May 1, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Astrobiologists Pool Their Ignorance at AbSciCon

A big conference on Astrobiology was held in Santa Clara, California last month.  It was the fifth AbSciCon (Astrobiology Science Conference), a bi-annual cross-disciplinary event.  This one pulled together 675 researchers from 28 countries across a variety of disciplines, all interested in life in space.  Naturally, evolution was an overarching theme.  From Edna DeVore’s account on, the party atmosphere was stimulating: “Astrobiology is alive and well,” the SETI Institute director of Education and Outreach reported.
    Leslie Mullen also summarized some of the highlights for NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine.  Touching on everything from cosmology to biochemistry, there was way too much material to report in a short article.  Origin of life, the Drake equation, habitable zones, SETI, design of Martian rovers, non-human intelligence – such questions brought in views from chemists, astronomers, geologists, engineers, psychologists, cosmologists and even philosophers.  Educators were also present doing workshops on curricular materials to heighten awareness of astrobiology in schools.  Pre-conference summaries of the sessions were made available in PDF files from Astrobiology Journal, 8:2 (April, 2008).
    Not one presentation considered any alternatives to Darwinian evolution unless to dismiss them.  H. Peter Steeves (DePaul U), for instance, quickly disqualified a whole class of creation explanations by expelling them from the definition of science: “how might a basic understanding of philosophy of science help fight against the rising tide of ideologically/politically motivated pseudo-science (e.g., ‘creation science’)?;” (Session 35).
    Some, however, did struggle with problems.  Brandon Carter (Observatory of Paris) said that it has been necessary to revise upward the number of “hard” steps (difficult obstacles) to get intelligent life from two to six.  Paul Davies (Arizona State U) reminded his section that the universe appears fine-tuned for life; astrobiologists cannot just present simplistic answers by considering only crude prerequisites for life (for both summaries, see Session 25).  And Blair Hedges called the Cambrian explosion an “inconvenient truth” in Session 38.  Nevertheless, everyone joined in cheerfully and contributed their piece.  It was in the details where some things didn’t fit well.
    Steven Benner, for instance, presented his old sweet and sour sugar problem (see 11/05/2004).  Astrobiology Magazine showed him sweating in the kitchen after the bombshell went off:

According to Benner, chemists don’t believe that life can emerge from a prebiotic soup.  The Miller-Urey experiments showed that energy plus organics equals tar without evolution.1  “We put energy in complex chemical systems, we get pavement, not life,” said Benner.  “Do an experiment.  Use some glucose to make a souffl�, and leave it in the oven a little too long.  [You get] asphalt.
    The RNA world preceded DNA life, but it was not necessarily the first living system.  The big problem is with ribose, the “R” in RNA, which falls apart when heated and forms tar.  So life may have formed with a sugar other than ribose, but in lab tests nothing else works.  However, ribose-borate is a stable mineral, and Benner believes that boron makes an RNA prebiotic world more possible.  Boron is associated with deserts on Earth.  Benner suggested that because Mars had deserts long before Earth did, perhaps life originated there and was somehow transported to Earth (making us, in effect, Martians).

He was not alone in struggling about ribose.  Carol Cleland (Philosophy Dept, U of Boulder, CO) argued in Section 35 that the RNA World scenario, despite its dominance, is incoherent: “There is, however, a remarkable lack of scientific consensus about what constitutes the RNA world.”  These provide a taste of the devils in the details.
    It’s what Benner said before his souffl� talk that was most revealing. 

Steven Benner, a chemist with the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, said exobiology is a science without a subject matter.  But that’s nothing new — Galileo wanted to know whether the Earth circled the sun, but he couldn’t study that directly so he rolled balls down inclined planes to answer the question.  Benner said that we often can’t rely on established science to be a guide.  Lord Kelvin said the Earth and sun could NOT be billions of years old, when Darwin was arguing they were.  “Who are you going to believe?” asked Benner.  “The gentleman who had a temperature scale named after him, or this guy who makes a living studying bird beaks?”  So science is often what we choose to believe.

Though Benner quickly retreated into a discussion of falsification (a la Karl Popper), the combination of his two statements, (1) that exobiology (today called astrobiology) has no subject matter and (2) science is often what we choose to believe, might indicate to an outsider that AbSciCom2008 was just a big party of believers fantasizing about their favorite story.
    When Stephen Hawking talks, people listen.  He wasn’t at AbSciCon, but in a different venue, the 66-year-old handicapped cosmology genius gave his speculations about astrobiology for  Though he thinks primitive life may exist, he doesn’t think there are other intelligent beings out there.  We haven’t found them with SETI, and they haven’t visited here (except to “cranks and weirdos,” he joked).  He turned astrobiology around and proposed, instead, that humankind should spread its seeds of life abroad and colonize space.  If there are aliens, in other words, they will be us.  This seems to suggest a new SETI approach, called STI.  Turn off the radio telescope and pick up the cell phone, Edna.  Reach out and touch someone.

1.  Ironically, tributes to Stanley Miller (05/02/2003) and Leslie Orgel (01/26/2008) were given at the conference, even though the “primordial soup” icon they popularized with their spark-discharge experiments in the 1950s has been discredited, as indicated by Benner in this quote.

