Scientific American finds the search for extraterrestrial intelligence racist and colonialist

August 12, 2022 • 9:30 am

UPDATE:  Michael Shermer emailed me with his response to this quote below, taken from the Sci. Am. Piece.

We may not be able to recognize intelligence when we see it, and we may not respect or honor things we don’t perceive to be intelligent. That is what we did in many colonial interactions. Certain countries in Europe made “first contact” with Indigenous peoples, perceived them to be nonintelligent and therefore not worthy of life, not worthy of respect or dignity. And that is troubling to me. What’s going to be different next time?

Michael’s response:

The difference is 500 years of moral progress! There are exactly zero people in SETI who think Intelligence is restricted to what we think and do and that any ETIs who show intelligence different from ours should be thought of as inferior and therefore subject to genocide and enslavement. Literally 0!

And there have been debates and discussions on the nature of intelligence for over half a century in SETI communities, with everyone breaking their skulls trying to think of ways that ETIs might communicate, think, act, etc. (From Sagan’s Jupiter cloud creatures to Fred Hoyle’s interstellar dust cloud computing beings, absolutely no one in this community thinks that intelligence is defined by what we do.) This article is so ignorant of the SETI community and the vast literate it has produced. In any case, at this point, SETI scientists would be happy to find ANYTHING that was not random noise, much less tapping out prime numbers (oops, those are the culturally constructed Western colonial mathematics, right?)

And he added a tweet with an antiracist take on extraterrestrial life by—of all people—Carl Sagan:

Note that Shermer himself wrote a piece called “Scientific American goes woke” that I highlighted here.


I claim that there is no practice, institution, or object that can’t be “wokeified” these days. If pumpkin lattes, yogurt, glaciology, and Pilates can be turned into a subject for Woke beefing, then anything can.

This time it’s the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), popularized and brought to life by Carl Sagan, whose eponymous institute at Cornell, along with the SETI Institute, have, using a variety of instruments, scoured the skies looking for evidence of life on other worlds.

As you know, we haven’t found evidence of such life, but of course there are gazillions of planets that could support life, most of them light years away.  The lack of any signal of life could reflect any number of causes: we’re truly alone in the Universe (I consider that unlikely), other planets with life may not be sending out signals, or it’s nearly impossible to detect any signals. But according to this new article in Scientific American, our failure is partly our own fault: we’re doing the search wrong. And we’re doing it wrong because we’re colonialists and racists.

In this piece, Scientific American author Camilio Garzón (it’s an article, not an op-ed) interviews Rebecca Charbonneau, identified as “a historian in residence at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.”

Charbonneau’s thesis:

. . . .increasingly, SETI scientists are grappling with the disquieting notion that, much like their intellectual forebears, their search may somehow be undermined by biases they only dimly perceive—biases that could, for instance, be related to the misunderstanding and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups that occurred during the development of modern astronomy and many other scientific fields.

Yep, Scientific American is rapidly descending to the status of a risible, woke, and useless publication. I used to read it avidly when I was a kid, but back then it was full of science. Now, like Teen Vogue, it’s a disguised way to propagandize its readers.

Yes, I could hear your kishkes tighten up when you read Charbonneau’s thesis above, but there’s a lot more. Click below to read for free—and that’s all it’s worth.

Charbonneau sees space exploration not just as a manifestation of scientific and intellectual curiosity, but largely as “an extension of our imperialist and colonial histories.” That manifests itself in several ways: not just in plans to colonize other planets (where there’s no life to dominate!), but mainly in the very way we go about detecting life in the Universe—through SETI.  She adds: “And SETI in particular carries a lot of intellectual, colonial baggage as well, especially in its use of abstract concepts like ‘civilization’ and ‘intelligence,’ concepts that have been used to enact real, physical harm on Earth.”

Her thesis, then, is SETI is not propping up the harms of colonialism on Earth using racist and colonialist methods involving things like “civilization” and “intelligence”.  Since “intelligence and “civilization” are colonialist ways to assess intelligence, what are we to do in our search for extraterrestrial life.

Garzón’s questions are in bold, Charbonneau’s answers in indented Roman type.

