Astrobiology: what’s hot, what’s not, who cares?

geysers on Enceladus: JPL artist's concept

Last night I gave a guest lecture to an undergraduate honors class in astrobiology. What’s hot in astrobiology, I reported, are habitability, biomarkers, weird life, Mars of course, Europa, Enceladus, Titan…. What’s not are panspermia theory, claims of ET life in meteorites collected on Earth, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

But you might not be able to discern what’s hot and what’s not in this field by media coverage alone. Outliers, exceptions, and underdogs continue to be popular topics and sources with journalists of all sorts. Controversy remains a top news value.

While news values and journalistic practices shape science news, they serve the purposes of journalism (as they should) and not of science. Hence, rolling waves of stories about fringe-y theories and claims relating to extraterrestrial life, widespread and largely uncritical reporting about SETI, and a continual blurring of the boundaries between vastly different forms of life: microbial life and multicellular life, simple life and complex life, complex life and intelligent lif

Glaring differences between scientific and journalistic standards, values, and practices make it difficult for consumers of media content to gauge the significance, credibility, legitimacy, and validity of reported claims. The expansion – dare we call it democratization? – of the discourse of science to include anybody with access to the Internet and the will to blog (anonymously or not) is changing scientific peer review.

Are these changes good for science? Good for scientists? Good for The People? The students I spoke with last night seemed more intrigued by these questions than they were by current developments in astrobiolog

As a social scientist, I am observing these changes as an interesting phenomenon that might or might not change the way that science is done. By the end of the 20th century we saw physics dethroned as king of the natural sciences and biology rise to the top. In the 21st century, science communication (of all sorts) appears to be a growing interest among scientists, no matter what their disciplinary alliances might be. The ascendance of social media; the wild proliferation of mass media outlets; the ongoing shift from “old” media to new (that is, digital) media; falling numbers of staff science reporters and growing numbers of science-writing freelancers – these and other changes in the science-communication landscape will be making life “interesting” for scientists and science communicators alike.

Never a dull moment on my job!

The science of life and the life of science

Some of my colleagues in the astrobiology community (and at least one stranger) have commented on my blog post of March 23. I thought I’d share a few of their thoughts – and more of my own, of course.

First, a confession/correction: responding to a group email about Hoover’s paper, I mistakenly stated that a Web site referenced in a Wikipedia entry on Hoover says he has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Henderson State University. As I correctly reported in my blog post, this Web site reports that Hoover has an undergraduate degree from Henderson State. It does not specify a major. A colleague of Hoover’s has contacted me by email to advise that Hoover’s degree is in math and physics. Colleagues of mine who have known and worked with Hoover tell me his background is in engineering. Another colleague in the community (a Ph.D. scientist, for what it’s worth) describes Hoover as “a skilled instrumentalist.”

As a social scientist, I see lots of “boundary-work” going on here. Boundary-work, according to sociologist Tom Gieryn*, is the attribution by scientists, and others, “of selected characteristics to the institution of science” (1983, p. 782). Boundary-work takes place in the “pursuit of a monopoly over cultural authority through exclusion of those offering discrepant and competitive maps of the place of science in the intellectual landscape” (1995, p. 394). What ends up inside or outside the boundaries of science “is a local and episodic accomplishment, a consequence of rhetorical games of inclusion and exclusion” (p. 406).

My Ph.D.-scientist colleague has also expressed his concerns about the “marginality” of the publisher of Hoover’s paper, the Journal of Cosmology (a concern I’ve heard expressed by other colleagues, sometimes not so politely). In the end, though, he says, “there is room, in science, for both marginal contributors and marginal journals.”

An astrobiologist colleague (who also is a Ph.D. scientist) has commented to me: “Funny that in a great “discovery paper” [as the Journal of Cosmology characterizes it], “such as this, [Hoover] has no mention of ALH84001 or the debate and process that surrounded it.” (See D. McKay et al,  “Search for past life on Mars: possible relic biogenic activity in Martian meteorite ALH84001,” Science 16 August 1996.) “One would think that he would like to compare and contrast his work” with that reported in McKay et al.

Considering all the attention the 1996 paper drew and all the further research that it prompted, it is a curious omission….

Another colleague has advised me not to spend too much time on the Hoover case…. No worries. This latest flap over contested claims in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is just another incident that happens to shine a light on the social process of boundary-work.

