Big Questions about life in the universe

I traveled to the Swedish island of Ven in September for a two-day symposium on the history and philosophy of astrobiology. If you’re thinking, “Yawn…,” wake up! Ideas flew fast and furiously among the 60 participants, and after two days we all felt like our heads were going to explode. That’s the mark of a successful scholarly gathering, in my book.

Ven is where 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe – famous for his “Terra Nova” (a.k.a. “De Nova Stella”) treatise on the organization of the universe – built his observatory-cum-castle (Ven was then Danish). It’s small, quiet, lovely – a perfect place for peaceful contemplation and vigorous dialogue. Our meeting was organized by Lund University’s Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies (named after 17th century Swedish scholar Samuel von Pufendorf, not the double-f Hogwart’s school).

Steve Dick, former NASA chief historian and leading historian of astrobiology in the U.S., opened the symposium with a talk identifying “critical issues in the history and philosophy of astrobiology” – for example, what is the status of astrobiology as a science (field, discipline, other)? What, exactly, is “life”? Or intelligence? Questions Dick posed that are of greatest interest to me are: What are the sources of the diversity of attitudes and assumptions of different scientific communities about astrobiology? What are the sources of the public “will to believe” in extraterrestrial life, especially ET intelligent life? Why do so many Americans reject the theory of evolution while so many believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life?

Thanks to the work of other scholars at the meeting, I learned a lot about the history of panspermia theory – a topic of current interest and aggravation* to me. Panspermia is the idea that life began somewhere unspecified in the universe and spread from there throughout the universe, explaining the origin of life on Earth. According to the European Space Agency’s Rene Demets, while Charles Darwin never wrote a word about panspermia, his Origin of Species played a key role in the development of panspermia theory, with leading European scientists “spinning” Darwin’s ideas to fit their own views about life in the universe.

From Lund University’s Gustav Holmberg, I learned about Swedish “ancestors” of Carl Sagan – Svante Arrhenius and Knut Lundmark, prominent scientists of the 1920s and ‘30s who extended the scientific dialogue about life in the universe into the popular discourse. I also learned a lot more about the history of astrobiology from astronomer/historian Milan Cirkovic of the University of Belgrade. For his animated and engaging speaking style and the breadth and depth of his explorations into astrobiology in culture, I dubbed Milan “the Carl Sagan of Serbia.”

From astronomer/astrobiologist/historian Woody Sullivan of the University of Washington, we heard a review of possible principles for exploring a solar system that may contain extraterrestrial microbial life and a recommendation to adopt – sooner rather than later – a “planetocentric” protocol on environmental protection in the solar system, based on the guiding principle of avoiding physical and biological harm to any planetary body/ecosystem. Our discussions extended to the ongoing search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, with the SETI Institute’s Doug Vakoch demonstrating the difficulties involved in cross-cultural communication among humans and the problematic nature of human schemes to communicate with extraterrestrial cultures.

I suspect that I’ve not conveyed the richness of our two days of dialogue in this brief post. I hope I’ve succeeded in conveying the richness of the intellectual territory we call the history and philosophy (and the sociology) of astrobiology.


* The current “strong panspermia” camp – the True Believers who insist that life was delivered to Earth from outer space – and the intelligent-design camp have some interests in common and, it appears, some collaborative relationships – a topic worthy of further research.

“Debunking” debunking

Among those who call themselves scientists, debunking is still a favored approach to dispelling misconceptions about science.

Does it work? I’m not so sure.

According to the dictionary, to “debunk” is “to expose or excoriate (a claim, assertion, sentiment, etc.) as being pretentious, false, or exaggerated. “U.S. novelist William Woodward (1874-1950) is credited with coining the term, meaning “to take the bunk out of things.” Y’all know what bunk is… Debunkers are hard-core skeptics, and proud of it. See Wikipedia for the ABCs of skepticism –the ancient Greek philosophy, the scientific variety, and other common conceptions.

A number of dedicated skeptics/debunkers have become media darlings and best-selling authors as well, among them Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, James Randi, and Michael Shermer. Some are affiliated with the Skeptic Society, others with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). CSI says its mission is “to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.”

Here’s my problem with some of the hard-core skeptics (and they tend to be the better-known ones – see above). They can be nasty. Condescending. Close-minded. They can preach to the choir, while the “ignorant” masses tune out. (Who wants to be told they’re ignorant? Or even stupid?)  Check out “jgmdavi’s channel” on YouTube, “Debunking Pseudoscience; or, in Defense of Good Science,” where you’ll find clips from stand-bys Dawkins, Shermer, and others. See, the product of an anonymous female blogger (who says her occupation is “cook” and her zodiacal sign is “Cancer” – I would have expected a debunker to give her zodiacal sign as “N/A”…). See astronomer Andy Fraknoi’s “skeptic’s resource list” on topics in  “astronomical pseudo-science,” including astrology, UFOs, the “face” on Mars, and the “doomsday”-planet Nibiru story.

