(Evincing how deep the weeds of this story go, later, on NASAWatch.com, Rocco Mancinelli, an associate editor at the International Journal of Astrobiology, said part of that claim was not true: “The paper was rejected, after peer review.” The site’s Keith Cowing also revealed that NASA had approved Hoover’s revised article for re-submission to the International Journal of Astrobiology before Hoover “took the advice from a colleague in the astrobiology field” to submit the paper to the Journal of Cosmology.)
After the agency distanced itself from Hoover, the critical tone of news coverage intensified. Space.com ran an article quoting University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers—who called the work “garbage” on his popular blog, Pharyngula—dubbing the Journal of Cosmology “the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth.”
The Space.com article also mentioned two press releases from the journal, both of which were posted over the weekend by science writer David Dobbs. In one from February announcing that it would publish its final issue in May, senior executive managing director Lana Tao accused science magazines, other journals, and NASA of plotting a vast conspiracy to do the journal in. In another, from Sunday, Tao accused the journals Science and Nature of numerous acts of malfeasance in response to questions about why Hoover’s research had not been published in one of the other two journals.
More damning still was an article from The Associated Press, which reported that it had “talked to a dozen scientists, and none of them agreed with the findings.” It then quoted Carl Pilcher, the director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, saying, “There has been no one in the scientific community, certainly no one in the meteorite analysis community, that has supported these conclusions.”
The article goes on to reveal that Hoover does not have a PhD (also confirmed by Keith Cowing at NASAWatch.com) despite the fact that the Journal of Cosmology—not to mention Fox News—referred to him as “Dr.” NASA’s Pilcher, going for the coup de grâce, perhaps, told the AP, “Anyone can call himself an astrobiologist. That doesn’t make it so.”
In a good roundup of the saga following his first post, MSNBC.com’s Boyle provided links to a blogger who saw Hoover speak when she was an undergraduate and claims he has two honorary PhDs “from the U.S. and Europe.” The roundup up also quoted an e-mail from Tao defending the journal’s widely criticized peer review process. The journal had issued an editor’s note with Hoover’s work saying it had invited 100 experts to critique it, and published the twenty-one commentaries it received on Monday. Boyle highlighted a few.
“Generally speaking, the journal’s commentaries don’t provide the kind of hard-hitting criticism that some of the better-known outside experts on microbiology have been voicing in other forums,” he concluded. “But they do suggest that Hoover’s claims will continue to be debated rather than going immediately into the trash can.”
At the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, freelance science writers Brandon Keim and David Dobbs issued admirable calls for a more civil debate about Hoover and the Journal of Cosmology’s credentials.
“While we all have to have rules and fast heuristics for judging credibility, a central tenet of empiricism is that authority rests not in institutions or people but in facts and evidence,” Dobbs wrote. “It may make sense to be extra skeptical of something published in the Journal of Cosmology and covered first at Fox, but to cite those venues as part of your proof something is false is rather unscientific. The value of an idea depends not on its point of origin but in its testing.”
That may be true, but as Boyle reported in his first post for MSNBC.com, without stronger evidence to begin with, “More than one expert wondered why the research merited any news coverage at all.” If Fox News had not bit on Hoover’s juicy exclusive—or if it had covered it with the skepticism it deserved—the flurry of articles denouncing the research might have been avoided. It’s doubtful, though. Anything having to do with extraterrestrials has a way of creating a media frenzy. But reporters have obviously learned from frenzies past.