Is Bad Science Better Than No Science? (Update)

Could November elections scramble a controversial U.S. mission to a frozen moon?, Science

"Culberson's lander has been somewhat controversial among scientists because it hasn't gone through NASA's traditional selection and vetting process. And today, researchers at an agency advisory meeting debated whether the congressional elections in November could bring a new lander-related headache: the defeat of Culberson, who is facing a tough re-election contest. If Culberson loses, NASA risks becoming "locked in" to an expensive and complicated project that lacks a key champion in Congress, one researcher worried.

"The science goals of the Europa lander do not follow from our current knowledge of Europa," said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Although there is abundant ice for a lander to sample on Europa, he suggested, there is no concrete evidence of other ingredients necessary for life, such as carbon, nitrogen, biologically useful energy, or organic molecules. But given that the lander is already receiving money, he concluded in an about-face, scientists should support it. "A bad life detection mission is better than no life detection mission," he said."

Keith's note: With regard to the frank commets by participants in the NASA Outer Planets Assessment Group meeting as presented in this Science article: the event was open and on the record and news media were listening in. Based on this article one can easily get the impression that the Europa Lander is viewed by some NASA scientists as having little value other than political - but its funded so - hey, lets run with it and take the money. The politicians who support this mission are viewed as disposable i.e. if one is not re-elected or the House flips and they lose their committee chairmanship, another politician can be found to support a given pet NASA/JPL/SwRI/etc. mission. This may be true in a cynical sense, but I feel silly having to remind a bunch of otherwise smart people that they are saying things in a not-so-smart context. The politicians are listening. What are they and their staff supposed to think when they hear this stuff? They stick their necks out to listen to the science community, support missions, get the money year after year, fight off enemies, and sign NASA's praises and yet the ever-so-clever scientists at NASA sit in their little meetings and try to out-strategize the actual decision makers. People at NASA are never satisfied with good enough and can't fight the urge to complain when their particular science thing is not the way they want it to be. This behavior never ends well for NASA.

A note of science clarification: Chris McKay is quoted as saying "A bad life detection mission is better than no life detection mission." The Europa Lander is not a "life detection mission" any more than Europa Clipper is. Reading the Europa Lander Study 2016 Report it becomes immediately and abundantly clear that this mission is looking for biosignatures - not overt life detection. This may sound confusing but there is a big difference. Biosignatures are a range of measurements of substances and conditions known to be produced (most likely if not exclusively) by Earth life. But any one biosignature is not necessarily a solid indicator of life (past or present). Indeed, in many cases organic molecules associated with life (biosignatures) can also be formed naturally by chemical processes (abiotic) that do not involve life at all. But data taken from a series of biosignatures, repeatedly taken in various locations over time can be used to point to life's increasing probability - or absence. Short of actually seeing a life form and directly measuring its chemistry detecting life on another world is not going to be a simple, one shot "detection" process. To understand the current NASA Astrobiology approach to searching for biosignatures please read the 2018 NASA-authored paper "The Ladder of Life Detection"

You can be assured that future meetings of NASA's Outer Planets Assessment Group will have many more people listening in. NASA people need to learn when to speak their minds and when to sit down and shut up. This has nothing to do with transparency. It has everything to do with common sense.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on September 13, 2018 9:01 AM.

AIA Adores Sen. Shelby and The Shameless Art Of Pork was the previous entry in this blog.

Russian Conspiracy Mongering In Space (Update) is the next entry in this blog.

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