My favorite rhetorical critic, Kenneth Burke, had some thoughts on debunking. The aim of rhetoric, in Burke’s view*, is (or should be) identification, which is “compensatory to division.” The aim is (or should be) to find a point of identification with one’s audience and symbolically – rhetorically – create conditions for connecting with its members. The rhetorical strategy of debunking aims to “discern an evil” and then attempts to eradicate it, Burke says. Debunkers might agree. But what the debunker actually does, says Burke, is to “[perfect] a mode of argument that would, if carried out consistently,” undermine his/her own argument as well. “In order to combat a bad argument, [the debunker] develops a position so thorough that it would combat all arguments — and then must covertly so rework this position that he may spare his own argument from the general slaughter,” typically “by an unintentional ambiguity whereby he throws something out by one name and brings it back by another name.”


Ray Hyman, professor emeritus of psychology with the University of Oregon and a founding member of CSICOP/CSI, wrote a guide to “proper criticism” for the organization a few years back that I recommend as resource for hard-core skeptics, skeptic-wannabes, and anybody else who cares about clarity.  I had the privilege of meeting Ray Hyman while I was in grad school in the mid-1990s. I found him to be a dedicated skeptic, devoted to the scientific method, and a fair-minded person who rather scrupulously avoids the harsh, rejecting rhetoric so dear to some of fellow skeptics (e.g., Dawkins). You can read the guide yourself, but here are its basic guidelines: be prepared, clarify your objectives, do your homework, do not go beyond your level of competence, let the facts speak for themselves, be precise, use the principle of charity, and avoid loaded words or sensationalism.

This is good guidance not only for skeptics but also for all the rest of us – especially us bloggers.

My advice to debunkers? Quit it. Or, if you must persist, at least follow Hyman’s guidelines. It’s the least you can do.

* Kenneth Burke, The philosophy of literary form: studies in symbolic action (3d ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973

Happy anniversary, OWS! From the Damned Human Race

Today, October 17, the Occupy Wall Street movement celebrates its one-month anniversary. Congratulations to the protesters who are sacrificing comfort to bring attention to the sad state of the U.S. economy.

To those commentators and critics who claim the movement doesn’t have a clear message or goal, I have to say: wake up and listen. The message is clear: the 1 percent have grown rich off the labor of the 99 percent, and redistribution of the wealth is in order. Why are so many people protesting? Duh, because they don’t have, and they want and need, jobs.

Every time I read my “favorite” section of the Sunday New York Times – “Sunday Styles,” the section I love to hate – I’m reminded of how the 1 percent live in a different universe than we, the 99 percent, do.

Mark Twain wrote about “The Damned Human Race” in his Letters from the Earth: “I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the lower animals (so-called), and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man [sic].  I find the result humiliating to me.  For it obliges me to renounce my allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals; since it now seems plain to me that the theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one, this new and truer one to be named the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.”

Twain used “the scientific method” to study and compare humans with other animals. In the course of his research, he came across “a case where, many years ago, some hunters on our Great Plains organized a buffalo hunt for the entertainment of an English earl…. They killed seventy-two of those great animals; and ate part of one of them and left the seventy-one to rot.  In order to determine the difference between an anaconda and an earl (if any),” he delivered “seven young calves” to a caged anaconda….

“The grateful reptile immediately crushed one of them and swallowed it, then lay back satisfied.  It showed no further interest in the calves, and no disposition to harm them.  I tried this experiment with other anacondas; always with the same result.  The fact stood proven that the difference between an earl and an anaconda is that the earl is cruel and the anaconda isn’t; and that the earl wantonly destroys what he has no use for, but the anaconda doesn’t.  This seemed to suggest that the anaconda was not descended from the earl.  It also seemed to suggest that the earl was descended from the anaconda, and had lost a good deal in the transition.”

He continues: “The higher animals engage in individual fights, but never in organized masses.  Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War.  He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate his kind.  He is the only animal that for sordid wages will…help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel…. And so I find that we have descended and degenerated, from some far ancestor (some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance)…till we have reached the bottom stage of development (namable as the Human Being).  Below us, nothing.”

While the “occupiers” and their supporters are demonstrating that human beings can be caring, compassionate, and communitarian, the 1 percent, alas, are living up to Twain’s expectations.