Did you catch the news not too long ago about the discovery of a new form of life? Back, just a few days ago on 7 March, the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute’s Sergei Bulat, who led the Russian team that drilled through 4 kilometers of ice to the surface of the lake last year, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that they had found a previously unidentified species of bacteria in lake samples collected during an expedition in January.
Well guess what (OK, my title gives it away), Science reports …
But on 9 March, the head of the genetics laboratory at the St. Petersburg Institute, Vladimir Korolyov, told Interfax that what the team had found was only contamination. “We found certain specimen, although not many, but all of them belonged to contaminants (microorganisms from the bore-hole kerosene, human bodies or the lab),” he said. “There was one strain of bacteria which we did not find in drilling liquid, but the bacteria could in principal use kerosene as an energy source. That is why we can’t say that a previously-unknown bacteria was found.”
Encapsulated here is perhaps the essence of science in action, for we find not only the excitement and passion spilling out into the public domain, “hey, we think we have found something new and really interesting“, but also a degree of honesty and integrity, “Oh wait, there is a better explanation, it is not what we thought it was“.
There always needs to be a universal recognition that we can very easily fool ourselves in so many ways …
- “It’s a miracle, my statue of Jesus is crying” … oh wait, it was only a leaking pipe.
- “This homoeopathic remedy will cure you, you can get it from a NHS hospital so it must really work” … oh wait, it was only a placebo.
- “We have found a true psychic, and have scientifically proven it is real” … oh wait, it was only a magician showing us how easily we could be fooled
- “The Loch Ness monster is real, here is the 1934 picture that proves it” … oh wait, that picture was faked.
- “Gosh look at these amazing crop circles, it proves that aliens are visiting us” … oh wait, they were in fact made by pranksters.
When faced with claims, regardless of the source, be skeptical, there just may in fact be a far better simpler answer. Tempting as it might be to make a leap and declare “ghost”, “god”, “aliens”, or whatever, if there is no justification, no reason for such a leap, then a far more honest answer, the one that should not frighten us is, “I don’t know … yet”.
“evidence-based reasoning is the best way to decide what is and is not true. Furthermore, the only legitimate way to acquire evidence is through the scientific method, which is basically a combination of systematic observation (empiricism) and reason” – Barbara Drescher, cognitive psychologist
Finally, lets salute the folks at the St. Petersburg Institute for getting it right and being open and honest, for it is always better to find out the things that are really true.
So is there really no life in Lake Vostok buried under two miles of ice? That question has not actually been answered yet, they need pure water samples to determine that, but unfortunately they will not be able to get such samples until next year.
Meanwhile, somebody might like to mention all this to the UK’s Guardian, they are still pushing the story of a new kind of bacterial in their science section and have not yet caught up with this latest news.