If decolonization isn’t just a metaphor but rather a process, that implies it’s about reckoning with history and striving to fix past mistakes. That’s something easy to say but much harder to actually define, let alone to do. In the context of SETI, what might decolonization’s “reckoning” look like?

It’s a great question. Ultimately, in Tuck and Yang’s interpretation of decolonization, this would look like prioritizing the sovereignty of Indigenous cultures and respecting their wishes regarding settled scientific infrastructure. And while that is critically important, we shouldn’t entirely discount the symbolic, dare I say metaphorical, nature of colonialism at play in SETI. Fundamentally, SETI concerns listening to alien civilizations, ideally, but we also have to get better at listening to Earthlings! We’re not very good at that right now, but we’re starting to move in that direction. There are members of the SETI community, myself included, who are very interested in listening to marginalized and historically excluded perspectives.

A lot of SETI scientists start their research from the technical search perspective, without deeply considering the implications and impact of their listening. They are simply interested in finding evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, which is valuable. I think that to do that, however, without thinking critically about how we conceptualize big abstract ideas, such as “intelligence” and “civilization,” and without considering the ethics of the search and its cultural implications, would be a huge mistake. These ideas are tightly bound with the histories of racism, genocide and imperialism, and to use them haphazardly can be harmful. How we use these symbols of the past when thinking about alien civilizations also says a lot about how we view Earth’s civilizations, and this is where Indigenous Studies scholars, such as those who contributed to the special SETI issue of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, can make great contributions. They have a unique perspective on the impact of contact, and how concepts like “intelligence” can be weaponized.

The last paragraph of Charbonneau’s answer is blather, just another attempt at self-flagellation for our treatment (admittedly very bad in the past) of remote cultures. So she manages to drag in genocide, imperialism, racism, and indigenous studies, which really have nothing to do with the way SETI scholars go about finding life on other planets. And she totally ignores the years and years that SETI scientists have pondered ways to communicate with extraterrestrial life, and how they might communicate with us (see below).

Charbonneau does not explain clearly how listening to “marginalized and historically excluded perspectives,” listening that, by the way. is going on all the time these days, is going to help us communicate with other planets. Is it not sufficient to say that “we’re all human and share certain characteristics”? That, after all was the subject of Sagan’s “golden record” sent on Voyager spacecaft.  As the Planetary Society describes it:

On board each Voyager spacecraft is a time capsule: a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disk carrying spoken greetings in 55 languages from Earth’s peoples, along with 115 images and myriad sounds representing our home planet. Selected for NASA by Carl Sagan and others, and produced by science writer Timothy Ferris, the disks are essentially a “greatest hits” package portraying the biodiversity of Earth and the diversity of human cultures. From the Golden Gate to the Great Wall, Beethoven to Chuck Berry, from mountain breezes to crashing surf, a dog’s howl and a baby’s cry, the disks may someday serve as “letters of introduction” to a passing extraterrestrial civilization that may stop and inspect the robots and become inquisitive about their place of origin.

Is this colonialist? Greetings in 55 languages, showing the diversity of speech, and 115 images, which are a combination of scientific stuff and pictures of people from all over the planet.  After all, the images are not meant just to show what life on Earth looks like and how we live, but how far we’ve advanced technically—useful information for an extraterrestrial civilization.

Here’s the record:

But wait! There’s more!

It does feel ironic. SETI is built around listening for something out there but perhaps at the cost of ignoring much of what is right here on this planet. For instance, you’ve repeatedly mentioned the cultural implications of terms such as “intelligence” and “civilization,” but how about the word “alien,” too? All of these terms have very different connotations—even destructive ones—as historically applied to Indigenous peoples or, for that matter, as applied to all the other sentient beings that live on Earth. Even now some people don’t consider nonhuman animals to be sentient, let alone possessing any real intelligence. And throughout history, building empires has come at the cost of discounting and dehumanizing Indigenous peoples as lesser beings, incapable of sophisticated thought and societal organization. Yet “intelligence” is right there in SETI’s name. Should we reconsider that framing?

