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It's Still Not Aliens: 'Mars Bug' Claim Could Damage the Search for Life

An Ohio scientist claims to have found photographic proof of "insect and reptile-like" life on Mars. But, as always, it's not aliens, other researchers say.

William Romoser, a professor emeritus who specializes in arbovirology (the study of viruses transmitted by arthropods) and entomology at Ohio University, has compiled photographs from NASA Mars rovers that he says are evidence of life on Mars. "There has been and still is life on Mars," Romoser said in a statement

But Romoser's evidence for this alleged Martian life comes only from his interpretation of these photographs. As he asserts in the findings he presented on Nov. 19 at the national meeting of the Entomological Society of America, the images show the shapes of life-forms that look similar to reptiles and bee-like insects. According to the statement, these observations are of both fossilized and living creatures on the surface of Mars. 

Video:
Insects on Mars? Professor Suggests It After Studying Rover Pics
Related:
5 Bold Claims of Alien Life 

Professor William Romoser from the University of Ohio has labeled this image, taken by a Mars rover. He suggests that this is a life-form on Mars, but other scientists say that this is not the discovery of alien life.  (Image credit: William Romoser)

"There is apparent diversity among the Martian insect-like fauna which display many features similar to Terran insects that are interpreted as advanced groups — for example, the presence of wings, wing flexion, agile gliding/flight, and variously structured leg elements," Romoser said about the supposed life-forms. 

Professor William Romoser recently suggested that images taken by Mars rovers show proof for life on Mars. Expert scientists have so far refuted this claim. (Image credit: Analysis by William Romoser)

Seeing things on Mars

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Now, if you really squint at these images and have already read that someone else thinks that they look like insects and reptiles, you might think they look like insects and reptiles, too. But, according to David Maddison, a professor in the integrative biology department at Oregon State University, this "proof" is likely just an example of pareidolia, a phenomenon in which people see patterns in random data. 

"I, personally, have pareidolia with respect to insects, beetles in particular," Maddison told Space.com in an email. "I've worked on beetles for decades; I have collected many thousands of beetles around the world. Through the years I have built into my brain a pattern-recognition system for picking out beetles."

Related: Mars Illusions: The 'Face on Mars' and Other Optic Tricks

A comparison made by professor William Romoser between an image captured by a Mars rover and a snake here on Earth. He suggests that this is a life-form on Mars, but expert scientists agree that this is not the discovery of alien life.  (The "eastern king snake," by the way, is clearly a pitviper, probably a rattlesnake.) (Image credit: William Romoser)

"However," Maddison added, "there is a rate of false positives — my 'seeing' beetles where there are none, which I realize when I investigate further. The false positives are usually fairly low toward the end of a field trip, as I retrain my brain, but in some circumstances — i.e., a lack of beetles in the environment — that rate of false positives is higher, as my eyes don't naturally get drawn to the real beetles, instead latching on to whatever beetle-like blob is out in the landscape.

"I do not think there are insects on Mars. The photographs that are in that press release you sent are entirely unconvincing, as they fall within the range expected in zillions of non-insect objects photographed in lowish resolution on a Marscape," Maddison said. "It is vastly more parsimonious to presume the blobs are simply rocks. As has been said, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'; those pictures are far, far less than extraordinary."

And simply pointing out suggestive shapes in NASA photos may not be the best way to draw conclusions in the search for life beyond Earth.

"I think it's really easy to find patterns in images, especially when they're out of context," Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Space.com. "They're little clips of larger images and there's no scale bar on them ... you could imagine a lot of different shapes in there. That's not a good way to do this kind of assessment."

Related: Discovering Extraterrestrial Life Would Be Slow and Uncertain

Putting things in perspective

Researchers continue to extensively study the Martian landscape, soil, history and atmosphere. And, while scientists actively search for signs of life, compiling data that might one day serve as evidence for past or present life on Mars or beyond, there exists no concrete proof of any life-forms on Mars (or elsewhere beyond Earth). 

