For Wednesday Jason Lisle provides a surprisingly up-to-the-minute article, Washing Machines on Mars, opening:
Several news outlets yesterday heralded early reports from NASA that the Curiosity rover on Mars has found evidence that the red planet could have supported primitive life.
Lisle cites three headlines: NASA: Yes, Mars could have hosted life; Mars had the right stuff for life, scientists find; and Wow! Ancient Mars Could Have Supported Primitive Life, NASA Says. If you haven’t heard the news you should probably go read one or two of those. Where do washing machines come in to it?
To make a point, Lisle writes a paragraph of his own for a slightly different news article:
The Mars rover Curiosity once again pushes forward the frontiers of science. The rover has the ability to drill holes in Martian rocks, and to chemically analyze the resulting powder. Such an analysis has recently revealed that Martian rocks contain the following chemicals: sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The significance? These are all elements found in washing machines and laundry detergent. Yes, it seems that conditions on ancient Mars were just right for the existence of operational washing machines!
Aside from the concluding sentence, the above paragraph is entirely true. Curiosity did find these elements on Mars (they are fairly common elements in the universe). And indeed, such elements are used whenever someone does a load of laundry. But few scientists would draw the conclusion that washing machines once populated the surface of Mars.
The reason is simple. It is fallacious to assume the existence of a complex structure on the basis of the mere existence of its raw material. In addition, there is no organizing principle on Mars or informational instructions by which such basic elements could be naturally organized into something as complicated as a washing machine.
The “organizing principle” line is a curiousity – what does Lisle mean by it? Does that include natural selection, I wonder? He adds that life is made of many of the same chemicals as washing machines, before concluding:
So why do we see news articles concluding that Mars possibly had life on the basis that it has some of the same elements? If we wouldn’t conclude that there were probably washing machines on Mars, then why would we infer the existence of something far more complex and intricate?
It’s not hard to see that Lisle’s point falls down when you realise that nobody (or, at least, nobody linked to by Lisle – we should be careful with absolutes here) is saying that this proves there was life on Mars. Simply saying that it was possible based on this result isn’t a problem.
To use Lisle’s washing machine analogy, this is like finding that the conditions of ancient Mars were such that a washing machine would not spontaneously combust or otherwise immediately be destroyed, and would be able to function. The discovery is, in fact, closer to determining that Mars once had powered wall sockets and running water. In that situation headlines like “Wow! Ancient Mars Could Have Supported Washing Machines, NASA Says,” “Mars had the right stuff for washing machines, scientists find,” and “NASA: Yes, Mars could have hosted washing machines” would all be technically accurate. The important difference is that nobody is seriously proposing that “washing machines once populated the surface of Mars,” but life is a real possibility.