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paranoid theory of the week :: is the discovery of water on mars an environmentalist hoax?

mars: not filled with caramel and nougat
when nasa announced that they had found flowing water on mars, dom [who is a serious nasa and space-o-phile] looked at me and joked that he wondered how long it would take before people started claiming it was some sort of left-wing or obama plot. the answer to that question proved to be about twenty-one hours, i believe, not that it was a question either of us expected to have answered. after all, nasa is pretty much neutral, right? [unless you count the whole moon landing was faked thing, in which case this would be totally in keeping with nasa policy.] and no one has anything to gain from saying that there's water on mars when there isn't, right?

i'm honestly kind of ashamed that it continues to surprise me when conspiracy theories pop up about this sort of thing, as if, despite all of the time i spend listening to and reading about the paranoid mindset, i don't realise that anything can generate a conspiracy theory. it's like my brain blocks parts of itself from discovering the stuff it's learned so that i can maintain a modicum of hope about the thought patterns of human beings in general.

but a narrative has emerged about the water found on mars and i am compelled to investigate, especially since it's so hot off the proverbial presses and hasn't been complicated by generations of retelling.

the theory ::
the announcement that flowing water was discovered on mars is a lie designed to further the agenda of environmentalists.

the origin ::
i'd say dom's imagination, but i just don't think he's at the point where he can cause his thoughts to assume real form yet. so instead, we're going to go with the often controversial rush limbaugh, who addressed the topic on his show on september 28, also known as the day nasa made their announcement.

the believers ::
rush limbaugh, obviously. [or not. i always have a sneaking feeling that he and ann coulter are, in fact, the greatest performance artists in history and are secretly laughing their asses off at all of us.] there are probably others, but this is a very new story, so not a lot of high profile people have bought in. some have made noises about how the timing is coincidental with the release of the martian, a movie in which nasa scientists have been heavily involved. if that's the case, i seriously want to shake the hand of every individual on their marketing team because damn. i like to think that i've put together some impressive campaigns in the past, but having nasa fake the discovery of liquid water on another planet is just... wow. on a slightly different path, author richard hoagland has averred that the discovery of flowing water was made years ago, but that nasa is withholding information and releasing it slowly and cautiously to fit the agency's needs.

the evidence ::
well, it's a logical impossibility to prove prima facie that something doesn't exist. the burden of proof is to establish that it does exist, and then further arguments can attack that proof. so the first thing we should look at is the evidence that nasa cites that there is liquid water on mars. fortunately, in the age of technology, it's really, really easy to find that information. for instance, here's an hour-long video of the press conference about the announcement where nasa scientists discuss the information that they used to come to the conclusion that there is liquid water on mars:

knowing that a lot of people are not going to watch the full hour, allow me to offer this inadequate layman's summary: mars has streaks on its surface that have thus far been impossible to explain. using a fancy science machine [a spectrometer], scientists have determined that the streaks are the result of certain minerals, but only if those minerals are hydrated. if there are wet things on the surface of mars, it means that there must be liquid to make them wet and since the markings are specifically typical of hydration, that means that it's water causing the wetness.

no one is claiming that they've collected water, or that they've seen the water rolling over the surface. what they've seen are the effects and those effects have been made recently enough that scientists are satisfied that they are not the result of an ancient source of water now frozen or dry. the presence of hydrated minerals means that something is hydrating them now.

clearly, there's a lot to be learned here. the average temperature on mars is frigid even at the warmest points. [although at least once a year here in montreal, usually in january, some smart ass meteorologist likes to point out that our temperature that day will be lower than it is on mars. hey mr. or ms. smarty pants, mars is a whole planet, so it can't be the same temperature all over. but yeah, if you've ever wondered why people leave a city like montreal, winter temperatures colder than a planet that's further away from the sun is one reason.] in order to be in a liquid state, the water needs to be mixed with something else, most likely salt, in order to lower its freezing temperature. that's not outlandish. our oceans don't freeze over, even in the coldest places. of course, mars isn't exactly a clone of earth. it's a frozen wasteland with no evidence of life existing for millennia. but where there is water, there often is life, so the discovery of liquid water begs the questions: is there life on mars that we haven't identified yet? was there life on mars previously and if so, what happened that made the planet virtually uninhabitable now?

if nasa has any information on the former, they're not talking [yet]. on the latter, the theory is that there is that mars experienced some form of climate change and that this somehow altered the surface conditions sufficiently to move it from a moist, life-friendly planet, to a frozen hellhole that even the tundra has abandoned. one wishes that they could have come up with a way, any way, of saying what they meant that didn't involve the use of the words "climate" and "change". not that those aren't the correct words and not that they aren't equally applicable to conditions here on earth, but even saying them is like waving the proverbial red flag before the bull. [and i do mean the proverbial red flag. real red flags aren't any more interesting to real bulls than green or blue ones.] and it does seem to be that choice of words that set our principal figure, rush limbaugh, off.

