product of a miscarriage, not an abortion.
DAMAGE TO FETAL TISSUE RESEARCH
Planned Parenthood’s role in providing fetal tissue for research has undoubtedly damaged the research. For one thing, scientists who do it are afraid to defend it publicly.
Virginia Hughes has described BuzzFeed’s largely unsuccessful attempt to get researchers who have received funding for fetal tissue research to explain why. She says the funding has gone for “understanding human blindness, developing vaccines, making better models of HIV, and creating therapies for liver failure, just to name a few.” BuzzFeed has contacted more than 70 researchers but only 6 have agreed to be quoted–and then only anonymously.
The silence extends even to professional organizations. Arvind Suresh is part of the Genetic Expert News Service, which collects comments from scientists on current issues. In a recent post for the Genetic Literacy Project he wrote, “At the Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS) we tried to reach out to experts to comment on the issue when the videos were released in July. In nearly every case, we were turned down. Institutional media relations teams often said that faculty were not going to be able to comment given the sensitive nature of the subject. We also spoke to national scientific societies and received a similar response.”
In the meantime, claims in the media that fetal tissue research is worthless are going unchallenged (and also unverified.) In an analysis of a piece at National Public Radio that quoted an anti-abortion activist as calling the research “outdated”, RH Reality Check’s Jodi Jacobson noted that the activist “provided no evidence whatsoever for this claim nor did he point to successful medical advances based on use of his suggested alternatives.”
At WebMD, Rita Rubin provides an FAQ on fetal tissue research.