To wrap up for today, I’ll offer some food for thought from one of my favorite thinkers, the (late) social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. While some aspects of culture may endure over time, cultural contexts are constantly changing. This mutable quality of social reality, Bourdieu observed, “provides a basis for the plurality of visions of the world which is itself linked to the plurality of points of views” that serves as a foundation “for symbolic struggles over the power to produce and to impose the legitimate vision of the world.”** Thinking about the social world this way, what science (and scientific authority) is depends on where and when it is, and who is involved in defining it.

I love my work….

 

* Gieryn was a member of my dissertation committee. Quotations are from:

  • Gieryn, T. F. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48, 781-795.
  • Gieryn, T.F. (1995). Boundaries of science. In S. Jasanoff, et al (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology studies (pp. 393-443). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

I’d also recommend Gieryn’s book Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

 

** Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social space and symbolic power. Sociological Theory, 7, 14-25.

 

 

 

Astrobiology, ET, and JoC

Astrobiology, ET, and JoC

As a social scientist with expertise in science communication and a Principal Investigator with the NASA Astrobiology Program, I’ve been a participant-observer in a number of fascinating (and, in some cases, ongoing) dialogues about contested claims in astrobiology.

The latest in this series is NASA Marshall Space Flight Center researcher Richard B. Hoover’s contested claims in the contested Journal of Cosmology. Mr. Hoover claims to have found evidence of extraterrestrial life in a meteorite. In a March 17 press release, the Journal of Cosmology calls Hoover’s findings “paradigm shattering.” This press release – headlined “NASA Threatens NASA Scientist, Microfossil Evidence Certified as Valid, Nature & Science Editors Uncooperative – Know Meteor-Microfossil Results are Valid, The War Between Science (JOC) vs Religion (NASA)” – makes many provocative assertions – for instance, that:

• “NASA’s chief scientist has no credibility….”

• “…As NASA’s chief scientist was proclaiming ‘openness’ to new ideas and discoveries and inviting the press to speak with Richard Hoover, NASA officials were threatening and warning Hoover not to speak with the media and were ‘screaming and yelling’ at him and demanding that he recant, even as his wife lay dying and he was sick with cancer.”

• “These terror tactics are reminiscent of totalitarian states and theocracies, where defenders of the faith, and Grand Inquisitors, armed with their Bibles, threatened, tortured, and killed those who challenged prevailing dogma.”

• “We have seen this before, when Galileo an Giordano Bruno were threatened by the Inquisition, forcing Galileo to recant and torturing and burning Bruno alive when he refused to deny that planets orbited other stars.”

• “The same mindset is alive and thriving like a cancer at NASA headquarters, with NASA’s chief scientist acting as Grand Inquisitor.”

Am I the only observer who finds these statements 1) inappropriate material for a press release from a journal that claims to be scientific and 2) a tad hysterical?

This case constitutes a field day for a rhetorical analyst such as myself.

I should note here that, while I’m not sure, I think the “NASA chief scientist” being maligned is actually the chief scientist for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

I should also like to note that Mr. Hoover’s latest book, The Discovery of Alien Extra-Terrestrial Life: The Cosmic Origins of Life, coauthored with panspermia theorist Chandra Wickramasinghe, R. Joseph, and Journal of Cosmology editor-in-chief Rudy Schild, is now on sale at amazon.com. The publisher? Cosmology Science Publishers – publishers of (you guessed it) the Journal of Cosmology.

Just an aside: Wickramasinghe, himself a source of many contested claims relating to ET life, in recent days has turned to the mass media to draw attention to Cardiff University’s decision to discontinue funding for Wickramasinghe’s astrobiology research center there. Wickramasinghe is already retired from the university. He is also the Journal of Cosmology’s executive editor for astrobiology.

Getting back to The Discovery of Alien Extraterrestrial Life (editor’s comment: aren’t “alien” and “extraterrestrial” redundant? Perhaps it’s a search engine optimization tactic…) – the product description on amazon.com (source: Cosmology Science Publishers) reads (excerpted) as follows:

“We Are Not Alone! In 2007 NASA approved for publication the discovery of microfossils in three meteors. After years and months of careful preparation and peer review, this landmark paper was published and on March 5, 2011, and the world was stunned to learn of the discovery of ancient extraterrestrial life; fossils of Cyanobacteria in meteors older than Earth….