SETI is designed to listen outward, but as you said, it’s not always so great at listening inward. And I should preface this by saying that there are members of the SETI community who are very interested in doing this work. And oftentimes these missteps are not made consciously—we’re all operating within our own cultural frameworks. And so, of course, when we are thinking about the “other,” the imagined alien, we’re going to project our own understanding of what that looks like onto this blank slate. In fact, some people even call SETI a mirror. Jill Tarter, an eminent SETI scientist, famously referred to SETI as holding up a cosmic mirror, where we’re looking for the “other,” but in the process of doing that, we are really learning about ourselves.

As for “intelligence,” that’s certainly a dangerous word, and it has been used in very harmful ways. Eugenics, for example, used the limited concept of “intelligence” to justify genocide. I’m therefore sometimes troubled by the word intelligence in SETI. For one thing, we might not even be able to identify what intelligence is. And because of this, maybe we [will] someday make contact and [won’t] even recognize that we’ve done so. But it’s also important to think very critically about why we search for intelligence. Is there something special about intelligence? Does intelligence deserve more respect than whatever we might perceive to be nonintelligence? We might perceive microbes as nonintelligent life, for example. Does that life have a right to exist without us bothering it? Or is it just germs—just bugs that we are going to just bring back and study and pick apart?

Oh for crying out loud, OF COURSE there’s something special about intelligence! Are there forms of it that far surpass ours? What forms can it take? We are also interested in animal intelligence for the same reason.

I’ve put Charbonneaus’s money quote in italics below:

We may not be able to recognize intelligence when we see it, and we may not respect or honor things we don’t perceive to be intelligent. That is what we did in many colonial interactions. Certain countries in Europe made “first contact” with Indigenous peoples, perceived them to be nonintelligent and therefore not worthy of life, not worthy of respect or dignity. And that is troubling to me. What’s going to be different next time?

I don’t think Charbonneau knows how SETI works. They are of course looking for signs of technological development, like radio signals or deliberate attempts to communicate, but is that colonialist? Further, SETI also uses astronomy, telescopes, and so on. Those don’t really depend on intelligence: they could, in principle, detect signs of life produced by organisms that don’t have “intelligence” in the human sense. The fact is that SETI scientists have spent decades thinking about how extraterrestrial civilizations might communicate, and designing their endeavors around these ways.

If there’s another way to detect extraterrestrial life beyond these, I’d like to know. Charbonneau certainly doesn’t tell us, nor does she seem to care. She cares more about chastising us for bad acts of the past and showing how virtuous she is.

Let me push back on one aspect here, though. Might there be a degree of incompatibility between openness to other ways of being and SETI’s core tenets? After all, SETI—all of astronomy, really—is built on the assumption of universality, that the laws of physics are the same throughout the observable universe regardless of one’s social constructs. A radio telescope, for instance, will work the same way whether it’s here on Earth or somewhere on the other side of the cosmos. Regardless of context, certain shared fundamentals exist to allow common, predictable, understandable outcomes. SETI takes this conceit even further by elevating mathematics as a universal language that can be understood and translated anywhere and by anyone. What are your thoughts on this?

So let me preface this by saying I am not a mathematician. But I do write about math. And there are many anthropologists who study mathematical systems in different cultures. They see that, even on Earth, among human cultures, there are different ways of thinking about math. And while mathematics is the language we use on Earth in our hegemonic culture to describe what we are seeing, we don’t know that another species will use that same language to describe what they are seeing. So while I don’t want to discount universality, I do think any assumptions about this are perhaps optimistic, to put it kindly. The core of what I’m trying to say is that we must critically interrogate our assumptions about life and universality, because we will all too often find that they say more about us than aliens.

So, Dr. Charbonneau, given that other creatures won’t understand the kind of math used by Earthlings, what about just regular pulses of radio waves that can’t have a purely physical origin? And once again, Charbonneau, ignoring those mathematicians that think that math is an “objective truth” (I have no dog in that fight), fails to tell us how our colonialist fixation with Earth math will impede us from finding other cultures. “Interrogating our assumptions” won’t help us one whit.

I don’t know what’s happened to Scientific American, but it’s full of stuff like this; I’ve written about it often (see here). Actually, I do know: under the aegis of editor Laura Helmuth, the magazine has gone woke—big time.

h/t: John

42 thoughts on “Scientific American finds the search for extraterrestrial intelligence racist and colonialist

  1. I have several years left on my Scientific American subscription, which I have held since my Aunt Ethel gave one to me for my tenth birthday in 1967. I’m appalled by where the magazine has been taken by its last two editors. Most of the male columnists are gone, most of the writing is done by science writers and not scientists, and the wokeness is pathetic.

