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:
Let's get 1 MILLION SCIENTISTS to oppose the #TMT in Hawai‘i. Tweet name, scientific expertise / degree, statement (I oppose #TMT). #TMT can deliver its game-changing science somewhere else. It shouldn't be on sacred indigenous lands. #ScientistsforMaunaKea #kukiaimauna
— Jack Kittinger (@peopledseas) July 19, 2019
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.