Ideology sucks another scientific field down the drain

April 9, 2023 • 11:15 am

Several readers sent me a link to a Quillette piece by physicist Lawrence Krauss.  It adds another field—astrobiology, the search for extraterrestrial life—to the many (indeed all) scientific fields that have been corrupted by “progressive” ideology.  In fact, astrobiology has gotten so badly infected that it’s now difficult to do any science at all. Click the screenshot below to read his piece:

Krauss sees the high point of the field in the 1990s when the head of NASA called for more biologists to start looking for extraterrestrial life. Since then, he argues, that despite our increasing knowledge about the universe and technical sophistication, astrobiology hasn’t advanced much. His explanation:

. . . why on Earth, or, rather, why in the Milky Way would I cast any aspersions on this emerging field of science? The problem is that it is an emerging field, and that implies three important things: (1) the development and use of rigorous scientific standards characteristic of more mature fields has not yet been universally established; (2) unfounded claims are too often made, and they gain support in the popular press; and (3) small groups of ideologically driven researchers can have, and have had, an inordinately large impact, hindering progress and potentially pushing the field backwards.

He describes several early claims—including evidence for microbes in meteorites from Mars and a new type of DNA that implied life had two independent origins—that proved to be wrong. This supports points (1) and (2) above, In the rest of the article, Krauss expatiates on claim (3): the malign influence of ideology on the field. Here are a few bits of ideology that are holding back the field (Krauss’s prose is indented):

a.) Religiously-based objections to putting a telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Weirdly, many scientists joined the objections, although there are already several telescopes on Mauna Kea. It looks as if the effort to find truth about the Universe is still trumped by an unwarranted respect for unevidenced religion.  I’m not sure how far we’re supposed to “respect” Hawaiian religious beliefs, but I don’t think it should be to the extent that it puts the island’s major volcano off limits to science. Krauss:

The first inkling of the emerging emphasis of ideology over science in astrobiology came from the support by so many members of that community for the protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. In 2000, the National Academies of Science had identified the project as a top priority for the US astronomy community, and they  recommended that it be built within the decade. Almost immediately, after the dormant volcano Mauna Kea had been selected as the proposed site, local protests began. In spite of the fact that Mauna Kea is the most sacred mountain in Hawaiian religion and culture and was known to Native Hawaiians as the home of Wakea, the sky god, numerous large telescopes had already previously been built on the mountain. Conflict between the priorities of the scientific community and Indigenous religious myths, which had erupted from time to time in the past in Hawaii, escalated after the construction of TMT was set to begin.

While the conflict between science and religious myth is ubiquitous, as witnessed most recently by efforts in New Zealand to teach “Indigenous Knowledge” on the same level as science in high schools, one might have expected the scientific community to support the TMT project more or less unanimously. However, a new generation of young astronomy activists has begun online efforts using the hashtag #ScientistsforMaunaKea, and they consider protecting the sacred nature of the mountain to be more important than the possible scientific benefits of this trailblazing project.

Krauss shows a tweet:

b.) Calls to “decolonize” astrobiology because somehow it’s associated with racism. I can’t quite see the connection, but it’s coming to dominate this field, to the extent that “astrobiology” often seems more about ideology than about science:

 I have written earlier about the emerging effort by young astrobiologists to “decolonize” the search for extraterrestrial life. The once-great science magazine, Scientific American, which has degenerated in recent years as social justice concerns have taken priority over science, published an article entitled “Cultural Bias Distorts the Search for Alien Life” (“‘Decolonizing’ the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) could boost its chances of success, says science historian Rebecca Charbonneau”). Therein she made the argument that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence might 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.”

Here’s a Q&A from Charbonneau’s piece, so you can see the argument. Countries are building empires on other planets! Ceiling Cat help us if we encounter “aliens”, especially if we can enslave them. (It’s more likely to be the other way around.)

[Magazine] How does this apply to SETI?