    My observation is that the online content is much more woke than what I read in the paper magazine. Their are some decent science articles in the paper version, but I must admit to popping off out loud about this kind of thing at least once with every issue. My wife tells me I should give up on SciAm and subscribe to something else. She has a point, but I don’t know of a good alternative that covers science and technology broadly.

    Also, I hold out hope that this too will pass. Scientific American has been around for something like 130 years. I’m sure it has had its ups and downs before. New editors and a new editorial board can turn things around. The existing leadership may be flawed and woke, but they remain mortal. New leadership will come eventually and the magazine may be able to recover.

      1. Good idea. I thought it more useful to point them to the entire conversation, including Jerry’s summary. So, below (between the dashes) is what I sent to (Yes, I’ve expressed my views to them before. :-)) I hope that drawing attention to this conversation doesn’t break any of the Roolz.

        Hello folks. You should know that today there is an active conversation going on about your coverage of topics in the magazine, particularly coverage that interprets scientific activities as racist, colonialist, etc. Today’s conversation regards your online coverage of SETI. Here is a link to the conversation. It’s not flattering, but you’ll want to know what some scientifically-minded readers are thinking:

        I made a comment on the site as well.

    1. When my desire for some sort of sci-tech news overcomes my reluctance to support American industries (New Scientist not even being in the running – too lightweight), I reach to the top shelf, between the porn mags, and grab a copy of “American Scientist”. It’s about same price as NS, but takes 3-5 time longer to read, due to having content, not bullshit.
      That said, this bi-month’s number has turned out worryingly lightweight. I may have to start to use the library to get Nature, because I know I can’t justify a subscription.

      1. Good suggestion. I used to be a member of Sigma Xi and an American Scientist subscriber. That was a long time ago. Thank you for the recommendation.

    2. I’m curious since you mentioned it also in another comment–why the focus on male columnists? Is that supposed to be a proxy for some quality?

  2. It’s notable how devoid of any useful content that article is. Nothing at all that helps us envisage how other lifeforms might be or how we might learn about them. It’s nothing but virtue signalling.

    Why? Well, I’d hazard a guess that producing such spiel and getting jobs and then promoted for being woke and female (bet her DEI portfolio looks good) is easier than doing actual science or having real insight.

  3. “So let me preface this by saying I am not a mathematician.”

    Ah. An admirable stateme—

    “But I do write about math. …And while mathematics is the language we use on Earth in our hegemonic culture to describe what we are seeing […]”

    Well heck, I want to try that next time I lay down the smack on quantum mechanics!

    I am not a quantum physicist. But I do write about how quantum physics is a racist instrument of [.. looks at that cool word ..] hegemony.

    Nailed it, I think.

  4. We have known for awhile that SciAm has gone nuts, but more alarming to me is that this zealot acquired her position as “a historian in residence at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory?” That is truly sad.

  5. Facepalms as the result of the topic sentence of every paragraph! Well, at least, having read Dr. Charbonneau once, I know enough to give her a wide berth in the future. Points to the value of free speech: the idiots self-identify!
    Also, considering the nature of Garzón’s questions, I’m going to give him a wide berth, too.

  6. I re-read recently Fallen Angels (by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn), a novel of 1991 that envisions a future in which the Greens have taken over. The Museum of Science and Industry has been renamed The Museum of Science and Appropriate Technology. Perhaps Scientific American should consider a new name that would allow it to distance itself from Science, which it now clearly considers distasteful.

  7. Interesting that you got a comment from Michael Shermer. He is one of the male columnists I alluded to above as no longer being affiliated with SciAm. He may have his own reasons for ending the relationship, but I sure miss his monthly columns.

    And yes indeed. Although I don’t follow SETI closely, I have been impressed with how much thought has gone into imagining what other sorts of intelligence might be like. The implication that SETI scientists can’t see out of their own box is reprehensible.

    1. Shermer has written about this (google his substack, also this got discussed here on WEIT). The relationship broke down when SciAm wouldn’t publish Shermer’s columns because they were not woke enough.

