August 8, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Life in Space: Follow the Hot Water, not the Hot Air

Planetary scientists have their eyes and instruments on regions of hot water, but speculating too dogmatically about life in space could get you in hot water yourself.
    Simon Klatterhorn (geologist, U of Idaho) is mesmerized by the possibility of life at Europa, Jupiter’s ice-crusted oceanic moon.  In an interview by Science Daily, he said that Europa brings out the adventurer in him.  Cracks in the ice of Europa and of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are peepholes into the possibility of life down there.  He knows that life requires water, and he knows that life survives on earth in some of the most inhospitable environments.  Put the two together, and he finds the possibility of life in space compelling.  “This research feeds that need that I have as a geologist and as a person to be the explorer, to be the adventurer, to see things that no one else has seen before and figure out things that no one else has figured out before,” he said.  “And out in the solar system is a great place to do that, because there are some things—like the plumes on Enceladus—that we really are seeing for the very first time.”
    Speaking of the plumes of Enceladus, the Cassini spacecraft is all set for another daring dive through the geysers Monday night (Aug. 11).  Swooping down at just 30 miles over the surface, the spaceship might be able to peer right down into the geyser vents.  Follow the Blog for details, and read the Flight Plan.  On this encounter, the cameras get priority time.  Undoubtedly some scientists will speculate about the possibility of life in a subterranean ocean.
    Even those who study life in space full time, like SETI researchers, can get annoyed by dogmatists.  Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute, let his emotions fly in an editorial about UFO-diehards on Space.com.  He has gotten pretty tired of their ad hominem attacks on anyone who demands more physical evidence than they can provide after 60 years of sightings.  He quoted some examples of hot-headed UFO bullies.  He’s willing to listen, and evaluate decent evidence: “After all,” he said, “I happen to think that extraterrestrial intelligence is a frequent occurrence in a universe of ten thousand million million million stars.”  But he expects civilized discourse and respect among those who want to approach the subject scientifically.
    One point Shostak emphasized is that one doesn’t have to be personally involved in UFO reports to be able to express an opinion about it.  “Carl Sagan was asked his opinion about many matters in which he had no research background,” he said.  “His thoughts on same were valuable and worth hearing.”  The burden of proof in science is on the one making a claim.

Shostak is a favorite SETI researcher to engage in civil discourse and respectful debate, because he so honestly opens himself up to judgment by his own standards.  OK, then, can outsiders express opinions about SETI?  Can the opinions of a SETI critic or Darwin doubter with strong academic credentials and good presentation skills be valuable and worth hearing?  Is the burden of proof on the SETI researcher to back up his belief that ETI is a common occurrence in the universe?  Obviously he has no way out, and would have to say yes.  So thank you, Dr. Shostak; we’ll take you up on it.
    Let us be among the first to join you in denouncing bullies, like those dogmatic Darwinists who eviscerate the careers of Darwin-doubters like those highlighted in the movie Expelled.  Surely you are not among those types.
    We appreciate your honesty about lack of evidence in your craft (01/24/2007).  May we respectfully ask that you review our critique of your rebuttal of intelligent design back in 12/03/2005?  That you credit your sources, as we recommended in 05/04/2006?  Will you review our analysis of your reasoning about science, religion and evolutionary theory back in 02/20/2007?  Will you honestly consider the possibility that SETI is imagination masquerading as science, like we demonstrated in April this year?  Could you share a brief chuckle with us at the thought of a poor misguided student in cowboy country, with SETI Institute blessing, sending a poem about menstruation to aliens? (See the 05/29/2008 entry that analyzed an article that reported this incident with pride).
    No ad hominems from us.  In fact, we called you a highly intelligent individual, and said it sincerely.  We just wonder why you use detection methods that imply intelligent design while consigning ID to the pseudoscience bin, and ascribe the universe and life (and your own rationality) to non-intelligent causes.  We just want you to think about it.  Fair enough?  Are you searching for ETI in the right places?  Have you done a fair investigation, as did former atheist Lee Strobel, of the claims of a Man who said He came from heaven (John 14-16), and provided empirical evidence for it (Acts 1-2, I Corinthians 15), in ways that can be studied by scientific and historical methods?  If not willing to go that route, if you choose to persist in looking into the stars for divine guidance, can you at least admit that you are practicing and advocating a pseudoscientific religion in the place of Christianity?  Can you admit that Christianity, at this point, has more evidence going for it than SETI?  Are you willing to call SETI a kind of religion?  Then can we lobby for Separation of Search and State (01/24/2007)?
    Readers, be nice.  Don’t fling these questions at the likes of the honorable Dr. Shostak with pride and arrogance.  Let any hot air come at us, not from us.  If he repents of his sins (logical and theological), and discovers extraterrestrial omnipresent Intelligence that was there all along, we wish to share with him in that moment of surprising joy, and embrace him with open arms as good Christians are commanded to do (like Paul was treated in Acts 9, who later wrote Romans 12).

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