[Charbonneau] Oftentimes when we think about colonialism in SETI, we do think of it primarily in metaphors, right? Space being “the final frontier,” first contact with aliens as a stand-in for encounters with Indigenous peoples—that sort of thing. But it actually is much more than a metaphor. Because space exploration is also an extension of our imperial and colonial histories. We know that space infrastructure, including SETI infrastructure, exists in remote locations, with places that often have colonial histories or vulnerable populations, particularly Indigenous peoples. And then space, despite our best efforts, is highly militarized. Nations talk about becoming space superpowers, building new empires and colonizing other planets. So it’s not just a metaphor. It’s actually happening in the world and off the world, and that’s why I think it’s a useful term when we’re talking about SETI. 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.

Yes, because “civilization:” and “intelligence” are parts of white supremacy (see below).

c.) Unacceptable and ideological policing of behavior and language. Yes, this takes place in astrobiology, as it does in chemistry, physics, biology, and math. Krauss ends his piece with a new rule for this year’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) meetings. (He first notes that last year’s meetings voted to ban the use of the word “intelligence” because it was a “white construct”!)

Not to be outdone by last year’s nonsense, the organizers of this year’s Penn State meeting, which will take place in June, just announced a code of conduct related to unacceptable behavior. The behavior that might lead to exclusion from these conferences now is not confined to mere actions but also to promoting or even citing the work of any scientist the organizing group deems as being unworthy! The code of conduct includes the following explanation:

II. Unacceptable behaviour

[…]Promote the work of those who have violated Professional Codes of Ethics (e.g., the AAS Code of Ethics). Promotion of an author’s work includes any verbal or visual presentation including that person’s name or likeness. In cases where the participant’s work is sufficiently scientifically-independent from that of the person who has violated the professional code, the work may be presented so long as the presenter is not engaging in promotion. Citations are not violations of this policy, though all participants should weigh the necessity of presenting that citation with the harm that it could perpetuate.

That last phrase is particularly telling. In almost all fields of scholarship, not citing the previous work of other authors on which one’s own work is based is referred to as plagiarism. In astrobiology, citing such work can also now be considered harmful.

The notion that citing past scientific results in scientific papers can “perpetuate harm” may not signal the beginning of the end, but it doesn’t bode well for a field that needs to work hard to ensure the highest level of scientific standards if it is to mature as it attempts to address some of the most significant questions we can ask about our place in the universe.

Once you start seeing the word “harm” connected with a science, you better give it close scrutiny, for nearly all the time the word means “offense”, not actual “harm.” And it’s been used in every other science I know of, as well as in medicine, to stymie research. I’m not denying that harm has been caused in the name of science, but nowadays the connection between the two is almost nonexistent.

There’s a lot more in Krauss’s piece, so go read it at the link. I’ll finish by again plugging a paper I’ve written with a colleague arguing that ideology is laying waste to our own field: evolutionary biology. You’ll have to wait until the end of June, though.

32 thoughts on “Ideology sucks another scientific field down the drain

  1. I was anticipating this post – astonishing. I can’t even bring myself to do my daily intersectional critical-theoretical exercises with it.

    “Ideology sucks another scientific field down the drain”

    [ serious question ] how do we discriminate between ideologies? Because [ again, this is me being serious] according to the critical-theoretical view, all knowledge is simply socially constructed. I assume that, on that view, science is just another ideology where refutation and conjecture dominate the process, with empiricism – observation. In contrast, for a successful critical theory, observation is irrelevant. All that matters is hegemony, power, and intersectional social categories.

    1. TL;DR

      How do we weigh ideologies?

      Or, how do we say with certainty science is a meaningful ideology built on observation, and critical-theoretical is not?

  2. Here we see once more the detrimental effects of postmodern metaphysics & politics on science (and the values it embodies: rationality, objectivity, universality). The Woke movement is part of a new Gegenaufklärung (Counter-Enlightenment). This is /regressive/ leftism!

  3. IF there is another place to build the TMT other than on Mauna Kea, I would rather it be built elsewhere. This is despite the fact that there are already other telescopes up there. Building the TMT there is still viewable as an additional desecration of a culturally important site. I am assuming those other projects were also opposed but ignored (but admittedly I don’t know how those played out). We agree that religiosity should stay out of science, and if it doesn’t stop our progress science can at times return the favor.

    1. Mauna Kea is the best Northern Hemisphere site. The second best is on a volcano in the Canary Islands, which is the backup plan for the TMT. It’s not quite as good as Mauna Kea, and it’s not in America (so Americans are less keen on spending money there).