  8. Fundamentally, SETI concerns listening to alien civilizations,

    Someone in the authorship of this article (It didn’t specify a singular pronoun choice, so I assume it wants a plural because there are many ways to be plural, but only one way to be singular.) has deeply misunderstood the reasoning behind this. Yes, SETI depends on being able to detect an alien civilization. Which means it absolutely has to examine some sort of parameter which we can measure. Because it is us (and/ or our technology) that will be doing the detection. It is theoretically possible that the proverbial Small furry Creatures From Alpha Centauri is actually trying to send us Galactic Wikipedia using modulated pulsations of the wings of lacewing butterflies melted on the c- (crystallographic) plane of l-quartz crystals, but if we’re not looking at that communications channel, then we are not going to detect them.
    Which is why we look for the clearest signals we can conceive of, in the parts of physics that have the lowest noise levels so that any signals have the best chance of being detectable, with confidence.
    That is what drives choice of technologies and channels. Not a priori attitudes about colonialisation and/ or intelligence. For example, the working definition of SETI science for intelligence is “capable of producing detectable signals at interstellar distances” ; nothing about whether they’re 6-armed or 8- armed, if their skin colour is the right shade of far-UV short-wavelength reflectivity (“blue”, for some meanings of “blue”), or if they’re using a radio signals or modulated pulsations of the wings of lacewing butterflies melted on the c- (crystallographic) plane of l-quartz crystals. The functional part of the definition is whether their signals can be detected by us.
    If you happen to be a proponent of modulated pulsations of the wings of lacewing butterflies melted on the c- (crystallographic) plane of l-quartz crystals as a communications channel, you’re going to have to show that it (1) works and (2) works faster, or over greater ranges, or at lower beam power, or at lower costs than maser radio communications (or X-ray laser, or whatever the flavour du jour is amongst the communications boffins). That’s a conversation you can have on the ground, right now, and any communications company is going to bite your right arm off to buy licenses on those patents and get the “lacewing communicator” onto the market as the next generation of mobile phone technology. But first, you’ve got to prove that it works.
    If that’s cultural imperialism, then I call it a restriction of our communications technology. Oddly, we can only use what we can get to work. If we can’t get “lacewing communicator” technology to work, we can’t communicate using it, and the Pan-Galactic GargelBlaster civilisation will continue going past under our noses, and we will be unable to detect their activities. Until we literally bump into one, and the electromagnetic fields of our ship’s bonding electrons interact with their “lacewing” fields (whatever the fsck they are).
    We are blind outside electromagnetic fields (and gravity, but we can’t shake big enough masses fast enough to make gravity waves a viable form of communication). So, we look in the electromagnetic spectrum (and gravity).

    1. ok, but isn’t it the case that the entire SETI effort is pretty much a total boondoggle? The local star group has not given us a whisper of communication, and let’s face it, beyond that the distances are just too vast for any civilization to send a detectable signal by any practical means. Am I right?

  9. A couple of years ago, Sci Am explained to us the entire field of human genetics needed to be reconstructed according to an “anti-racist plan”. No surprise that it now implies the need for a similar reconstruction of SETI and, by implication, of the fields of astronomy and cosmology.

    But we have heard this kind of gobbledigook before. The website helpfully sets out the older version, to wit:

    “The dialectic of nature is inseparable from the dialectic of history with which it is connected by a unity of method, as two sides of a single teaching on a single, objective reality, as inseparable parts of the complete world outlook of Marx. This means that a real knowledge of nature and a conception of it as a developing whole is only possible with the knowledge of the laws and history of the development of human society which forms a specific part of nature. This means, further, that for the dialectical materialist science puts a stop to its pseudo-independent existence divorced from every aspect of social practice. The Marxian scientific investigator is consciously included in a single and inseparable complex of the theoretical and practical activity of a class which is the agent and motive force of historical progress. Science then finds its true ground and obtains a powerful impulse for its infinite development. It becomes a real weapon of struggle for changing the world and for the emancipation of the proletariat, and is transformed into a progressive and historically revolutionary force for the rapid construction of communist society.”

