I recently presented a research poster ("Does Insect/Arthropod Biodiversity Extend Beyond Earth”) at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America. This poster stemmed from my examination of NASA photographs sent back to earth by the Curiosity rover. You can see my poster and subsequent comments to critics on researchgate.com. (Find the article by Googling the aforementioned name of the research poster, and the comments by Googling “A Few Comments About Mars Insects & NASA.”)
Since The Athens NEWS decided to cover the story and interview me ("Mars Bug or Mars Rock?," The NEWS, Nov. 27), I feel the need to tell my side of the story since Ohio University was my place of employment for 45 years and Athens was my home for nearly 50 years.
The Ohio University media office graciously published a news release about my poster on Eurekalert and on OU's research page. The poster session went well. My colleagues were skeptical as expected. There was a lot of good humor, and one of my colleagues said it was the most interesting poster he had ever seen. It was a good day. Unfortunately, the following days up to now, not so much.
The OU news release contained a purported direct quote from me: "There has been and still is life on Mars.” You won't find this statement as such on my poster, and I would absolutely not say this so categorically. What you will find in the poster's introduction is a similar statement, but one made as my hypothesis, not as a blunt statement of fact. The other place you will find similar wording is in the conclusions under the heading: "Evidence Presented Here Supports the Following..." Again, the statement was my hypothesis, which was supported by the data.
I have to share responsibility for this mistake since I did see a draft of the news release. Unfortunately, the categorical statement followed me to the article in The Athens NEWS. It remains an inaccurate representation of what was simply my hypothesis.
Critics often roll out the term "pareidolia” – that is, seeing what you want to see. Of course, I wanted to see insect-like creatures, but that doesn't mean I am seeing things of fantasy. I have studied insects for most of my life and do know the difference between an insect and a rock.
Pareidolia is a valid term, but can also be used in a dismissive and discrediting way. The Athens NEWS’ coverage was accurate in describing pareidolia as seeing what you want to see when it's really not there. However "finally seeing what's there" is not pareidolia In quotes, the statement does not represent me accurately.
NASA and space.com, not surprisingly, responded quickly to the news release.
NASA: "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.”
Romoser: "I did not assert that “there is proof of life on Mars” on the poster or in person. It is interesting to note, however, that NASA has a handle on the opinions of “the large majority of the scientific community.” Ironically, NASA itself has reported the presence of liquid water on Mars (for example: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-confirms-evidence-that-liquid-water-flows-on-today-s-mars). I believe my data support the hypothesis that conditions on Mars are, in fact, suitable for complex life.
The global media grabbed onto the news release, and many if not most followed NASA/space.coms lead and were highly critical.
Though I did say I would understand if the news release was withdrawn, I did express my preference that OU not remove it. Well, they took it down. I was sad to hear that the release was also removed from OU's research page, as well as to find out that the medical school (HCOM) had requested on behalf of OU’s Infectious and Tropical Disease Institute that they be separated from the whole thing.
Ostensibly, removal of the news release had to do with a misunderstanding between the OU media office and me, and that probably is part of it. However, I suspect it had more to do with shrinking from controversy and preserving images. While I do understand concern about image, it is difficult not to take it as an expression of a lack of confidence in me.
Editor’s note: Ohio University professor emeritus William Romoser is an entomologist who worked at Ohio University and lived in Athens.