To protect and preserve ET life? That is the question



This past Sunday I served as a judge for the Eastern championship round of the NASA Astrobiology Debates. It turned out to be worth working on a weekend.#

So what are the NASA Astrobiology Debates? It’s a year-long program for middle school, high school, and university students who sign up to study and then debate a topic of interest to the astrobiology community.

The program is organized by the NASA Astrobiology Program and The George Washington University. The debate topic for this year is: “Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law.”

The Debates project is intended “to engage present and future leaders in dialogue on the implications of such a discovery.” Participating students are engaging in online speech competitions, public debates, and tournament competitions and conducting interviews with topic experts (see below).

This debate topic is of great interest to me. As readers of my blog will know, I think humans have no business tromping around on other planetary bodies – habitable or not – for numerous reasons, among them my belief in the value of preserving pristine environments for their own sake. So you can figure out how I would vote on this resolution.

That said, I can report that in the first debate round I judged, I found the team arguing the negative to be the winner. The panel of three judges voted 2-1 in favor of this team. In the final round (se below), I also voted for the team arguing the negative.

I am a student of rhetorical criticism and a practicing rhetorical analyst. I am not and never have been a debater. (I prefer dialogue to debate.) I don’t think my high school had a debate club, and my undergraduate university (1970-1974) was more focused on protesting the Vietnam war, advocating for gay rights, and exploring black power than engaging in more traditional academic pastimes.

Though I prefer dialogue to debate for a number of well-thought-out reasons, I have great respect for the discipline of formal debate (if only our political candidates knew how to debate properly…). After listening to debate teams in quarter-final, semi-final, and final rounds for seven hours straight, I felt like I’d been chugging espresso. I was charged, wired, invigorated. (I’m a big fan of auto racing – stock car, Indy car, sprint car, drag – it’s a similar kind of charge.)

Teams were debating about the intrinsic and instrumental value of microbial life, ethical obligations, moral duty, the effectiveness of international law, competing world views (anthropocentrism, ecocentrism…), the value of space development versus the value of space colonization, the multiple meanings of “overriding….” I kept thinking that the debaters had to attempt to make a topic colored by a million shades of gray appear to be black-and-white. All teams had to be prepared to argue for the affirmative and the negative.

The teams I judged came from Emory University, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, and Morehouse College. (Other competitors included teams from France and Japan.) They were uniformly impressive. However, we judges were provided with guidelines for weighing one team’s performance against another’s. In the end, we had to decide who made the better argument.

By the final round, the two remaining teams were pretty much neck and neck. How could I pick a winner? In the end, it was during the second-cross examination when I noted a weakness on the part of the team arguing the affirmative. One of the debaters on the team arguing the negative made several statements that were arguable. I expected the affirmative team to rebut. It didn’t happen.

What were the arguable statements? First, a statement arguing that single footprint on the Moon could wipe out life caught my attention – the Moon has long been considered uninhabitable. Next, Tang and microwave ovens were cited as examples of the important benefits of space exploration and development. The debater could have used much more powerful, and relevant, examples of benefits – say, space-based communications, land remote sensing, a better understanding of Earth’s climate history and future. Third, The “negative” debater said the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is an example of “failed international law.” The treaty was intended to prevent war in space, and it has done so. Fourth, the “negative” debater stated that “an action isn’t ethical if it’s not effective.” I certainly disagree, and the “affirmative” team could have, too.

In the end, a panel of five judges – all from the space community – voted 3-2 in favor of the team arguing the negative. (I was one of the three, for the reasons stated above.)

After the debates, I took a look at some the interviews with topic experts that were recorded as research material for the debaters. Here are a few snippets from some of these interviews that I found interesting.

