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Sci-Fact or Sci-Fi?

What We Won't Learn from Hyped-Up Science News Headlines Originally published at Salvo

George Orwell once quipped that “no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.” Orwell, who penned the classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, was undoubtedly aware that the best stories — especially science fiction — are those that contain just enough truth to have the air of plausibility.

If one were to believe the news media, 2010 was a banner year for scientific investigations into the origin of life. Widely hyped, plausible-sounding stories in leading mainstream news outlets as well as top science magazines claimed that researchers had created “artificial life,” had discovered “alien life,” and had demonstrated that “space rocks may have seeded life on Earth.”

Were these claims science, or science fiction?

Case 1: Synthetic Life or Cut & Paste?

From Frankenstein to Star Trek, science fiction has been full of mad scientists constructing living creatures out of inanimate matter. But according to a myriad of news pieces published in May 2010, that’s exactly what a team of real scientists, led by biotech guru Craig Venter, managed to achieve. Media outlets such as the BBC and the Wall Street Journal touted Venter’s team as having created “artificial life” or a “synthetic organism.”

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan was quoted in the journal Nature suggesting that Venter’s research finally showed “that the material world can be manipulated to produce what we recognize as life.” According to Caplan, this helped complete the undermining of the traditional belief that life is unique:

“[The researchers] bring to an end a debate about the nature of life that has lasted thousands of years. Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.”

The materialist implications are obvious: If human beings can manufacture living things, then life itself is reduced to a form of technology that we are free to create, manipulate, and discard at will. Not only that, but the very origins of life might be attributable to unguided processes.

To be sure, Venter’s work was an important technical accomplishment — with potential applications in medical, pharmaceutical, and biological research. But did his team really create an artificial organism, completing the diminution of the specialness of life?

Copying the Code

According to the BBC, the research proceeded along three principal steps. First, Venter and his team “‘decoded’ the chromosome of an existing bacterial cell.” Next, they “copied this code and chemically constructed a new synthetic chromosome.” Finally, they “inserted this chromosome into a bacterial cell which replicated itself.”

The key operative phrase is “copied this code.” Venter’s team started with a pre-existing, fully functional bacterial chromosome, and read its DNA sequence. In other words, they borrowed all their genetic information from a living bacterium.

Moreover, they borrowed a pre-existing bacterial cell — with all its working machinery — and inserted their “synthetic chromosome” into it. Thus, as a news piece in the journal Science observed, “this work didn’t create a truly synthetic life form, because the genome was put into an existing cell.”

The ability to read, copy, and construct DNA sequences is nothing new; scientists have been doing this since at least the early 1980s. But this was the first time anyone had read an entire bacterial chromosome into a computer, and then “output” it into an entirely new chromosome. While this is a technical feat, it isn’t artificial life.

Even Venter (to his credit) acknowledged, “We didn’t create life from scratch.” If only he had been as forthcoming in his other statements about this research.

The Ferengi of Molecular Biology

In the Star Trek universe, there’s an unscrupulous alien race known as the Ferengi. Like most people, the Ferengi know what technology does, but they don’t understand how it works, nor can they produce it themselves. Thus, the feeble-minded Ferengi are known for stealing technology from other intelligent species.

Venter’s team, who hyped their accomplishment as “the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell” or “the first synthetic species,” are like the Ferengi of molecular biology.

In 2002, the leading biochemist Russell Doolittle wrote in Nature that “in each of the completely sequenced [bacterial] genomes so far there are vast numbers of putative genes for proteins of unknown function.” If Doolittle is right, then Venter and his team were literally copying and pasting DNA code which they knew was necessary for a bacterium to live, but whose function they were ignorant of.

Indeed, Venter’s team boasted that their research would help scientists “dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works.” The implication, of course, is that they couldn’t yet “see and understand how it really works.”

This is not to criticize their ignorance — while molecular biologists have made great strides in recent decades, the best scientists are still far from fully understanding all the inner workings of even the simplest bacteria. But it is clear that Venter’s team did not create “artificial life” or construct a “synthetic cell.” At best, their research amounted to intelligent cutting and pasting of genetic instructions that are only partly understood.

Immaterial Matters

In an interview about his research on 60 Minutes, Venter said that “DNA is the software of life” and that “understanding how to write that software” is “the key to evolution.” Yet his research shows that life is fundamentally based upon information — an immaterial entity that can be stored along the backbone of a DNA molecule, printed on paper, or copied into a computer database.

In this case, intelligent agents copied the information in the DNA “software” and inserted it into hardware — the pre-existing bacterial cell — that could run the genetic programs.