    Change just a few words—e.g., change “Marxian” to “Progressive”, change “dialectical materialist” to DEI, etc. etc.—and voila! we have the current version.

  10. That SciAm article is pathetic. The author should be ashamed of himself, but no doubt he is quite proud.

    What I wonder about though is, does he believe his claims are accurate? If so, when he sees clear evidence against any of his claims (some already provided), how will he respond? Silence? Rationalizations of how his claim is still accurate? Double down?

    Or is he simply lying?

  11. The woke have moved into Scientific American, where they have displaced or marginalized the people who were there and proclaimed the existing culture and values to be inferior. Sounds to me like they have colonized Scientific American.

  12. > Certain countries in Europe made “first contact” with Indigenous peoples,

    This is painful on so many levels, and not just the unnecessary capitalization.
    * Countries do not make contact, individuals do. Countries are stationary.
    * There is no reason to single out Europe. Migrating people from Africa and Asia made some ‘first contacts’ with some indigenous (lower-case I) European peoples. For some reason, people seem to forget that Europeans are as indigenous to Europe as other peoples are to other regions. Some ‘indigenous’ peoples only have a few centuries or millennia of provenance to any particular region. Go back far enough, and we’re all indigenous to the oceans. Go back further, and we’re indigenous to our accretion disk (granted our particles were not alive then – nor are they now).
    * To make matters more complicated, some Europeans were bringing not only European politics, but a West Asian religion with them. Note how few people remember that Christianity was an Asian religion first, before colonizing much of the world.

    1. Surely, Linguist, you are aware that it is a microaggression to say that Europeans are indigenous to Europe. The magic word “Indigenous” applies only to the correct, intersectional identities. To decolonialize your mind, grind up issues of Scientific American very fine and smoke them.

    2. Indigenous (upper-case I) activists like Charbonneau don’t care about any of that philosophical stuff. They just want the land back, and us off it. They say we can all go back to being the indigenous people of Europe, for all they care, and 150 other countries where Canadians and Americans came from, four days or four centuries ago. Just go. But leave our Smart Phones and flush toilets behind. Anyone who cites Tuck and Yang isn’t talking about accretion discs.

      1. > Indigenous (upper-case I) activists […] say we can all go back to being the indigenous people of […] 150 other countries where Canadians and Americans came from, four days or four centuries ago.

        I wonder how willing they would be to go back to Siberia.

        1. Well, they wouldn’t, because for public consumption they say they were put here by their Creator at the beginning of time, so they, uniquely, have no place to go back to. But no matter if you believe it. When they seize power, they will decide who goes and who stays by the simple rule of force. (Hint: you go, they stay.)

          That’s what decolonization means: the colonizers haul down their flag and go home. You might say the British already did that in 1783 but that’s not what they mean. In the United States you may see the idea as preposterous. In New Zealand and Canada, not so much.

          Activists like Charbonneau don’t care a fig about SETI. It is just another girder of the colonial edifice to grind away at, just another statue to pull down. They don’t think they are tilting at windmills. Do read Tuck & Yang.

          All for me, risking the yellow card for over-commenting.

  13. Because Garzon and Charbonneau refer to the monograph by Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”, I cite it here:

    just so we know where these people are coming from. And those whose ancestors were brought here in chains shouldn’t think they’ll be given any special indulgence for the fact. You don’t belong here either and will be dispossessed of everything you own, too, just like all the rest of us non-Siberians.

    1. I’ve read this article years ago and it really is a repugnant piece of work when you think about it. T.Y. argue that “settlers” should give land back to indigenous people and furthermore “settlers” have no right to ask what decolonization means. “Settlers” must accept with complete equanimity whatever fate indigenous people decide for them.

      So it is essentially arguing for the political disenfranchisement of millions of people in the name of justice and, presumably, some type of indigenous ethno-state. This article has thousands of citations.

      1. Yeah, I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep. Rednecks still have most of the guns, and while the University of Oregon or the University of B.C. may cede their campuses, the woke fantasy will run into reality in a hurry up rural roads like where I live. For starters, setting aside the guns, we do all the real jobs that makes things work. Think food, electricity, transportation, etc., Aboriginal populations around here think they are dependent on government largesse, which they can manipulate with BS, but in fact it’s the guy climbing a utility pole that has the power.