David Berube, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University, had this to say about the challenge of determining whether and how legal protections need to be established for extraterrestrial life:

“I’ve had a strange lecture idea recently, which is to claim that the reason it was so hard to provide civil rights to African Americans living in the United States wasn’t because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but because we weren’t positioned well to do it. This is because we had already dehumanized them, then we had to re-humanize them so that we could provide them rights that had previously been reserved for white landowners. That was incredibly hard thing to do. What ended up happening was that it took a hell of a lot longer than it should have. You’ll likely see the same thing happening here, which is that it will take so long, and it will be so complicated to get the public to concede that a non-human species may have something to offer that may even be superior to the human species, that they will revert to a set of heuristics and biases that we’re talking about being incredibly long-term. There are some algorithms that attempt to deal with this by plotting out how many generations it will take us to develop philosophically to the point where we can have these moments of change.”

Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, offered these thoughts on the prospect of human colonization of other planets:

“Is there a process of colonization whereby the United States and other earthlings set up a colony or a place where microbial life on Mars or elsewhere simply becomes a fountain for their own uses? In other words, we assign value to it insofar as we find it useful for human existence or discovery or progress. And I think that what comes along with that isn’t just physical occupation but also the question of an epistemic or a methodological colonization. And what I mean by that is do we only know microbial life on Mars in so far as it extends to kind of taxonomies we have to know about nature here on earth. In other words, we’ve set up a cultural or philosophical view that places the human as the discoverer, a rational actor that seeks to go out, discover, colonize, name and categorize nature. And nature in many ways becomes oppositional to that. What’s external to the human is something that the human has power to act upon.”

And Brian Henning, a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University (who is, like me, an ecocentrist), had this to say about the topic:

“I would hope students will also discuss what we hope to accomplish by going out into the universe more broadly, the overall justification for our exploration….

“I would argue everything deserves some moral consideration for its own sake, so I probably have the most expansive definition of intrinsic value…. I would say all living things have moral standing because they have intrinsic value, even nonliving things have intrinsic value….

If we really had an adequate ethical perception of ourselves and our place in the world then when we went out in the universe we would end up doing less harm. We need to move from being the conqueror of biotic communities to being playing member/citizens.”

“One of the exciting part of astrobiology and astro-ethics is that it helps us to really complete the process that began with Darwin when we realized we are a part of and a product of processes on this planet and in the universe. It…gives us the opportunity to then help move away from anthropocentrism and a human- centered universe and transition us to seeing ourselves as a part of [the universe].”

Now, talk amongst yourselves….

# My work is funded in part by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

Will the future be bright for all, or for the 1 percent?



The cover of the 25 February issue of Nature magazine asks, “Future generations: what kind of world will we pass on?” Inside is a news feature about “tomorrow’s world.” The editors of the magazine ponder “whether researchers of today consider the world of tomorrow – and why they should.”

“Exponential advances in enabling technologies have reached the point at which they could trigger disruptive change in sectors from artificial intelligence to robotics to medicine,” Nature observes. And what are those enablers? Nature identifies exponential growth in computing power, “really big data,” improvements in communication speed, talking devices, the biology boom, 3D printing, and the rise of robots.

And what will these enablers enable?

Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church predicts, “By 2040, 1 billion people will have their whole genome sequences and get constant updates of their immunomes and microbiomes.”

What about the other 8 billion people who are predicted to be inhabiting Earth by 2040?

Daniela Rus, head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT predicts “a world where everybody can have a robot and robots are pervasively integrated in the fabric of life.”

Everybody? What about poor Indian farmers? What about political refugees? What about Bangladeshis flooded out of their homes? What about migrant workers in the U.S.A. and elsewhere? (Agribusiness has been exploiting migrant labor in the U.S.A. for a century, and I’m sorry to say that don’t anticipate our government putting an end to it by 2040.)

And so on.

In the midst of all of this techno-optimism, Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, offers a commentary that begins, “The twin defining challenges of our century are overcoming poverty and managing climate change.”

Right on, Professor Stern.

What’s keeping us from eliminating poverty and managing climate change is not a lack of computing power or robots or super-fast communication. It’s the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide, the influence of money on politics, the indifference of big business to prospects for future generations…and so on.

