Here is my personal favorite headline (HT: Literature): "Nasa reveals life on Mars: Alien bugs are responsible for strong plumes of methane gas detected on Mars, it was claimed tonight," from Britain's The Sun.
First of all, life has not been discovered on Mars. In fact, methane emissions have not been discovered on Mars either (not recently anyway). Now you could mark this down to media sensationalism, and there is certainly something to be said for that thesis. But the fact is that the media sensationalism is being fanned by NASA itself.
And here's how the trick is done. First, you point to a journal article on a discovery that was made, not this year, not last year, not even the year before, but in 2003. So the only thing that's new is the journal article; the discovery is 5 years old. Secondly, you completely obfuscate the distinction between biology and geology.
Here's part of the NASA press release:
[R]esearch published today in Science Express reveals new hope for the Red Planet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates that Mars is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists. [Emphasis added]Note that Mars is apparently suspended out there in space holding its breath waiting for someone to find life on it. Maybe that explains it's redness. And if NASA has anything to do with it, it will be no sunken dream.
Once you have defined life as either biological and geological, and you have discovered a gas on Mars that can be the effect of either biological or geological causes, you can point to the existence of the gas and, presto, you have discovered life on Mars!
The only thing needed at this point is an "artist's rendering" of the situation--preferably animated so that the thing you haven't really proved looks plausible--and you have everything you need to hoodwink the public. No sensationalism in this cause seems out of bounds.
Look at those scientists go. It's a freaky show, you'll have to admit.
Of course, all this is not only bad science, it's bad logic. Methane--four hydrogen atoms bound to a carbon atom--is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of life. The argument jumps from "If there is life, there must be methane" (a true statement) to "If there is methane, there must be life" (a false statement). Needless to say, the latter does not follow from the former, but in the popular imagination, the leap is made with little difficulty thanks to places like NASA which give it implicit encouragement.
In fact, we may well have discovered a brand new cultural molecule: the NASA molecule, which is four sensationalist atoms bound to a science atom. It hasn't just been discovered, of course, but we could imply that it was and write a journal article about it and make people think it is a big deal, when, in fact, it isn't.
I've said before that there seem to be several things driving this best-selling show, the first being money: NASA needs it, and they get less of when science seems a saddening bore, and more of it when they can excite the taxpayers' curiosity.
Another involves certain scientific theories. Darwinism, for example, according to which life arose by chance, becomes much more plausible in the public imagination if life can be found on other planets. Discovery of extra-terrestrial life doesn't logically imply this conclusion of course, but it psychologically implies it, and that's all we really need.
Is there life on Mars? At this rate, I wonder if we'll ever know.