  14. This xkcd comic is relevant:

    The SciAm article is sad. Note because there aren’t points to be made about any of the topics. Decades of science fiction stories have explored any one of the ideas – including Human Supremacy and the reverse (e.g. those clever apes make good cheap labor for the asteroid mines). The sad part is it’s written from the perspective of people apparently not aware of any of this, and takes that punditry as an insightful point to make. It’s something humanities major might never have thought about before. But that shouldn’t be the SciAm audience.

    1. The XKCD is great, thanks. And also on target: SETI is looking for signals that are a dubious choice for a sender. It’s not very efficient to blast electromagnetic radiation out into space. Even laser beams diverge (slowly), dumping energy where it is useless unless your listener has an absurdly large detector. So far humanity has achieved laser communication over a distance on the order of 1 million km, but Alpha Centauri is 41 trillion km away.

      I don’t know if talking to indigenous communities would help SETI, but I think they need to talk to somebody they haven’t yet listened to.

  15. I gotta say, as a recovered (?) Star Wars fan (I grew out of it), I _could_ defend the 1977 release – but instead as a sign of Sagan’s influence, I’ll just note that Episode V in 1980 was released with one of the featured – indeed, beloved – human characters plated by the estimable Billy Dee Williams.

  16. On the contrary, I approve of SciAms direction to spice things up with satirical articles. But I suspect after years of bizarre-hilarity-meant-seriously that nobody is punked here. They’re actually serious.

    There are small vignettes of reason in there. Colonialism is about an eurocentric self that explores an unknown world and “discovers” the others, who were not seen as people, but as others, and yet they are measured and compared to the standards imposed by the “discoverer” and then all manner of depravity follows from this dehumanizing. Wait. I’m sorry, I can’t steel-person this. Would-be aliens aren’t going to be people? Wouldn’t we impose ourselves on them by treating them as if they were humans?

    There is a lot going on when colonialism is rolled out, and over, indigenous people. With all the looting, pillaging, bringing infectious blankets, raping and ransacking going on, it’s rather easy to overlook the first step. That would be paying them a visit first. It’s also coincidentially the key difference between listening for signs of activity, and a raid or settlement rush, from which it took another century or two to get on with colonialising.

    If they insist on their frame, SETI is more akin to the drunk guy in the mast of a pirate ship, on the lookout for sails that betray another ship. But even that analogy breaks down fast. We aren’t actually in the position to loot them, or even visiting them. Imagine you are so progressive, you don’t worry about yet-to-be-discovered extraterrestials; not about looting and raiding them, and leaving dirty blankets, a few hundred, or thousand years into the future (after discovery); you worry about actually colonialising them even later. This has to be a joke article.

    They aren’t saying that!? But what are they saying? When asked how SETI could be “decolonialised” the interviewee actually says this:

    It’s a great question. Ultimately, in Tuck and Yang’s interpretation of decolonization, this would look like prioritizing the sovereignty of Indigenous cultures and respecting their wishes regarding settled scientific infrastructure. And while that is critically important, we shouldn’t entirely discount the symbolic, dare I say metaphorical, nature of colonialism at play in SETI. Fundamentally, SETI concerns listening to alien civilizations, ideally, but we also have to get better at listening to Earthlings!

    “dare I say metaphorical”. I laughed out loud. We are listening for beeps, and the interviewee is concerned with “respecting their wishes regarding settled scientific infrastructure” whatever that means. Where it gets concrete, they flunk completely, and suggest SETI should “get better at listening to Earthlings”. Here would be the core thesis of de/colonialism, and they botch it completely with a take that couldn’t be more comical. I get the sentiment. I always found the obsession with alien civilisation by some big names strange, including Carl Sagan. People at SETI are modern versions of the misspent lives of scholastic theologians, but SciAm is clearly taking a clickbaity tour through postmodernism cliché (a tautology) than hitting that target.

    I also get why SETI “feels” like the right target in this typical postmodern academic “insane troll logic” (look it up). It’s a kind of STEM, white guy thing, where smelly savants are more concerned with beeps on another planet than with the matters in front of the door; space is an ocean, and other civilisations are clearly “the other” again and so on.