And where, in our experience, does software programming come from? As William Dembski and Jonathan Witt write in Intelligent Design Uncensored, “there remains one and only one type of cause that has shown itself able to create functional information like we find in cells, books and software programs — intelligent design.”

So rather than showing that life was created by unguided evolutionary processes, Venter’s research actually suggests that the creation of life requires something non-physical — i.e., intelligence. Given that Venter named his dog Darwin, this is a conclusion he may be reluctant to face.

Case 2: NASA’s Ambiguous Promise

On November 29, 2010, NASA tried its hand at the hype game, issuing a press release promising to reveal “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Had NASA discovered life in outer space?

NASA’s statement certainly created the hope that it did, but it was crafted ambiguously enough to still be truthful even if it hadn’t.

And indeed it had its intended effect. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “So great was the media stampede that even the White House and members of Congress were calling on NASA to clarify.”

Having thus manufactured an audience, NASA did clarify its statement a couple of days later at a press conference. There, NASA scientists explained that they had not discovered extra-terrestrial life, but they had found comparatively mundane, earth-borne bacteria that purportedly used arsenic instead of phosphorous in their DNA and other biomolecules.

No matter that the initial statement was misleading. Buzz had been created, and since the story had the right materialist message, the news media played along. The big science media, in particular, was happy to uncritically push NASA’s actual story with an “alien life” spin.

Both and the New York Times ran dreamy headlines claiming that NASA’s discovery “Redefines Life,” with the Times further stating that it “open[s] up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe.” Wired magazine told the public that NASA scientists had found bacteria “made of arsenic” with DNA “completely alien to what we know today.” Another popular tech website, io9, called it “arsenic-based life” which is “very alien in terms of how it’s put together.” The site boasted that “NASA has, in a very real sense, discovered a form of alien life.”

Even highly respected science news outlets pushed the story. Nature said that it was now possible to “potentially cross phosphorus off the list of elements required for life.” Likewise, the journal Science, which published the original research paper on the weird bacteria, confidently claimed that the bacterium “uses arsenic to build DNA and other molecules.”

Hyped-Up Critics

The notion that arsenic could replace phosphorous was not overly surprising. After all, both elements are in the same column in the periodic table and have similar chemical properties. However, some scientists were embittered by NASA’s misleading promise of having discovered alien life, and so they scrutinized NASA’s claims of arsenic-based bacteria.

Buried at the bottom of its story, the New York Times reported that some scientists were not persuaded because “the experimenters had yet to provide a ‘smoking gun’ that there was arsenic in the backbone of working DNA.” Likewise, Science noted that leading astrobiologist Steve Benner did not think that the research conclusively established that arsenic had replaced phosphorous in the bacteria’s biochemistry.

Carl Zimmer, a prominent science journalist, explained in Slate magazine that “almost to a person” the scientists he interviewed “felt that the NASA team had failed to take some basic precautions to avoid misleading results.” According to Zimmer, authorities such as Harvard microbiologist Alex Bradley and MIT professor Roger Simmons agreed that “the NASA scientists unknowingly demonstrated the flaws in their own experiment.” He continued:

“[The researchers] immersed the DNA in water as they analyzed it. … Arsenic compounds fall apart quickly in water, so if it really was in the microbe’s genes, it should have broken into fragments. … But the DNA remained in large chunks — presumably because it was made of durable phosphate.”

NASA’s researchers claimed that the bacteria had received no phosphate in the experiments and therefore must have survived off arsenic, which was supplied in abundance. But Zimmer also reported that the bacteria still had access to low levels of phosphate and probably “eked out a living on that scarce supply.” According to University of Colorado microbiologist Norman Pace (quoted by Zimmer), “Low levels of phosphate in growth media, naive investigators and bad reviewers are the stories here.”

Similarly, the New York Times reported that the bacteria “still prefer a phosphorus diet,” and quoted authority Gerald Joyce saying they were “clinging to every last phosphate molecule.” Apparently the tech magazine PC World was duped when it claimed that “NASA discovered bacteria in California that dines out on arsenic.”

Perhaps the most outspoken critic was microbiologist Rosie Redfield at the University of British Columbia. Redfield attracted attention after posting a critique of the original technical paper, charging that it didn’t “present any convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule).”

She also argued that the methodology used by the researchers indicated that they might have artificially contaminated the results with arsenic. “Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information,” she charged. “If this data was presented by a PhD student at their committee meeting, I’d send them back to the bench to do more cleanup and controls.”

According to a follow-up story in the New York Times, the NASA researchers “refused to respond to such criticisms.”

