Friday, 30 November 2007

Astrophysics and the Morality of Academic Prejudice

Returning tentatively to the Intelligent Design debate, there is another aspect to this which, like my last piece on the subject,, also leaves me feeling uncomfortable, but this time from a different perspective.

By and large, through out my life, I have tended to find myself in minorities. As a white man in Western Europe that might seem a silly thing to say but there are other areas of my background where I have not always been part of the greater number and because of that, occasions where I have felt uneasy or not in control.

There is a situation that been ongoing for a while within the astrobiological field that also touches on the ID subject and while I have no personal involvement, observing it has made me feel ill at ease. This time however I find myself in the camp of the majority with concern that a minority is being persecuted.

I am referring to the case of astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez who is an Iowa State University assistant professor of physics and astronomy and who also, in his spare time, is an advocate of Intelligent Design. His application for tenure at the University was declined and his supporters allege that this was because of his beliefs. The University counters that "he failed to meet the expectations for scholarly achievement for a faculty member in the department of physics and astronomy during the six years of his probationary, pre-tenure period of appointment" and that his advocacy of the "intelligent design" concept was not a factor in the decision to turn down his request for tenure.

There can be little doubt about Cuban born Gonzalez’s commitment to ID as he is a senior fellow at the infamous Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture as well as a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design, all dedicated, hard core ID propogators.

To be fair to the University, they do put up a good case. In essence, to get tenure, you need to prove that you can draw both money and prestige to the establishment and this you do by publishing peer reviewed articles and attracting sponsorship for research. This, they allege, Gonzalez has failed to do and further add that his telescope time and student tuteledge hasn’t been up to much either. Their final nail in the coffin to demonstrate that they are not academically prejudiced against him is that astronomy is one of their strongest academic programs and that over the past decade, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in that department also failed to get tenure.

That seems a fair rebuttal and unless it can be factually disproved, seems to be conclusive. But Gonzalez’s supporters are not giving up and unless there are intervening developments, there is a strong possibility that this could end up in court.

Despite everything you still cannot get away from the suspicion that his beliefs are somehow at the back of it all. I have no wish to see them promoted in an academic setting but conversely, I don’t feel comfortable seeing his career progression hindered because of them either. The problem here is that the dispute crosses into personal belief as opposed to professional position and therein lays the dichotomy.

But, if pushed, I regret I hope the university prevail.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The Good Doctor and the Aliens

Dr. Michael Salla is nothing if not an honest man. His recent article Exopolitics: Discipline of Choice for Public Policy Issues Concerning Extraterrestrial Life pretty well tells it as it is. For part of the story you have to read between the lines a little, but most of it is there in your face. The facts are simple; fed up with the likes of UFOlogists Dick Hall, Jerry Clark, and anyone remotely like them, the Exopolitical Movement has taken the next step. That step is to assume there is an extraterrestrial presence as a given and to formulate political policy based on this fact. Unfortunately, because they can’t actually see this presence themselves, there isn’t really any policy, just a lot of hot air.

As the article says, Exopolitical policy is based upon the testimony of whistleblowers, eyewitnesses, scientists and experiencers. Dr. Salla has done an excellent job in the past of defending this evidence but the fact is, all of it is based on intelligence services disinformation and none of it has any real basis in reality. I’m quite sure that Dr. Salla would vigorously oppose that statement and the principle does matter to him because he is an academic, but it doesn’t really matter to the Exopolitical Movement per se because, as I’ve said, they’ve moved to the next step. To them it is obvious that ET is here and nitpicking over the detail is just a distraction.

I may have made that sound a little trite but I don’t particularly have anything against them as long as we recognise them for what they are. They are a religion. Not a formal one as such, but that is what they are. Religions, as we know, are based on faith and faith, to a died-in-the wool UFOlogist like Dick Hall, is anathema because UFOlogy must be based on hard fact and the scientific method in order to achieve respectability. The fact that Dick believes in the ETH when there isn’t a shred of evidence that has any enduring stamina or resolution within a science laboratory that will confirm that fact is an irony that passes him by. But I’ve been there before with this and now is not the time for another rant.