    I choose to see this article as brilliant satire. And if not, there is another positive take-away: everyone could be a Harvard scholar. This interview should be included as therapy to cure any imposter syndrome.

  17. I think trying to find and ‘listening in’ on possible aliens is a good idea.
    But I think advertising our existence is not such a good idea.
    They maybe worse than the ‘Conquistadors’ were with the Amerindians.
    We haven’t got a clue about their intentions (if they exist at all), but I somehow suspect the outcome of such encounters would not be beneficial to our planet. Why think they would be benevolent?
    I deem our best attitude would be one of silence and stealth.

  18. The point about Woke pronouncements on all things they claim to be ‘BAD’ is the disruption caused to society in taking them seriously. Particularly to the hated Capitalist society. The actual issues are unimportant, they’re merely vehicles on which to perform ‘Deconstruction’. A destructive virtue signalling aspired to by meagre minds.

    And they often succeed. Much time is wasted by earnest, sensible people marshalling counter arguments and amassing evidence. Woke comments need to be summarily dismissed with the same consideration given as when someone else’s three year-old child naughtily repeats “why?”, just because they’ve found they can.

    Woke is a childish claim for power by the irrational amongst us. Time and energy is wasted finding fault with the proported Woke ‘issues’. While the actual issues may have some reality, the Woke take on them is ingenuous and bizarre. The Woke construct is a semantic rabbit hole, with no second entrance.

  19. Dear All,

    Many of Dr Charbonneau’s assertions are so troubling as to be chilling. They seem to amount to a form of politicization of science, or even a kind of anti-expertise sentiment, even as she has been highly eloquent in encouraging us to examine our lack-lustre track records of (mis)treating our fellow humans and nonhumans.

    Quoting Jerry’s words here regarding animal intelligence:

    Oh for crying out loud, OF COURSE there’s something special about intelligence! Are there forms of it that far surpass ours? What forms can it take? We are also interested in animal intelligence for the same reason.

    I seriously wonder how Dr Charbonneau might attempt to problematize and/or politicize my multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary post entitled “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality” published at

    On the whole, she could do very well to be much more scientifically informed in order to reach a far better balance (and for that matter, validity) in her arguments, at the very least.

    Yours sincerely,

  20. Its almost as if the world could use some highly accomplished folks, folks with credibility, with PhDs, scientific publications, grants, positions of authority, etc., ringing loud warning alarms about woke capture and corruption of the truthseeking mission of what were once trusted institutions, such as science, academia, and mass media.

    Its almost as if this nonsense should be called what it is … the mutant offspring of:
    1. bullshit; in the academic sense of sophisticated nonsense characterized by a flagrant disregard for truth (in the Frankfurt, 2005 sense).
    2. propaganda masquerading as scholarship; in the Gambrill & Reimann (2011) sense of presenting one-sided views of problems, ignoring controversies and acting as if one side is simply true, etc.

    Else it will all be dismissed as the delusions of rightwing conspiracy theorists, as have been those who have raised alarms about CRT & related Critical Social Justice “Theories” (ideas from which this Sci Am article draws upon), the massive violence of the mostly peaceful Summer 2020 riots, and the rise of cancel culture (punishment for expressions of wrongthink).

    Sci Am is lost. If academia wasn’t lost, there would be more people screaming about this.

    Immoderately yours,

    1. Continuing a previous query: Do you have any empirical evidence that “more people screaming about this” will be helpful? Not that it may feel good for the primal screamers. That is a given. But that it will change anything or not be harmful itself. I suspect that as a counter, the Woke would simply point to the loudest scream and say something like “This is what happens to women who are critical, they are subjected to heaps of personal abuse”.

      And you surely don’t want a system where truth is determined by who screams the most, or has the more powerful screamers!

  21. Oh how far we have fallen, if your defense has to be, here look Sagan was shitting on white people for starring in a space fantasy. Sagan was actually very progressive for his time!

  22. Increasingly, these attempts by once-respectable people and institutions to “wokify” this or that subject seem designed for a single purpose: To signal that the authors/speakers are “morally superior” to … well, to someone, often, as in this case, a straw-man version of the “evil” people out here.

    What other purpose could this SciAm bash of SETI serve? I see none.

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