This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
It isn’t every day that a research paper published in an obscure academic journal attracts its own, full blown article in a major newspaper. It isn’t every day that a science correspondent writes an article that merits a headline as bizarre as the following: Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, say scientists.
One of the main assertions of this Guardian news story has already been withdrawn. Over at WattsUpWithThat.com there’s a screengrab of what the article looked like yesterday. Just under the headline, the article was claiming:
Rising greenhouse emissions may tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report for Nasa [bold added]
The article was not in any way prepared for or sponsored by NASA. Instead, it was a spare-time project of three researchers, one of whom happens to be a NASA employee…
It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the NASA-affiliated person, whose name is Shawn Domagal-Goldman. As he himself explains in a blog post:
This isn’t a “NASA report.” It’s not work funded by NASA, nor is it work supported by NASA in other ways. It was just a fun paper written by a few friends, one of whom happens to have a NASA affiliation.
…So here’s the deal, folks. Yes, I work at NASA. It’s also true that I work at NASA Headquarters. But I am not a civil servant… just a lowly postdoc. More importantly, this paper has nothing to do with my work there. I wasn’t funded for it, nor did I spend any of my time at work or any resources provided to me by NASA to participate in this effort.
…I do admit to making a horrible mistake. It was an honest one, and a naive one… but it was a mistake nonetheless. I should not have listed my affiliation as “NASA Headquarters.” I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. I’m deeply sorry for that, but it was a mistake born our [sic] of carelessness and inexperience and nothing more. I will do what I can to rectify this… [bold in the original]
So what the newspaper told us was a report for NASA written by scientists turns out to be a fun paper written by a few friends. One of them (Baum) is still working on his PhD. Another (Haqq-Misra) got his PhD last year. The third (Domagal-Goldman) is, in his own words, just a lowly postdoc.
Lead author Baum sounds like the a sweet young man you’d be delighted to learn was dating your daughter. He says all his activities and interests “revolve around the theme of making the world (universe(s)?) a better place.” As he explains:
My dissertation research, with advisor Bill Easterling, is on the ethics and moral psychology of discounting in the context of climate change assessment. I also work on reducing global catastrophic risk, which is anything that could end human civilization or even cause human extinction.
That’s all well and good. But if the academic paper that caught the attention of Guardian science correspondent is any indication of how the current generation of young scientists think, we’ll need to start viewing scientific findings with more than a grain of salt.
You see, the worldview embraced by these youngsters is as depressing as it is astonishing. I’m no longer surprised to learn that arts students have absorbed a humans-are-a-pox-on-the-planet philosophy. But apparently this is now true of our scientifically-trained minds, as well.
In the event that God or Mother Nature doesn’t punish us for our eco sins, the three young men who wrote this paper speculate that maybe aliens will, instead. According to the Guardian:
…reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim.
Yes, and eating only cauliflower for breakfast might save us from an alien attack, too. Since no one has ever detected any aliens, never mind figured out what their value system might be, my guess is surely as good as anyone else’s.
At first I worried that the newspaper article was exaggerating. But then I took a look at the academic paper itself. What’s remarkable about it isn’t just the angst these young people exude. It’s that ideas I consider highly debatable – such as the claim that humans are responsible for widespread loss of biodiversity – are all assumed, by these scientific minds, to be well-established facts.
For example, on page 21, the authors write:
Given that we have already altered our environment in ways that may viewed as unethical by [aliens] it may be prudent to avoid sending any message that shows evidence of our negative environmental impact…any message that indicates of [sic] widespread loss of biodiversity or rapid rates of expansion may be dangerous…On the other hand [the aliens] may already know about our rapid environmental impact by listening to leaked electromagnetic signals or observing changes in Earth’s spectral signature. In this case, it might be prudent for any message we send to avoid denying our environmental impact so as to avoid the [aliens] catching us in a lie.
This just makes me want to weep.