Critical Thinking About Mars
For a number of years now whenever I do a presentation about the planet Mars, there is one quotation that I always work to find a way to include in my talk. The quote is from the American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard and is dated 1880. The quote is:"It is well to fetter the wings of our fancy and restrain its flights. It is quite possible we may have formed entirely erroneous ideas of what we actually see. The greenish gray patches may not be seas at all, nor the ruddy continents, solid land. Neither may the obscuring patches be clouds of vapor. Man is too quick at forming conclusions. Let him but indistinctly see a thing, or even be undecided as to whether he does actually see it and he will then and there set himself to theorizing, and build immense castles of conjecture on a foundation, of whose existence he is by no means certain."
I find it particularly noteworthy that this quote was made before Percival Lowell developed his hypothesis about the nature of the martian "canals" and the civilization that he proposed to have built them - all from seeing on Mars what he perceived to be a network of straight lines.
I use this quote as a warning to people, especially those in school, to critically evaluate the information they see about Mars on the web. Why? Because there are a number of sites that promote crack-pot notions about Mars. The most popular of these ideas is that Mars is riddled with artificial structures created by aliens. As an example of what I am talking about, see the article Faking an Alien Airport Complex. While I would love to believe that Mars was once the home of an advanced civilization, I see no evidence of that in any of the images returned by the various missions to Mars.
And just to be fair, I instruct my audiences to not take the views I present as the gospel truth but to investigate on their own the statements that I make about Mars during the course of my lecture.