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.

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One Response to “Astrobiology, ET, and JoC”

  1. Jerry Witt Says:

    I notice that everyone that seeks to debunk Mr. Hoover’s discovery seem to focus on the quality of his web site, his credentials or his title. There seems to be precious little said about WHY what he claims is not true.

    If I’m not mistaken Einstein and Galileo did not hold doctorate degrees.

    I noticed that you are the “Principal Investigator with the NASA Astrobiology Program.” I wonder how much of this debate stems from NASA wanting to be the party to declare the discovery of life from out there.


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