"That's just the way it is. We haven't yet been able to make that statement, but we are looking," Lanza said. "We are just as excited, we want to do this too! We are going to tell you as soon as we find life."

Regarding Romoser's work and assertion that there is proof of life on Mars, NASA officials responded to Space.com with the following statement: 

"The collective general opinion of the large majority of the scientific community is that current conditions on the surface of Mars are not suitable for liquid water or complex life. As part of its astrobiology objectives, one of NASA's key goals is the search for life in the universe and the Mars 2020 rover, launching next summer, is our next stage in exploring the potential of past life on the Red Planet. 

"Although we have yet to find signs of extraterrestrial life, NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to help us answer fundamental questions, including whether we are alone in the universe. From studying water on Mars, probing promising "oceans worlds," such as Enceladus, Europa, and Titan to looking for biosignatures in the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, NASA's science missions are working together with a goal to find unmistakable signs of life beyond Earth."

The harm that dubious claims can cause

To scientists like Lanza and Maddison, the fact that this claim is not truly "proof" of life on Mars is obvious. But to the untrained eye, to the person who might only have time to skim the headline on his or her commute home, overblown claims like this can be damaging. 

"When we have this kind of sensationalist headline, it's really hard for the public to know whether or not this is true," Lanza said. "It seems legitimate, it's coming from Ohio University, these are real institutions and so … when we actually find something on Mars and beyond, if we do that, it will be less of an impact … people keep hearing 'we've already found life on Mars.'"

"It takes away the excitement from our real discoveries," she added.

Editor's Note: Following the publication of Romoser's work, the press release for the  study was taken down. 

"I wanted to let you know that the faculty member no longer wishes to engage with media regarding this research, so we have opted to remove the story from our website and EurekAlert," Jim Sabin, the Media Relations Manager at Ohio University, told Space.com in an email. 

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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  • Cjones1
    This will result in taking a closer look at objects along the way to determine if there is photographic evidence to support the researcher's suggestion that insect life existed on Mars.
    Reply
  • Susan
    Another contra-argument is the extreme unlikelihood that complex creatures on another planet with a totally different evolutionary history would in any way resemble complex creatures on Earth.
    Reply
  • Ron Marshall
    This article talks like scientific consensus is the reality check of science. Experiment is the sole reality check of science. The article raises conformity above freedom of speech. The scientist may be wrong because the evidence is misinterpreted. However there is no cause for panic.
    Reply
  • IQLessthan10
    Susan said:
    Another contra-argument is the extreme unlikelihood that complex creatures on another planet with a totally different evolutionary history would in any way resemble complex creatures on Earth.
    Why is that extremely unlikely?

    I would find it more likely than not, if said life was on Mars.
    The closest planet to Earth's specifications in our solar system, and only one planetary hop from Earth.

    Sure, if you're talking interstellar life, yeah, way different, but Earth and Mars share material.

    Meteoritic material from Mars makes it's way to Earth, and vice versa.

    Past mega impacts, have undoubtedly shared material between these two celestial bodies.
    (Chicxulub impact would have been able to put a mountain into orbit, no doubt some Earth material made it to Mars, and that wasn't that long ago. Who knows what ancient impacts of the past were capable of.)


    Besides, life on Earth evolved as it has, because of advantages over hundreds of millions of years. Over a long enough time span, wouldn't all creatures approach similar advantages, with a similar over-arching specification.

    "In a Universe with gravity. On a planet with a central sun. Same base elements and periodic table. etc..."


    You would really have to prove to me, that there is some magical difference between life on planets... When we only have one data set.

    I'm not making a sweeping generalization. I'm making observations based on our only data set.
    Reply
  • sb5k
    Reminds me of how Percival Lowell saw "canals" on Mars - and saw them better when seeing conditions were bad. Our minds fill in details when the details aren't present.