Also in this issue of Nature, Population Council vice president John Bongaarts insists that to solve the problems that Stern identifies, we must “slow down population growth.” He’s right. How to start working on this problem? Educate women and provide access (meaning easy, affordable, or free where necessary) to contraception, he says.

What’s keeping us from getting to work on this problem, I wonder? On one level, it’s lack of political commitment and insufficient funding. On another level, it’s religious and other cultural beliefs that limit or prohibit women’s autonomy.

Speculations about how computers and robots and a faster Internet will improve the lot of humankind are short-sighted. Scientific and technological advancements will continue to benefit, first, the one percent. The U.S. Census Bureau offers all sorts of data about poverty in this country, but I’ll offer just a few tidbits, for perspective.

With the caveat that correlation does not mean causation, here’s a sampling of census data on the percentage of the U.S. population living below 50 percent of the poverty level:

  • 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year in office): 4.9 percent.
  • 1988 (RR’s last year); 5.2 percent.
  • 1992 (G.H.W. Bush’s last year in office): 6.1 percent.
  • 2000 (Bill Clinton’s last year in office): 4.5 percent.
  • 2008 (G.W. Bush’s last year in office): 5.7 percent.
  • 2014 (Obama’s sixth year in office): 6.6 percent.

The worst sort of speculation about the scientifically and technologically advanced future is speculation about human migration to outer space. Talk of “starting anew” and creating off-Earth societies that are free of the problems that plague societies here on Earth is naïve, at best, and disingenuous, at worst.

Neoliberal ideology has played a key role in the transformation of technoscience, including the U.S. civil space program. Until the end of the Cold War, keeping ahead of the Soviets was sufficient rationale for NASA’s costly human space flight program. Once the Cold War ended, neoliberalism came to the fore in advocacy for human space flight. Recent presidents and their appointees, advisory groups, and especially various human space flight advocacy groups have explicitly advocated for “free enterprise” and “unlimited growth” in space. Advocacy groups courted by NASA are most explicit, claiming in their mission statements that U.S. space policy should enable private property rights in space, unfettered private-sector exploitation of solar system resources, and colonization of other planetary bodies.*

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – dreams of space hotels and off-world colonies are elitist dreams. They have nothing to do with solving the world’s problems, as identified by Stern and Bongaarts.

P.S. – I received a February 16 press release from the Museum of Science Fiction informing me that it, along with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange, cosponsored a workshop on “homesteading in space.” From the press release – which did not note the date and place of the workshop or the names of participants: “As President Obama observed in his 2015 State of the Union, we want to be ‘pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay.’ Workshop participants discussed the science and technology of space exploration, including mining, nanotechnology, robotics, synthetic astrobiology, habitats, and other related areas…. ‘Just as pioneers on Earth had to live off the land as they traveled to unknown territories, space explorers will need to use resources from asteroids or other planets,” commented Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at OSTP.” I continue to be baffled as to why this administration has embraced this kind of thinking.

* See Linda Billings, 2007, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” Chapter 25 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, Eds., Societal Impact of Space Flight (SP-200-4801), NASA History Division, Washington, DC.; and Linda Billings, 2006, Exploration for the masses? Or joyrides for the ultra-rich? Prospects for space tourism, Space Policy 22, summer 2006.



The future is uncertain: talking about asteroid impact hazards



One of my many ongoing projects is working on how we in the near-Earth object (NEO) observations community* can improve the clarity of our communications about NEO impact risks, hazards, and threats.

A key part of improving these communications is coming up with better ways of characterizing the uncertainty that is in inherent in mathematical/statistical predictions. It’s a challenging task. What we’re talking about here is predicting the future orbital movements of asteroids that may come close to Earth – that is, NEOs.

Now, consider that “the future” is uncertain, and thus “predictions” about the future are uncertain. Also consider that “near” and “close” are relative terms.

