NASA wants standards for evaluating claims of extraterrestrial life

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INTRO: The burgeoning field of astrobiology and its search for life beyond Earth has high hurdles aplenty, from hunting for habitable exoplanets to trying to understand life as we don’t know it. All the steps in this research are challenging, but the last step may be the most daunting of all: How to prove to fellow scientists that claims about extraterrestrial life are sound, then how to communicate the findings to the public in a responsible way.

With more such claims expected in the future, NASA’s Chief Scientist Jim Green and his colleagues have become increasingly interested in coming up with community standards for evaluating such findings. As far back as the Viking exploration of Mars in the 1970s, and as recently as last year’s speculations about possible life in the Venus atmosphere, claims of possible extraterrestrial life have been met with strong pushback and contentious debate from other scientists. Some researchers in the field worry that recurring strife puts the credibility of astrobiology at risk, or diminishes the actual scientific importance of some findings because they are ultimately found not to be life detections.

As a result, more than a hundred scientists representing a variety of disciplines are convening (virtually) under NASA auspices this week. They’ll be hashing out issues ranging from how to increase scientific confidence in “biosignature” detections to how best to convey the level of confidence in new discoveries to non-scientists. The hope is that this will lead to formal “best practices” and perhaps even reporting protocols for scientists working in the field.

“The discovery of a potential biosignature in [a planet’s] atmosphere is important, but it’s just the start,” said Green in an interview. “You have to examine potential false positives, whether there are [non-biological] ways to form the chemical, whether the measurement is an artifact of your instrument, whether the environment on the planet is conducive or hostile to life, whether water is present.”

Applying such a chain of reasoning could result in a kind of credibility scale for the general public to turn to when they read about new results in astrobiology... (MORE)

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