      1. Worth adding, according to polls (e.g. here), Hawaiian residents overall support building the TMT with 64% in favour, 31% opposed.

        Of those who are native Hawaiians, 44% are in favour with 48% opposed (so plenty of them support the TMT on grounds of supporting science or for the jobs it brings, etc).

        1. I would regard that as being essentially split among the native Hawaiians.

          I will just add here that I can’t imagine what it might be like for those who have strong cultural attachments to a mountain. Or discover (after not really thinking about it, maybe) that in fact they do feel an attachment now that it’s going to be developed further, with the coming realization that ones historical and cultural places are being slowly paved over.

          1. I would regard that as being essentially split among the native Hawaiians.

            That’s where it gets difficult, as we discovered with Brexit – a narrow split one way for the whole UK, but a strong vote the other way for Scotland (and I’m not sure of the details in Wales and Ulster). With a result like that, you can be pretty sure of splits going the other way amongst Hawaiian-speaking Hawaiians, or left-handed versus right-handed. And as for Protestant versus Catholic Hawaiians (neither of whom have any religious standing on the question) who knows (or cares)?
            Tourist-industry-employed versus other-employed would be an interesting split to see, but you can bet that people who think they’d be on the “losing” side would be vigorously arguing against such a test happening.

      2. The benefit of the Canaries site being, of course, that the native Canarians have been thoroughly suppressed and largely replaced by people from the Spanish mainland, and are fairly unlikely to do anything more severe than charge highly for services and land rental. The “staying” brought being a matter of contract law.

      1. Mark do you think we can do both at the same time? Further our knowledge of the universe and encourage native Hawaiians to embrace that knowledge? Is giving up on that a kind of little people argument?

        IDK anything about Hawaiian culture or spirituality, but I also can’t think why it should get a veto over the TMT. Maybe there is a good reason.

    2. Bummer about the telescope. Why do Native Hawaiians have a veto over a project that a majority of people who live there support? Who even speaks for the native opposition if their support is split 41-48? Obviously at least half the natives think the whole sacred-mountain thing is hogwash. Maybe all of them do but they know we daren’t insult them by suggesting their beliefs aren’t sincere.

      There is no need to give up yet. The scientists should just identify the leaders of the opposition and pay them more money. The mountain spirit will smile upon his children’s new jacked-up 4×4 pickup trucks. Always works in Canada. We’d never get anything built here otherwise. You can build an open-pit coal mine on native land for the right consultation fee. If the scientists can’t afford to pay that kind of money, it just means they don’t value the project enough.

      The danger with dealing with racketeers is that they wait until the project has reached the sunk-cost fallacy stage and then they barricade the work site demanding more money. An elder had a dream that the spirit god was displeased. What really happened was a power shift in the band brought in a new gang of cronies who didn’t get any of the consultation money the first time round and want their trucks too.
      The scientists’ mistake is ingenuously buying into the other side’s propaganda, perhaps understandable given that at 0.9% of your population, indigenous people aren’t in your face all the time schooling you. When it gets to 5% (Canada) or 17% (New Zealand) you will learn your lessons better. Pay up if you want a telescope….or a pipeline, or a windmill farm, or a new subdivision, or a hydro dam, or a lithium mine, God forbid an airport.

      The other approach is to get the state behind it with a bullet-proof permitting process. Then the State Police or the National Guard can clear off the obstructors, as Robert Moses did in New York to get the Niagara Falls Power plant built.

      1. The scientists should just identify the leaders of the opposition and pay them more money.

        As you lean towards, the biggest problem with bribery and corruption as a business strategy has always been ensuring that the people you buy stay brought. At least military action (even if by proxy) has the confidence that the dead stay dead. Zombie Jeebus excepted.

  4. “Once you start seeing the word “harm” connected with a science, you better give it close scrutiny, for nearly all the time the word means “offense”, not actual “harm.” ” That could hardly have been stated better. What are these people going on about?

    Well, SETI could cause real harm indeed, but not the way these ‘activists’ figure. If more developed outer space civilisations discovered us (the fact they would ‘discover’ us would imply they would be very much more advanced than us), it is likely they would not particularly like us. I think of the Spanish discovering the Americas, or the Maori discovering the Moriori. That did not really end happily: it ended in genocide. (Yes, MM did not prevent genocide).
    I would try to stay as secretive as possible. I think SETI should remain very discrete, just observe, don’t send signals, for ceiling cat’s sake.