The Exopoliticians are undoubtedly the modern day equivalent of the Contactee Movement and as de rigueur these days is to look back to that period with affection, then there really is no reason why we shouldn’t view Exopolitics in the same way. It is after all a way of thinking and a way of being and they do no harm to anyone that I can tell. Some argue that they are a distraction and they get in the way of establishing a serious interest in UFOs, but I can’t really see that either. They are, to a degree, side lined and anyone drawn to them is never going to be interested in nuts and bolts UFOlogy in the first place. They commune with dolphins and have a strong spiritual element to them and are clearly a New Age conscript. They seem, actually, to be quite nice people.

If one was being really cruel, one could argue that from a neutral viewpoint, the difference between them and established UFOlogy is paper thin anyway. It is simply a matter of position but essentially, both sides believe. One assumes greater intellectual authority while the other has said, “Bugger that” and just gets on with it. It’s all pretty pointless as there is no control, and everyone is a victim.

Perhaps after all, a “Bugger that” attitude is the way forward for we’re never going to get any help from anyone here on Planet Earth. And perhaps, also, it is too early to judge them for they are still a fledgling movement. Their time may yet come.

But in terms of establishing the fact based reality of extraterrestrial life, I'm afraid they're pretty hopeless.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Cosmic Dust; Oh, Ok Then – Star Seed

If there is one subject that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, it is the debate about Intelligent Design that has raged in the States for a couple of years.

I do in fact believe in Intelligent Design but the moment I utter that statement, I feel the immense urge to run away very quickly while simultaneously shouting, “But I’m not with that lot”.

“That lot” are the vast bulk of ID’ers who are to the religious right and who believe that because Nature is such an amazing complexity of beauty and staggering synchronisation, that it is far too intricate to have simply been the result of natural development (evolution) and that everywhere you look, there is evidence of a greater power having been at work.

I recognise and accept evolution and I don’t for one moment believe that God created the world 5,000 years ago. Neither do I believe in sexual abstinence, chastity, or that taking drugs is bad. And for that matter, I’m an atheist in so much as I don’t believe in God in the spiritual sense. However, I do think there was a creator, and a creator with a small “c”.

I think that life started on this planet as a result of Panspermia, out of the hundreds of thousands of tons of space dust that lands on this planet each and every year. The building blocks of life that contain the blueprints for existence cosmically roam the universe looking for Goldilocks planets like Earth and when they find one, they take hold. How far they go is a matter of chance for it is at this point that evolution steps in and the random element comes in to play. Very likely, as common as intelligent life might be, microbial life will be far more common.

I think there is a cosmic gardener that spreads this seed and I think he scatters it and then sits back and watches what happens. He puts the very basics in but doesn’t interfere any further. If it catches and grows then fine, but if not, well there’ll be another planet along in a short while.

And so, in case it isn’t obvious, I believe in directed Panspermia. I think the effort to spread life is deliberate. I don’t choose to call the force that does that God.

But Panspermia isn’t the complete answer and like with any theory about the origins of life, as you follow it back, you always come up against the same brick wall; who or what started it? Who is this force that I think spreads cosmic dust everywhere and, if it is an alien being, who or what created him, and so on.

Even if you assume, as is the case, that In The Beginning there was absolutely nothing; no time, no space, no continuum, not even a void, some chemical reaction started the process leading to the Big Bang. What kick started that?

It is only at this point that I have some sympathy for religion. From our present understanding, I can appreciate the frustration in trying to climb over this final hurdle and faced with the impossibility of an answer, I can sympathise with the desire to submit to a paranormal super being of omnipotent and supreme power.

But for most in science, that is a kop out and the search for the defining solution is the reason why many of the white coats still get out of bed in the mornings. I am with them on this one. What is confusing is that some scientists also claim to believe in God, which is scientific blasphemy. There is no spiritual element to this conundrum, just, somewhere in the depths of the cosmic blur, a single CSICOP’ian fact.


Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Yes, Aliens Are Among Us

It is always reassuring when one of the most eminent specialists in your favoured field offers ideas that correspond to yours. Generously, Paul Davies has done just such a thing in his excellent SciAm article Are Aliens Among Us?

He starts by reflecting on the unresolved question of whether Earth is unique or whether life is prevalent everywhere. It seems bizarre to me that given the historical examination of meteorites, the astronomically observed clouds of cosmic dust, the clear evidence that basic life forms can survive in extreme conditions, the likelihood that water probably isn’t a prerequisite and the commonly held scientific view that life will be found on Mars, that there are still people who believe that Earth stands alone. It is simply mathematically impossible. Davies says;

How can scientists determine which view is correct? The most direct way is to seek evidence for life on another planet, such as Mars. If life originated from scratch on two planets in a single solar system, it would decisively confirm the hypothesis of biological determinism. Unfortunately, it may be a long time before missions to the Red Planet are sophisticated enough to hunt for Martian life-forms and, if they indeed exist, to study such extraterrestrial biota in detail.

My only point of disagreement with him here is his definition of “a long time”.

The remainder of his article reviews the possibilities of, using a term that he has borrowed from Carol Cleland and Shelley Cop­ley of the University of Colorado, shadow life. This concept, which I believe to be a strong possibility, is that either alien life forms are already here or alternatively are the result of a previous genesis. When we talk of “alien life forms” we aren’t referring to ET in the shape of a gray, but to microbial life, so exciting it isn’t. It is more than conceivable that such forms exist and that science is simply not aware of them yet. There could even be one sitting on your sleeve at this minute.

Likewise with a previous genesis. There may be paleontological evidence of an earlier “start up” but discovering it is another matter.

This article is an outstanding overview of the areas where alien life might exist on Earth and how it might thrive. You may reason that if all we’re talking about are effectively specks of dust, does any of it really matter? But the central issue of how life originated has, as yet, eluded us and any clue that can help us on our way to that answer has to be worth the effort.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

UFOs And The National Publicity State

The recent run of publicity relating to UFOs, a combination of events, has certainly been unusual and a real fillip to the moral. The Larry King Show and the respectful treatment the subject received (along with the drubbing of James McGaha), the National Press Club conference in Washington with what looks like a credible list of witnesses, the Dennis Kucinich incident and the debate that generated, and the publicity surrounding the impending release of Clinton correspondence with Laurence Rockefeller have all raised the profile. One man stands head and shoulders above the melee for carrying the responsibility for the bulk of this and that is film director James Fox. He has come over as an articulate and level headed individual who has brought his many talents to this subject and I for one am grateful.

One unfortunate side affect of all of this has been the resurgence of the original Disclosure Project, anxious to ride along and even to possibly hi-jack the success of the Washington news conference. On this occasion they are assisted by the Exopolitical movement in the shape of Alfred Webre. While I suppose inevitable, I feel it best if they could be ignored, for they will do nothing other than to detract from the credibility that has been painfully and gradually reinstated. While never being an Exopolitical fan, I was always tolerant and recognised that they had a place. Now I wish they would just shut up.

At the risk of being considered negative, I do not however feel that James Fox’s efforts will achieve anything other than a very welcome hike in public awareness. Firstly, I don’t actually think there are any UFO secrets to reveal, although it would always be interesting to hear current government/Pentagon opinion on the phenomena. But most importantly, UFOs have been a highly advantageous asset to the intelligence services over the years and it’s fairly obvious that they aren’t finished with them yet. To give this tool up by revealing The Truth i.e. “We haven’t got a clue”, and in so doing, demystify the subject, would not be in their best interests.

Which is a pity. I guess it’s conceivable that if public opinion was to move in a particular direction over the next couple of years and the “right” candidate wins the presidential race, there is an outside chance of something developing, but I wouldn’t hold your breadth.

On the other hand, high viz publicity tends to attract and while it may not attract the American government, it might draw in some institution or wealthy individual who wishes to investigate further. I can’t see anyone complaining about that.

