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Media’s methane-based life: No it is not just sensationalism


Titan in natural color Cassini.jpg It is cheerleading for a worldview, one that permits, even encourages, fiction to stand in for fact.

In Scientists Create Methane-Based Life: Science Reporting Stoops to a New Low, Eric Anderson recounts a claim for life on Saturnian moon Titan:

Researchers have finally developed a new “life form.” And a methane-based one at that.

Now at this point, a few red flags should have been raised in the mind of anyone who is passingly familiar with origin of life research. Indeed, there should be a whole field of red flags waving and snapping smartly in the wind like the Hammer and Sickle on a frigid Moscow (or Titan) morning.

Our pulse racing at the news, we scarcely get to the next paragraph before the letdown.

It’s a computer sim, which they think analogous to a life form that could exist on Titan.

Not that we have any reason to believe that life exists on Titan.

First, note that there is a considerable difference between “We have reason to believe that life exists on Titan, but how?” and “We have no reason to believe that life exists on Titan, but if it did, what would it be like?”

Timaeus notes at 3,

… why do the news media *so often* exaggerate the findings of scientists? You might say: because the news media like more sensational stories. But if all they want is sensational stories, then *any* exaggeration would do — exaggerations that are potentially pro-religion as well as exaggerations that are potentially anti-religion. For example, a journalist might write a story with a title like: “ID Scientist Proves that God Must Have Created Cells”; or “Mathematician Shows that Darwinian Evolution Would Need More Time than the Age of the Universe to Work.” Now those would be shocking headlines, capable of selling boatloads of papers. But we don’t see them. Instead, we see headlines exaggerating claims for the blind, unguided chemical origin of life, etc.

Precisely. The reporter would undoubtedly be let go, along with his editor, irrespective of the state of the evidence.

Let me emphasize that: No matter what the state of the evidence, such stories would be unacceptable in legacy mainstream media. Those challenged and often withering media no longer seek news or sensation as such. They seek narratives that support a worldview. The narratives need not, in consequence, have any particular basis in reality. They need only meet the needs of a worldview at a given time.

Eric Anderson responds at 4:

Yes, the media is responsible for poor news coverage. However, it is not as though the media are out there operating as rogue agents, battling against the researchers’ cautious and measured tones. It is not as though the researchers are begging — nay, even making any reasonable effort — to make sure that their work isn’t blown out of proportion.

But there would be no reason for the researchers to even try to urge caution. They probably share the media’s need for a believable (to them) narrative. One that reassures and validates them, and circumvents doubt.

In this case, the worldview is pretty obvious: Life gets started randomly whenever the conditions are right. We should therefore expect, rather than doubt that there would be life on Titan, whatever the state of the evidence. We are so certain that this is true that a computer model on Earth stands in for and feels like reality.

Checking assumptions against reality would feel profoundly uncomfortable to both researchers and pop science media. It entails raising questions that a reliable follower is not supposed to ask.

It is permissible to frame such questions, but only as mockery: “It’s unbelievable that some people think we are alone in the galaxy!” Actually, we might be; we have no evidence either way.

While that state of affairs isn’t necessarily a theological issue, it is often treated as one, to create a more satisfying narrative. One often hears, from people who do not believe that God exists, some version of “Why would God not have made other life forms?”

Note that the usual Why would God …? question, among those who do believe he exists, addresses events that we know have happened, like wars and famines. But in this case, the question works rather to block consideration of an unacceptable possibility.

Or, some will announce, it would be a big problem for Christians if life were found elsewhere in the galaxy? Just why is never spelled out. Scripture is silent on the subject; its subject is relations between God and man.

In reality,  it is the pop science journalist and the astrobiologist for whom ET life’s absence would be a problem. Their story demands its existence; so much so that they go to great lengths to imagine it into being.

The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis did that with his science fiction trilogy too, but he and his readers knew the story as fiction. They did not need it to be fact.

Which brings me to my main point: The worldview of many pop science journalists and researchers today includes the belief that our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth. Which means that they need accept no responsibility to address facts and evidence beyond the needs of narrative, hype, and spin.

Because they “know” we are not alone, they are entitled to shape a narrative that give expression to their belief, and treat that narrative as fact.

Barry Arrington recently expressed wonderment about the fact that news anchor Brian Williams was defended by his network despite evidence that he is a fabulist. He is defended because fact does not matter nearly as much as it used to. There is both a practical and a philosophical reason for that:

The practical reason is that no one who wants honest evaluations of evidence today should be paying attention to legacy media news. The Internet makes it possible to find out what is happening on a broad basis. Legacy media now market a narrative, a truth-optional spin that increasingly specialized audiences need, or at least find pleasing.

And, along the lines of fitness, not truth, why should network management want to part with a popular fabulist anyway? The next anchor might be less popular, though not a fabulist. Or even a less popular fabulist. And the core audience probably doesn’t really care because, like the pop science journalists, they know what they need to be true, despite evidence.

And they respond to a narrative that fits it.

So yes, there is life on Titan, even if there isn’t. Trust that clears things up.

See also: Don’t let Mars fool you. Those exoplanets teem with life!


How do we grapple with the idea that ET might not be out there?

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But don’t let any of this spoil Titan for you:


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