The Dangers of Anti-Science
Stephen Hawking's Fear of Dangerous Aliens
Famed astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking has voiced concern about the dangers, he believes, are posed by alien predators who may arrive in giant space ships, to conquer, enslave, destroy, colonize, and voraciously exploit the resources of Earth. According to Hawking:
"To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like..." According to Hawking aliens "would be only limited by how much power they could harness and control, and that could be far more than we might first imagine...Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach...I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet...If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."
Scientific knowledge is quite different from the authoritatively-voiced opinions of a famous scientist. The remarkable scientific successes that have brought professor Hawking well-deserved fame (and thus a voice that the public wants to hear) also bring a responsibility to clearly distinguish these two different types of information when commenting on the potential dangers of an encounter with extra-terrestrial intelligence. Listeners are otherwise led to one of two incorrect inferences: that scientific knowledge exists where it does not, or that speculation is the best that science can currently offer.
Both perceptions undermine the emerging and vibrant science of astrobiology. No one has yet come up with a scientific test for Hawking's specific claim (and that is precisely what makes his comments unscientific) but thousands are applying their ingenuity and expertise to find ways in which science can approach aspects of the bigger questions of life's origin(s), evolution, distribution, and future in the universe (see: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/about-astrobiology).
Ironically, on the same evening that Hawking's opinions were aired on U.S. television, hundreds of astrobiologists were converging in League City, Texas for the annual Astrobiology Science Convention—the largest such conference in the world. Presenters include representatives from the SETI Institute, whose science focuses on the question of what science can infer regarding communications with an intelligent alien species. I doubt that any of them will be opining about the origin and early evolution of the universe as if professor Hawking's field of science did not exist (and if they did, this would be quickly addressed by the criticisms of colleagues in the frank exchange of knowledge that marks a healthy science).
But a deeper, underlying problem is that supposedly science-friendly mass media are actually weakening public understanding of what constitutes science when they replace scientific information with the opinions of a famous scientist. Scientific inquiry represents just one of several approaches by which we humans form our beliefs: alternatives include pure reasoning, "arguments from authority" and instinct. Science is distinguished from these alternatives only by its focus on what can be tested empirically. Even the most brilliant minds can perceive truths that seem rational (logical) and perhaps even obvious—but which fail when formulated as testable propositions and measured against empirical observations.
Aristotle's famously erroneous philosophy that women possess fewer teeth than men (Mayhew 2004) could have been transformed into a foundation for scientific inquiry by the simple expedient of recording careful measurements in the good-humored company of one of his wives. The problem was not that Aristotle failed to notice this possibility—indeed, he may have started with observations for all we know (Mayhew 2004)—but his sub-culture held logical reasoning superior to the information of the senses. So, no supporting empirical data were offered and it was left for later investigators to find that his reasoning had failed him. Subsequent generations have worked hard to disentangle the strengths and weaknesses of Greek rational philosophy, sometimes finding that specific assertions possessed no more solid foundation than the authority of a famous voice.
The emergence of modern science is largely the story of its invention and runaway success as a tool for distinguishing between good and bad ideas of "natural philosophy". This success has gone on to shape a culture that now values empirical evidence above reason: the information of our senses, properly channeled into scientific tests, is widely held as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Evidence for this widespread cultural perspective is seen, for example, in the popularity of crime-related entertainment where detectives follow the empirical clues to confound prejudice and common-sense. The recent trend for forensic science to play a central role merely emphasizes this point. In this context, it undermines the very notion that science has brought us progress if we now turn and blur the distinction between scientist and science.
Scientists, like rational philosophers, are humans and prone to the same range of belief-forming tendencies as the rest of us whenever they are not actively practicing their science. Even the most extraordinary achievements in one dimension of scientific inquiry do not imbue a scientist's beliefs with automatic credibility on any other topic. One example of direct relevance to the theme of panspermia concerns Sir Fred Hoyle's infamous statements for disbelieving conventional science of biological evolution (Hoyle 1981). Although most evolutionary scientists utterly reject the "Hoyle Fallacy" as a trivial error (e.g. Dawkins 1986), Hoyle's opinions still routinely appear four decades later in anti-evolutionary literature as evidence that eminent scientists have found fundamental flaws in the theory of evolution (Institute for Creation Research: http://www.icr.org/article/243/).
Thus, when Stephen Hawking or any other scientist speaks on the likely nature of visiting aliens, they have a responsibility to defend the integrity of science by either demonstrating the scientific basis (empirical tests) for what is being said, or clearly explaining the other (non-scientific) credentials for their information. Failure to do so can hardly help the growing problem of scientific illiteracy in the USA and elsewhere (California Academy of Sciences 2009).
California Academy of Sciences (2009). "American Adults Flunk Basic Science". ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 29, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2009/03/090312115133.htm
Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. Harlow: Longman Scientific & Technical.
Hoyle, F. (1981). In "Hoyle on Evolution", Nature, 294, 105.
Mayhew, R. (2004). The Female in Aristotle's Biology. Reason or Rationalization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. x, 128. ISBN 0-226-51200-2.
First published in:
Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol 7, 1786-1787.
JournalofCosmology.com, May, 2010