By NASA’s definition, a near-Earth object is an asteroid (or comet) whose orbit periodically brings it within approximately 195 million kilometers (121 million miles) of the Sun – that’s within about 50 million kilometers, or 30 million miles, of Earth’s orbit. A potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) is an asteroid whose orbit is predicted to bring it within 0.05 Astronomical Units (just under 8 million kilometers, or 5 million miles) of Earth’s orbit; and of a size large enough to reach Earth’s surface – that is, greater than around 30 to 50 meters.

In technical terms, a “close approach” is a predicted event in which a NEO passes within the orbit of Earth’s Moon. Some passes of larger NEOs close to the Earth-Moon system but not between the two bodies are also called close approaches. In lay terms, a “close approach,” while not a risk, hazard, or threat to Earth, is an event that scientists want to keep an eye on.

Are we clear so far?

(Just FYI: in searching Google Images for a visual depiction of uncertainty, I came across a picture of a road sign reading “doubt and fear just ahead,” another road sign reading “lost confused unsure unclear perplexed disoriented bewildered,” and a quote from Voltaire: “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”)

In working on the challenge of improving communications about uncertainty, I’ve just read a book by Dylan Evans, Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (Free Press, NY, 2012), that’s provided some good food for thought.

What Evans calls “risk intelligence” is “the ability to estimate probabilities accurately.” (You can take his simple “risk intelligence quotient,” or RQ, test online.)

Evans by no means advocates the abandonment of probabilistic risk assessment. He argues that we need to better understand, and develop better ways of explaining, probability. “Probabilities are an expression of our ignorance,” he observes; “by quantifying uncertainty, we are already conceding that we don’t ‘know’ the relevant facts with 100 percent certainty and admitting that we have to work on the basis of educated guesses.”

Numerical characterizations of risk are more accurate than verbal descriptions, he says. However, “replacing verbal labels with numbers is not enough by itself to make things any better.” While verbal labels are imprecise, and numbers may be less so, even numerical labels can mask uncertainty. “It is not enough to supplement verbal labels with numerical translations; the labels should be dispensed with altogether, because people tend to ignore the numerical translations and interpret the labels in their own idiosyncratic ways.” Imprecise statements about uncertainty can lead to miscommunication between analysts and policymakers [I’d say “experts and non-experts”], he notes, and for that matter, among analysts themselves.

This last point gets to one of my favorite “problems” in science and risk communication – the all-too-common use of subjective terms such as “serious,” “severe,” “likely,” “unlikely,” “significant,” “important,” and so on. These kinds of words are subject to interpretation. Does “likely” mean 50 percent probable, 90 percent probable, 99 percent probable? What would render the prediction of a possible – emphasis on possible – asteroid impact with Earth 20 years from now “significant”? It depends on who you ask.

By the way, according to the asteroid impact risk table maintained by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) and updated daily, no known NEOs pose any risk of impacting Earth over the next 100 years. Also by the way, CNEOS has reported that an upcoming asteroid flyby originally characterized as a possible close approach is no longer predicted to be close. Based on early observations, asteroid trackers predicted that an asteroid named 2013 TX68 would pass by Earth on March 5, at a distance as far out as 9 million miles (14 million kilometers) or as close as 11,000 miles (17,000 kilometers). Further observations enabled trackers to eliminate some of the uncertainty surrounding their calculations and refine their prediction. They now report that 2013 TX68 will pass by Earth on March 8 at a distance of about 3 million miles (5 million kilometers). “There is still a chance that it could pass closer, but certainly no closer than 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers),” according to CNEOS. (So uncertainty has been reduced, but not eliminated….)

Now back to Professor Evans for some final thoughts: “The very tools that can help enhance risk intelligence – the mathematics of probability theory and the collection of statistical data” – can lead to overconfidence, “a sense that we can master Lady Luck [let’s say “chance” or “randomness”] through science. But as the financial crisis of 2007-2008 reminded us, the models we build to manage risk are always fallible…. If such thoughts make you panic, then you haven’t come to terms with the irreducibility of chance.”

* My work is funded in part by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which encompasses the agency’s NEO Observations Program.