Cyanobacteria are a hardy species, and can live in extreme environments. Therefore, if Cyanobacteria came from and are deposited on Earth-like planets, it can be assumed they had or would also biologically engineer these alien worlds, providing them with an oxygen atmosphere and flooding the environment with calcium, thereby making it possible for life to evolve into intelligent species, similar to or completely different from, and possibly more intelligent than woman and man.

We are not alone.

The publication of Richard Hoover’s paradigm shattering discovery of microfossils within carbonaceous meteorites, unleashed an ugly storm of violent, histrionic invective not seen since the Middle Ages when they burned scientists for making discoveries that threatened the established order. However, it was the White House which was behind the attack, instructing NASA officials to threaten Richard Hoover, demanding he recant, and then forbidding him to speak to the press. Why? NASA approved the Hoover data for publication in 2007. It was published on March 5, 2011. What changed? A new president had been elected, and this president was hostile to science and was intent on dismantling NASA. Learning of the greatest discovery in the history of humanity, the Obama White House reacted instantly and directed his handpicked NASA administrators to attack Richard Hoover and the Journal of Cosmology. NASA/The White House chose religion over science.

This is The Book, they do not want you to read.”

Wow.

I haven’t bought or read the book.

That said, what I’m observing in this case is a person who is accomplished in X-ray/EUV optics and other forms of instrumentation who is choosing to pursue astrobiology research and to frame himself as a scientist. While there may be some disagreement on requirements one must meet before declaring oneself a scientist, it should be noted that Mr. Hoover, often identified as “Dr. Hoover,” is not a “doctor,” at least by the standard definition (that is, someone with an M.D. or Ph.D.).

Richard B. Hoover does not hold a Ph.D., as far as I can tell. I cannot locate an official NASA biography of him on the Web. This Web page (cited in a Wikipedia entry on Hoover) states that Hoover earned an undergraduate degree from Henderson State University and did graduate work at Duke University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Arkansas (no details are provided).

A biography of Hoover posted on the Web site of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics (of which Hoover is a past president and fellow), includes no information on his educational credentials. It identifies him as Astrobiology Group Leader at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

The SPIE biography also states that Hoover co-directed a “NATO Advanced Study Institute on Astrobiology…and his book “Perspectives in Astrobiology” appeared in June, 2005.” According to the Library of Congress catalog, “his book” is actually a proceedings of the NATO Advanced Study Institute on Astrobiology, edited by institute co-directors Hoover, Alexei Yu. Rozanov, and Roland Paepe.

A 2009 NASA Marshall Space Flight Center press release about an SPIE award to Hoover identifies him as an “astrobiologist.” The definition of “astrobiologist” is fuzzier than that of “scientist.” I’ll note that while I have been a member of the astrobiology community for many years, I do not and will not identify myself as an astrobiologist. With a Ph.D. in mass communication, I identify myself as a social scientist.

It might be useful for NASA to post an official biography of Mr. Hoover on its Web site including pertinent details such as educational credentials, job title(s), and publications.

I don’t know Mr. Hoover, and I do not intend to criticize him. It is my job, however, to critique the discourse about science. Hence, I’m interested in this case. Credibility, legitimacy, and authority are highly valued forms of social capital in the world of science. When they are questioned, abused, or counterfeited, things can get prickly (case in point: the stream of press releases from the Journal of Cosmology over the past few weeks).

As food for thought about this case, I would recommend the third edition (2009) of “On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct and Research,” a report from the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (available free at http://www.nap.edu). See, for example, the preface (p. ix):

“The scientific enterprise is built on a foundation of trust. Society trusts that scientific research results are an honest and accurate reflection of a researcher’s work. Researchers equally trust that their colleagues have gathered data carefully, have used appropriate analytic and statistical techniques, have reported their results accurately, and have treated the work of other researchers with respect. When this trust is misplaced and the professional standards of science are violated, researchers are not just personally affronted—they feel that the base of their profession has been undermined.”

I would also recommend the work of Harvard scholar Steven Shapin (whose latest book about the culture of science is entitled Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority). Shapin has explored “the paradox that lies at the heart of science and that was, arguably, put there in the seventeenth century [concerning] the relation between the objective and disinterested identity of the natural sciences and the everyday world of subjectivity, passions, and interests” (S. Shapin, The scientific revolution. Chicago and London: U. Of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 164).