minerals in the gale crater
in his initial response to the new that there was liquid water on mars, limbaugh questioned why he should believe the claim, since he says nasa has been falsifying weather data on earth for the last eighteen years. when his assertions were questioned by left-wing media outlets, limbaugh doubled down on his claims, saying that it wasn't possible for nasa to determine that there had been oceans a mile deep on mars [which they do], that they could not be correct in their assumption that a catastrophic event had shifted the martian climate and made it inhospitable and that nasa's work was corrupted because the organisation had been "converted to muslim outreach".

that last comment may sound a little odd, even by limbaugh's standards, but there is a kernel of truth behind it. it stems from comments made in 2010 by obama's appointed head of nasa, charles bolden, who had said that among his primary goals was to conduct outreach to muslim and arab nations and to make them feel a part of nasa's history, since so much of the work that its scientists have done was built on the discoveries of scientists from the arab world. it is interesting that obama would consider that a particular priority, but it's far from the entire agency being converted to muslim outreach.

if his reasons for disbelieving nasa are because he thinks that they have been falsifying weather data, he's wrong. this is a lie dragged out by climate change deniers ad nauseum and it's based on bad science.

as far as how nasa could know that there were once oceans on mars, they use the same geology that we use here on earth to determine that ice ages have occurred at different times. we do not need to have been present in order to know what happened: the planet itself bears witness. i'm not requiring that limbaugh believe in any of this science, but if he discounts what has been observed on mars, he needs to clarify that he is likewise discounting observations that have been made about earth. 

i'm not sure what he means exactly when he says 

How can there be a catastrophic event on Mars when there is nobody there to experience the catastrophe?

there have been catastrophes here on earth that have gone unwitnessed by humans in the past, such as the events that killed the dinosaurs and have the flora and fauna on earth sixty-five million years ago. i'm going to assume here that he meant that there weren't people on mars to do the research required to establish the type of event that took place the way that there are on earth and that's not untrue. however, science has advanced to the point where it isn't always necessary to use live human beings in research. furthermore, no one at nasa has made a definitive statement about what happened, just that something happened. they don't have any information older than forty years and even some of that is pretty sketchy. as with all things in science, it's a theory that needs to be tested. 

the ultimate problem that limbaugh and his followers have, however, is with the use of the term "climate change", because they are incorrectly linking it to the way in which it's used to describe events here on earth. here, "climate change" is a short way of saying that there are shifts in the climate of the earth that are outside the normal range and that are not caused by external forces acting on the planet or its atmosphere, but rather are caused by the activities of human beings. and even what i've just said there is a simplification. 

"climate change" in the martian context just refers to the fact that planetary climates do, in fact, change on their own, just like ours has in the arrival and departure of ice ages. on mars, climate change is a bigger factor for a few reasons

photo of the environmental effects of flowing water on mars

  • the shape of its orbit makes it more susceptible to changes than we are 
  • mars has a thin atmosphere, which is essentially like saying it lacks an airbag; here on earth, external shifts are absorbed largely by our big blue bag, but mars takes the impact full on
  • the surface of mars is exceptionally dusty and its winds cause massive dust storms to form. those may cause further climactic blight by doing things like blocking the sun, as we've occasionally witnessed here in the wake of very large volcanic events. 

no one is claiming that the climate change that occurred on mars is like the climate change that's occurring on earth. correction: no one is saying that except rush limbaugh and he's only doing it to confuse people into believing that someone at nasa thinks that humans are causing global warming on mars. 

the likelihood :: 0/10
seriously, if you believe this, you need to get help. nasa have presented very credible evidence of why they believe that there is liquid water on mars. if that's being disputed, it needs to be disputed by a scientist who understands and has reviewed the evidence and who is willing to have their work reviewed by their peers in order to confirm that their methods are sound. the careful detailing of methods and analysis in order to allow work to be replicated by others is actually what distinguishes good from bad science. science isn't about making the discovery: it's about making a discovery that can be made again by anyone following the same procedure, like baking a cake. 

the problem with this sort of reflexive distrust of government agencies like nasa is that it denies the importance of knowledge and expertise. limbaugh asks how nasa can know certain things, but doesn't bother to familiarize himself with the actual science of how they could know it. he assumes that because he [and his listeners] don't know how it's done that no one else could either. i can be pretty arrogant, but i will never assume that something can't be done simply because i can't do it. you could leave me alone for ten years and the only method i would figure out to avoid freezing to death would be to set stuff on fire. that doesn't mean i don't believe in my radiators. 

rather than allowing something like this to gain strength and followers, let's just all take a moment this week and think how incredibly cool it is that we live in an age where there are people smart enough to deduce that there might be flowing water on the planet closest to us. ignorance is awful. science is awesome.

all images taken from


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