    1. How is this years SETI meeting called, when the word “intelligence” is not allowed? SET* – meeting, Critical SET Studies meeting …?

    2. Someone once said, cannot remember who, “was that best we could probably hope for from an advanced alien visitation would be the same treatment to that which we subject our own flora and fauna !”

    3. Liking us has nothing to do with it, Nicolaas. If they want something we have badly enough, after coming all that way to get it (instead of settling for a Zoom call), they will simply eradicate us if we don’t give them what they want. No hard feelings. They will note that all the life forms that can kill at a distance live on the land and drown easily. So into the sea they will dump us. If they find any of us fetching they might spare some of us for sex, or to take home for their zoos. There is no reason to think they would be “better” than we are just because they must have had superior technology to get here.

      But I agree we shouldn’t advertise.

  5. The Krauss piece is a good one. I’m glad that he explicitly calls out the recent degeneration of Scientific American. Maybe the editorial board will pay attention. I don’t like seeing what was once a 175-year-old treasure circle the drain.

  6. Woke talk reminds me, analogically, of the pot smoking hipsters at uni I knew back in the the day (I was, of course sometimes one myself). For some of them, the use of language was terribly vague, poetic, and free floating. I as a science major could not fathom their muddled perspective on reality. It was all smoke and crystals and beads. I’m feeling a kind of nauseating Déjà vu. Oh, God, not more of this again.

  7. Simplistically speaking you wonder why those that oppose cannot see the connection of the telescope and a SKY god. Perhaps those that are for the telescope should rephrase their argument. Further to this, there are some who don’t get the investment in such knowledge when there are more pressing problems, like food on the table, law and order, spend the money on the ground NOT looking out in the heavens, on space programs and to my surprise when asked, what good comes from NASA and space projects? They just hear figures like billions (JWST) and I suspect in this case, not dis similar to the Hawaiian telescope, a hint of god lurking in the background.

  8. I wonder if proponents of the multiverse should be banned, because the implication is that there are universes where some ethnic groups are more intelligent than others. (I think that’s true also if our universe is infinite.)

  9. Rebecca Charbonneau’s webpage lists only a single publication in a “scholarly journal”, to wit: “Rebecca A. Charbonneau, “Imaginative Cosmos: The Impact of Colonial Heritage in Radio Astronomy and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Special Issue “Settler Science, Alien Contact, and Searches for Intelligence”, eds. Kim Tallbear and David Shorter (Dec 2021).”

    With “decolonializing” this and that scientific field, we are seeing a reenactment of the academic comedy displayed before in a galaxy far away. There, wily careerists achieved position and status within Biology by riding an ideological position based upon Marxist-Leninist theory and the wizardry of the peasant plant breeder T.D. Lysenko. If the scientific establishment of the Anglosphere falls for this sort of thing today, all fields may come to enjoy the kind of advances that Biology enjoyed in the USSR.

    1. I think a point that’s often overlooked is that this stuff is a way for people who don’t have the intellectual chops to make real contributions to advancing their fields to get published in top-tier journals. There are some true believers, of course. There have to be for this to work. But I strongly suspect that a lot of them are just picking low-hanging fruit because they can’t reach any higher.

  10. That idiotic paragraph in the Code of Conduct at Penn State was applied to keep a promising, female rising talent in SETI away (VASCO project; The organizers wanted to make sure she couldn’t come, because she works with an infamous cancelled guy.

    1. because she works with an infamous cancelled guy.

      When did Pennsylvania’s last tar-and-feather factory get shut down?
      What is the field ? leads to “Please visit our NEW WEBSITE:” with the title “Vanishing & Appearing Sources during a Century of Observations” – transients, in other words. Always a good source of “WTFs”, particularly when something that was visible disappears, or something that wasn’t visible (in previously observed wavebands) has become visible (in new/ more wavebands).
      Oh, that un-person! Well, being an un-person doesn’t detract from your ability to think. I know that lobotomy-on-accusation has been demanded, but I don’t think it has been legislated. Yet.

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