Desperate for a Headline

Scientists blasted away not just at NASA’s dubious research claims, but also at the hype. Senior SETI astronomer Seth Shostak noted that “not everyone felt that the story justified NASA’s pre-release publicity, which suggested that the new research was a major milepost in the search for alien life.” Shostak explained:

“[M]any thought that the agency’s advance notice had wandered beyond the misty borders of ‘tantalizing’ into the dangerous land of ‘hype.’ . . . [I]f the research to be disclosed at the press event was not at least this dramatic, then why was the publicity overture so seductively coy?”

Similarly, Rosie Redfield wryly commented, “I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.” University of California–Davis microbiologist John Roth pulled even fewer punches. “I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story,” he told Carl Zimmer, “that they didn’t look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people.”

Case 3: Meteorite Soup

In mid-December 2010, the possibility of extraterrestrial life again started buzzing on the internet when an article on Yahoo reported, “Scientists have discovered amino acids, the building blocks of life in a meteorite where none were expected.” Apparently unwilling to admit the demise of NASA’s arsenic-based bacteria story, National Geographic hyped the find by boasting:

“Hot on the heels of finding arsenic-loving life-forms, NASA astronomers have uncovered amino acids — the fundamental foundation for life — in a place where they shouldn’t be.”

The hope, of course, was to show that meteorites could have delivered enough amino acids to earth to account for a vast sea of organic molecules — the proverbial primordial soup. Such “space rocks may have seeded life on Earth,” National Geographic enthused.

Were these claims of amino-acid-filled meteorites more credible than NASA’s overhyped bacteria?

Lower Your Expectations

One potential problem with the story is that the meteorite, which crashed into Sudan in 2008, might have been contaminated with amino acids on earth. The researchers claimed that they could discount this possibility because earth-based life uses only chemically “left-handed” amino acids, whereas the meteorite contained an even mixture of left- and right-handed amino acids — evidence of a non-biological source.

If that were the case, though, it’s ­nothing new. Amino acids have been found on meteorites before. In fact, these simple organic molecules can be found just about anywhere. But there’s still a contradiction in the researchers’ argument, and a fatal flaw in the data.

The original news story claimed that any initial amino acids in the meteorite would have been “destroyed” by a collision it had experienced in outer space. The researchers admitted that they didn’t understand what chemical processes could have produced amino acids in the meteorite after the collision.

So here’s the contradiction: Somehow they think the amino acids would have been destroyed in an extraterrestrial impact between two smaller bodies, but then they claim that amino acids would not have been destroyed when the meteorite hit the earth, arguably in a more violent collision.

How were the amino acids formed in outer space, and why were they still lingering in the meteorite after it crashed onto the earth? The researchers haven’t answered these questions.

As for the fatal flaw, buried at the bottom of a Discovery Channel news story was a key admission that the results “may not be directly applicable to the origin of life” because the “concentrations of the amino acids in the sample are low.” Whatever chemistry produced these amino acids, it doesn’t seem to be a viable mechanism for generating a primordial soup.

Making Letters or Making Life?

Skeptical scientific minds must remember the big picture here. As previous articles in Salvo have discussed, ID proponents have made powerful arguments that there are no natural explanations for the origin of ordered biological information. A simple analogy helps reveal the paucity of evidence for a naturalistic origin of the information in life.

Living cells require information to function. If a cell is analogous to a book, then amino acids are analogous to letters. At most, the primordial soup hypothesis explains the origin of the letters.

But anyone who has lost a game of Scrabble knows that you can have all the letters you want, but without the ability to organize them into meaningful words, they will forever remain nothing more than disorganized Scrabble tiles. Without intelligence, they will never become organized.

The poor state of affairs for materialist origin-of-life researchers is evidenced by the fact that they are still struggling to explain the origin of the “letters,” when their ultimate task is to explain how an entire book came to be written through unguided and blind natural processes. Hence, the need to create excitement over a little meteorite with low concentrations of amino acids.

All Buzzed Up But No Place to Go

One day, scientists may indeed create a truly synthetic cell or discover arsenophilic bacteria. More meteorites may turn up bearing amino acids from outer space. But even if all these things should really happen, they would do little to advance the cause of materialism.

So why are such paltry and uncertain claims being hyped in the first place? Materialists are apparently desperate for such “good news” stories because they need them in order to convince their patrons, the public, to continue funding their work. The media willingly cooperates, printing stories that sound plausible but that are ultimately science fiction.

The fact that materialist cultural elites are willing to hype such modest—and dubious—claims tells you everything you need to know about the state of the evidence. If they had something better, we’d surely know about it.

As always, the key is to think for yourself, and, like George Orwell, to maintain a healthy skepticism about what you read in the media.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.