    As for the possibility of insect life, insects do not get very big on Earth because their respiratory systems are inefficient. On Mars, with a much, much thinner atmosphere, and little, if any, available oxygen, they would have even more trouble surviving.
    I think he is seeing clods of dirt and seeing in them what he wants to see.
    Reply
  • rod
    I suspect claims of life on Mars will continue for many years to come. Various claims of life on Mars, currently does not meet the same standard of scientific testing that Galileo used and applied to argue against the geocentric universe teachers. The observable and testable heliocentric solar system in astronomy - eventually falsified the geocentric teachers just like the spherical Earth observations falsified the flat earth teachers. The ability to test and falsify or show is true is the heart or foundation of the scientific method. Claims of life on Mars is still pending confirmation and verification.
    Reply
  • Susan
    Ron Marshall said:
    This article talks like scientific consensus is the reality check of science. Experiment is the sole reality check of science. The article raises conformity above freedom of speech. The scientist may be wrong because the evidence is misinterpreted. However there is no cause for panic.
    I agree that there is no reason to panic when the media play up stories with little scientific backing. They do that all the time because they are motivated by number of reads rather than rigid adherence to reality.

    I disagree that controlled experiments are the only reality check of science. If that were the case, nearly all the sciences other than physics and chemistry would not be considered science. These other sciences must, by the nature of what they study, be observational sciences. There is no way you can experiment with the weather, climate, galaxies, paleozoic fauna, etc. And there can be moral issues with zoological experimentation.
    Reply
  • rod
    The scientific method requires the ability to test claims, e.g. show the claim or hypothesis is accurate and factual or false, otherwise the argument may never rise above a theory or a fact. If this methodology cannot be applied to life on Mars claims and is abandoned as it seems in some of the discussion here - there is no reason to consider the Earth is a sphere, it could be a flat disk and immovable with the Sun moving around the Earth. So far, the scientific method does not show life on Mars is there today, or even billions of years ago - *confirmed* like the tests and observations for the heliocentric solar system and round Earth.
    Reply
  • Susan
    rod said:
    The scientific method requires the ability to test claims, e.g. show the claim or hypothesis is accurate and factual or false, otherwise the argument may never rise above a theory or a fact. If this methodology cannot be applied to life on Mars claims and is abandoned as it seems in some of the discussion here - there is no reason to consider the Earth is a sphere, it could be a flat disk and immovable with the Sun moving around the Earth. So far, the scientific method does not show life on Mars is there today, or even billions of years ago - *confirmed* like the tests and observations for the heliocentric solar system and round Earth.
    True, but my point was that the scientific method does not always require EXPERIMENTATION to test claims. For most science, observation must be sufficient. There is no controlled experiment that can prove that the Earth is a sphere. Nor is there any experiment that can prove that plate tectonics explains phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and continental drift. Evolution can be proven by selective breeding, but the age of trilobites can only be inferred through observation, stratigraphy, and radioactive dating.
    Reply
  • rod
    Susan, "There is no controlled experiment that can prove that the Earth is a sphere." We had the Flat Earth International Conference in Dallas TX this month (14-15th), these folks have much to say about the flat disk earth as the true shape. If we cannot show the Earth is a sphere, then the astronomical unit cannot be defined either because it uses spherical trigonometry in measuring the solar parallax and distance, just like other parallax measurements for the Moon, e.g. the lunar parallax determined by telescopes in the 1800s showing the distance to the Moon or how GoTo telescopes work on equatorial mounts and motors using the spherical Earth that spins (and the telescopes work). You said - "For most science, observation must be sufficient". From my thinking, life on Mars claims does not have the same standard of *observations* like heliocentric solar system astronomy or measuring the distance to the Moon. I do not place claims for life on Mars on the same footing as these other observations in astronomy. Someday astronauts may walk on Mars and confirm - or show life on Mars is not factual at all and never was there. Until those days, arguments for life on Mars remain very tentative based upon current observations published. This is my main point here.
    Reply