This case illustrates how the boundaries of scientific legitimacy and authority are more malleable than many of us would like to think. Then again, what we’re watching may be a carefully planned “guerrilla PR” campaign to sell a book and a journal. I’ll continue to observe-participate with interest.

Nukes? No. No way…

A March 15 article in the Washington Post asks, “How much can we justify spending on nuclear weapons?”

My answer is: not at all. But “we” could include a lot of people and groups with different perspectives.

The article’s author, Walter Pincus, queries, “Is it not time to talk realistically about the $200 billion” – yes, that’s with a B – “we plan to spend over the next decade on strategic nuclear weapons and their land- and sea-based delivery systems?”

Good heavens, yes. But “we” here means the U.S. government, in this case the White House (and its agencies) and Congress. And what government officials (elected, appointed, and career) – decide is “realistic” and what I, along with many other reasonable people and concerned citizens, think is realistic in this case seem very far apart, to our collective peril.

For decades I’ve been listening to weapons-mongers in government and industry here inside the Washington Beltway argue that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction has been wildly successful. The Cold-War buildup of massive stockpiles of nukes in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. kept nuclear war from breaking out, they say. But how do “we” know that another policy would not have delivered deterrence?

How can “we” justify the proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide? For the weapons-mongers, it’s “just business” – if you have the money, they’ll sell you the “systems” you want – no matter how unstable you might be….

How can “we” justify the environmental and human-health costs of nuclear weapons production? Remember Rocky Flats, the Hanford nuclear “reservation,” the U.S. government’s exposure of witting and unwitting human subjects to dangerous levels of radiation? (See this Dept. of Energy Web site for information on some of these problems.)

How can “we” justify the continuing production of radioactive waste while “we” have not sanctioned any permanent means of disposal? (Check here for more information on this problem.)

In the Reagan administration I heard government officials tell me that all I needed was “a shovel” to protect myself from nuclear fallout. At the same time I watched my mother die of what was likely radiation poisoning (suffered at the hands of uninformed physicians in the late 1940s).

On the civilian side, how can “we” justify building up nuclear power generation capability with no permanent means of waste disposal and with woefully inadequate investments in renewable energy production?

The Union of Concerned Scientists, Peace Action, and the Center for Arms Control are among many groups continuing to provide what I consider to be “realistic” responses to the Questions that Mr. Pincus has raised. Check them out.

 

Are humans compatible with planets?

Thanks to the Gaia hypothesis, the environmental movement, and many other developments of the past 50 years, we now understand that our planet and all of its life comprise a complex, interrelated, and delicately balanced system. We’ve learned that Earth and all of its life have co-evolved, and continue to do so.

The horrific events of the past week in Japan prompt me to wonder (and not for the first time) whether human life can continue to co-evolve with planet Earth.

I’ve often heard experts in the disaster response community observe that there are no such things as “natural disasters.” Our living planet is continually evolving, with earthquakes, volcanism, and changing weather and climate. Disasters now occur when human populations bump up too close to natural events.

Just as forests naturally recover from massive fires, low-lying areas, such as the Mississippi delta, much of Bangladesh, and Japan’s Pacific coast, naturally recover from massive flooding. It’s people, with all of our planet-altering technology, that experience disasters.

We precipitate disasters by building up and densely populating coastlines and fault zones. When the floods and earthquakes come, our houses of sticks and stones crumble. And we rebuild – bigger and better.

China is the only nation I know of with an explicit policy aimed at limiting population growth. Most nations – including my own U.S.A. – prefer not to talk about it (or even think about it, it seems).

Advocates of limits to growth (including myself) are a subordinate culture today. We have to continue speaking up and speaking out. As advocates of expanding human presence into the solar system continue to push for settlements on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere, I’ll continue to ask whether we have any business spreading our resource-intensive civilization beyond Earth when our way of life is straining our home planet’s carrying capacity.

 

Sidebar: Thanks to Charlie Petit at Knight Science Journalism Tracker for flagging stories (including an informative U.S. Geological Survey map, below) about earthquake/tsunami risks to North America’s Pacific Northwest coast.

According to a March 11 press release from Oregon State University, the 9.0 magnitude quake that precipitated the massive disaster in Japan is “of the same type, with about the same magnitude and proximity that [facing] the Pacific Northwest from the Cascadia Subduction Zone…. What you are seeing in Japan today is what you will also see in our future.”

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