Tuesday, April 18, 2006


How About a Search for Intelligent Life on Earth?

There is an interesting article in The Guardian by Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Seti Institute in California, that bears the unfortunate title "We believe in ET, not ID."

First he explains why the attempts to force creationism into American schools has become personal for him. Intelligent Design advocates, in particular, are ever vigilant for real science to highjack:

They say: "If you Seti researchers receive a complex radio signal from space, you'll claim it as proof of intelligent, alien life. Thus your methodology is completely analogous to ours - complexity implying intelligence and deliberate design." And Seti, they pointedly add, enjoys widespread scientific acceptance.

Shostak explains that they are wrong about what Seti is looking for:

In fact, we are not looking for complex signals, but simple ones (such as a pure radio tone). And we seek this type of signal in places where we suspect planets might exist. It is universally acknowledged that planets don't produce such radio tones; only transmitters do. The analogy with Seti is a poor tactic for defending ID.

In other words, they are looking for the kind of design in radio signals that a "technologically adroit society [would] be capable of broadcasting to listeners light years away," not some amorphous design "concept" disembodied (by design and for legal purposes) from any particular being or any limitation as to "its" abilities.

But then the ID crowd got really personal:

Appropriating my day job wasn't the end of the insults. Last year, ID adherents released a one-hour film, Privileged Planet, that caused a minor brouhaha when plans were announced to screen it at Washington's Smithsonian Institution, a few blocks from the Capitol. To my chagrin, I appear in the film, though I say nothing about design, intelligent or otherwise; I simply describe my own research - spliced in, presumably, for the modicum of credibility I bring.

Unlike many Europeans, who find this whole debate faintly farcical, I am not amused. Teaching ID in biology class muddles science with metaphysics. In a country that rides high on technical proficiency, that's serious business.

After noting with approval that the American Association for the Advancement of Science "is finally urging scientists to push back on ID" and "defend the modest claim that 150 years of research has actually taught us something," Shostak sums up:

Tweedy academics may view stepping on to the street to face down their opponents as inelegant and threatening. But sometimes confrontation is the only option. The ivory tower brigade has thrown down the gauntlet. It will surely be bloodied and bruised. But America can no longer afford fantasy science.

I might go a step further and say that, as we teeter on the brink of real disasters such as global warming and real promise as in stem cell research, the world can no longer afford to have science in thrall to ideologies of any sort.
Almost on cue, Pat Hayes reports at his blog, Red State Rabble, on this article published today at PLoS Biology:
Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology
by Liza Gross
Americans have long been ambivalent about science. Conflicting attitudes toward science are not uncommon among industrialized countries—Canadians, Europeans, and Japanese, for example, also appreciate the benefits of science but worry about potential impacts on society. What sets Americans apart is that their reservations center primarily around religion. And now, as the United States struggles to maintain its undisputed position as world leader in science and technology, religious ideology has spilled over into the public sphere to a degree unmatched in other industrialized societies. Religious groups are turning scientific matters like stem cells and evolution into political issues.

Though some see the growing influence of ideology over scientific issues as a threat to America's standing as global science leader, a leading analyst of public attitudes toward science sees it as an opportunity for increasing scientific literacy. “Even though the scientific community can feel besieged by this anti-science sentiment,” says Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, “most people really haven't made up their mind about this issue and, in fact, really haven't even thought about it.” Rather than fretting about the cultural divide—or worse, doing nothing—Miller urges scientists to do their part to bridge the gap.
Then there is this to contemplate:
Because simple true–false questions exaggerate the strength of both positions, Miller also asked more nuanced questions in 1993 and 2003. Again, the proportion of adults holding tentative or uncertain positions increased, but the percentage holding strong positions remained steady over the past 10 years. One-third of Americans think evolution is “definitely false”; over half lean one way or another or aren't sure. Only 14% expressed unequivocal support for evolution—a result Miller calls “shocking.”
It's well past time to get to work.

It's really good to see Shostak making the very plain statement that SETI is looking for simple signals. In arguing with someone on talk.origins, I'd tried to find a clear description of what SETI is looking for, and it wasn't given in such a straightforward fashion.
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