For those of you that are not aware of it, there is evidence of life in outer space — and it looks just like modern life on Earth. We love to hate conspiracy theories. They challenge our minds, our creativity, stretch our imaginations. They even give us some wonderful sci-fi stories to make books, T.V. shows, and movies out of. And most conspiracy theories have some roots in bad science. This pseudo-science, as it were, is seen and defined as a set of ideas that present itself as science, but do not properly meet the criteria to actually be science.
Psuedo-science has a long, convoluted history that leaves no area of science untouched. Some of these examples of bad science can be seen in phrenology, phlogiston, snake oils, flat Earth theory, reflexology, homoeopathy, vaccine shots causing autism, and creationism. The list goes on and on. What makes it worse is that bad science has a way of flying through society, picking up followers that don't bother with critical thinking, and building in mass until it's accepted, not by its scientific integrity, but by the sheer amount of people that are touting it.
This recent example mentioned above of such bad science that has come out of an article in The Journal of Cosmology saying that there is evidence of life in meteors (Wickramasinghe, Wallis, Wallis, & Samaranayake, 2013). The article in question I noticed was first posted on Google+ social network. I noted it without reading it, then moved on. Then one of my students brought it in saying, "There's life out there! Aliens are real! It's from a scientific journal, so it must be true!" This got my attention to take a closer look at the article itself. Sure enough, the authors proclaimed to find fossil evidence of life in meteors.
Intrigued, but not an expert in this area, I wondered where to turn to confirm or debunk this before I told the students it was wrong. Thankfully, another has already worked hard to debunk this for us. Phil Plait of the blog Bad Astronomy has a wonderful breakdown of how this paper is a shining example of very bad science.
While you can read the nitty-gritty on the article itself, there are a few things to take away about identifying bad science on the spur of the moment:
Look at the journal or publishing company: Are they really peer reviewed?
Peer review serves as a checks and balance system among science to make sure theory, methods, and data can be verified. If it's not peer reviewed, it's best to look at the evidence with a bit of distance.
Look at the citation: Are they mostly citing themselves?
This is a dead ringer for pseudo-science since it's usually a small group of fringe researchers trying to prove their own thoughts and dreams by any means they find.
Look at the data: Is it verified, or likely to be verified, by other labs independently?
This one is a bit harder for the general public to do on their own. It's not like there are samples and labs open for us to use. However, that doesn't mean we can't contact an expert or two in the field to get their opinions.
As an educator, it's a passion to debunk bad science. As a scientist, it's a duty.