There were enough SEQOTW nominees in these documents to keep CEH supplied for a year.  If you want to see what’s going on among the Darwin worshipers, browse through the program notes.  Look at all the partying and backslapping and ask yourself how much they really know – especially, about things that relate to their reason for being astrobiologists.  One can only wonder how much richer the discussion might be if scientists, philosophers, theologians and historians outside the Darwin Party were allowed to participate.  Astrobiology is a one-party system, a population losing fitness due to inbred ideas.
    Instead of giving you a tedious analysis of every SEQOTW, a parable will suffice to sum up AbSciCom2008.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

  1. Visualize your favorite picture.
  2. Invite your friends.  Check their credentials.  If anyone from a “different picture club” tries to sneak in, expel them.
  3. Make everyone feel good about the picture.  Reinforcement can be achieved with a few choice sermonettes from respected individuals.
  4. Draw a big outline of the picture on the floor.  A gymnasium is good for this step.
  5. Open the box and spill out the pieces.
  6. Throw away the box top and the instructions.  After all, this is science.  We do it our way.
  7. Form teams and pass out the puzzle pieces.  These can be distributed by color, shape, or any other useful scheme.
  8. Allow each team to work on their part of the picture.  Rearrangement of small parts is permitted, but not changes to the outline.
  9. The rules allow for complaints about how hard the work is.  If anyone complains about the big picture, though, they must be expelled.
  10. Every two years, throw a party with booze and croissants and let each team share their experiences.  Throw in a few more choice sermonettes to keep spirits high.
  11. Report to the media on the progress being made.
  12. Draw up a curriculum and teach the next generation how to work the puzzle.

Note: Mature, well-trained, experienced readers can skip this section.

  1. Philosophy of discovery:  Theories do not emerge from raw data.  More often, scientists begin with a picture in mind.  Even deciding what to call “the data” requires a human choice, because not all inputs are relevant to the picture.  Like Benner said, “science is often what we choose to believe.”
  2. Sociology of science:  Scientists tend to hang out with people they know and like. 
  3. Sociology, cont.:  Science is a human activity, not something that could be done by robots.  It is not purely rational but involves emotions, rhetoric, herd mentality and other non-rational considerations.
  4. Kuhnian normal science:  The paradigm determines the research project.  The participants were not assembling to question astrobiology.  They were assembling to affirm it.
  5. Underdetermination of theories by data:  There are inevitably many possible explanations for one set of data.  The same puzzle pieces could be fit to a different picture.
  6. Naturalism:  Modern science has chosen to restrict itself to “natural causes” (whatever that means; see 05/11/2006).  Today’s scientists have been trained to deplore revelation (natural and/or special), no matter how well validated by empirical evidence, reason or history.
  7. Pragmatism:  Nature does not determine the choice of classification scheme; people do.
  8. Limits of science:  No one person can master the whole picture, especially one as broad as astrobiology. 
  9. Sociology/psychology of science:  Each researcher works under the assumption that his or her little piece will reinforce the paradigm.  Cooperation is ensured by the fear of being expelled as a maverick, or worse, a pseudoscientist.  Since no philosopher of science has successfully defended demarcation criteria for science vs pseudoscience, and since no universal scientific method has been defined, emotional and sociological judgments again come into play to determine who is “in” and who is “out.”
  10. Sociology, cont.:  Social activities, though they have nothing to do with the validity of the proposition under study, serve to reinforce the paradigm and draw in more party members.
  11. Positivism:  The party celebration attracts reporters and gives them some fun work to do at a nice hotel.  The atmosphere promotes a spirit of progress.  All this activity, all these smart people, and all the erudite PowerPoint slides must mean that productive science was being done, right?  It must be the case since the government is funding the work.
        The system feeds on itself.  Reporters get a share of the booze and croissants, paid for by their bosses, who get better advertising ratings for maintaining a lively science page.  The reporters make friends with some of the scientists and learn from the herd who is hot and who is not.  It is unlikely any reporter will go back to the office and write up a scathing rebuke of the entire philosophical premise underlying the event.  Party organizers will be sure to send the cheerful press releases to Senator Earmark.
  12. Education:  The paradigm might lose popularity without new blood.  Captive students must be trained and inculcated into the craft before other paradigms capture their attention.  This can be accomplished by making all other paradigms illegal.  Skilled facilitators can create visuals and curricula from the Policies and Procedures Manual of the Paradigm, to inculcate the novitiates into the craft and inoculate the young herd against critical thinkers (12/21/2005).  Successful novitiates are graded on their ability to regurgitate the talking points, meditate on the non-negotiable assumptions and doctrines, sense how to tell the good guys from the bad guys (the creationists), and honor the idol of Our Leader.*

Here and there, inadvertently, some actual science is done.  Benner finds that heating ribose forms asphalt.  Gibson discovers reduced carbon in a meteorite.  Ehrenfreund demonstrates that PAHs are stable in a vacuum.  Some logical reasoning (inductive and deductive) and some worthwhile historical analysis is presented.  Little of this, if any, however, supports the foundational assumption that time, chance, energy and matter has populated the universe with sentient beings (let alone bacteria).
    So let’s score Astrobiology as a science.  It has no evidence for its fundamental belief.  Its scientific activity, some of it legitimate on its own, bears no necessary or sufficient relationship to its propositions.  It provides no practical benefits to its clientele.  Can anyone deny that AbSciCon2008 has all the appearance of a grand, taxpayer-funded make-work boondoggle for eggheads with a big party at the end?  The aliens** think so.

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Categories: Origin of Life, SETI

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