For the moment though, I am enjoying the revival, as I hope you are. If it proves one thing, it is that UFOs just won’t go away.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Kucinich Afterthoughts – America Grows Up.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat after the “Kucinich Affair”, it is time to take stock. What, if anything can we conclude from the event?

Plenty. I think it has had a very positive effect for UFOlogy.

Sure it started out following a well worn path; public figure admits to seeing a UFO and he’s mocked, sniggered at, and doubts are cast about his mental state. What’s new? Kucinich wasn’t helped either by the fact that the original source of the story is the biggest flake in The Land of the Giddy.

But the fallout didn’t quite go with the plan. There were sounds of balance, of a refusal to condemn and “he’s not alone” from some quarters of the press. He was also helped by precedent. In the end, the ridicule came from the Republican right who ended up shooting themselves in the foot as their over the top responses failed to find an audience. Most folks just shrugged their shoulders and said, “So what?” Certainly, if he’d had any chance prior to the event of winning the nomination (which he didn’t), his chances subsequently wouldn’t appear to have been affected.

I don’t think its overstating something to say that Kucinich’s UFO sighting may have marked a turning point in public perception, understanding and maturity in relation to this matter. There might now even be some perceived value in other candidates stepping forward and admitting to ghostly encounters or NDEs or something similar. Times have changed. People have become inured to “wackiness” and are generally less judgemental, and making an announcement like this isn't seen as an impairment to a public career. Much of the reaction was more to do with relating Kucinich’s experience to ordinary people and there was definitely an empathic undercurrent at work. And that's where the votes come from.

Other than the fact that Kucinich is a left leaning, social welfare tax raising commie bastard, I say “Well done” and wish him well.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

We always were in the land of make believe with the Serpo story but after the latest Victor Martinez postings relating to the Reagan debrief, we’ve moved into the nether underworld of the fairies.

Has Rick Doty lost his touch or is debasing the premise of the story even further part of some dastardly complicated disinfo ploy, the motive for which defies even his perverse mind? Is he, at last, past it? Is he living in some time warp where he thinks the rest of us still have our minds in the 90s?

What has been revealing is that the Believers Paradise into which this was launched has reacted much the same way as I have. No one is having it and there doesn’t even seem to be a desire to want to anymore. And can Doty ever be forgiven for making Reagan seem like such an irritating twerp?

As his brief appears to be to determine the government’s ability to play with people’s minds and to see what does and doesn’t float, then this feeble attempt could well be part of that programme. How far can folk be pushed into believing the ridiculous? What is their limit? Never underestimate the stupidity of the general public says Scott Adams, and he might have a point. Prior to the NFL’s invasion of Wembley Stadium in London last week, a radio interview with some unnamed player broadcast in the UK prior to arrival revealed the guy didn’t know that in England we speak English.

There is no doubt that Doty carries an aura about him and even seasoned and knowledgeable UFOlogists appear to be aware they are in a presence when they meet him. I haven’t had that pleasure, yet, and find it difficult to weigh him up on occasions. I simply can’t decide if he’s brilliantly clever and we’re all very stupid or if he’s not very bright to start with but we’re even dumber still. How smart do you have to be to present yourself as a lightweight?

I’ve contradicted myself on this before but just at this moment in time, I am of the opinion that Rick Doty is not the cleverest man walking the face of this planet.

Perhaps he has been unlucky with his timing on this occasion as he has had to compete with other simultaneously published serious rubbish. Richard Hoagland hosted a news conference announcing that alien artefacts had been discovered on the moon, yet again.

And attention was further diverted by Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich stealing the national limelight as he was put through the wringer on national TV, having been stabbed in the back by his dear friend Shirley MacLaine who revealed in a book that Dennis had seen a UFO. This debate had the unfortunate consequence for Rick of raising the discussion on the subject of UFOs from Rick’s sub prime moron level to that of “a subject worthy of acceptable discourse”. As a consequence, Rick’s material has been left dragging itself along in the sewer, where it belongs.

We are all malleable, much as some of us might prefer to think otherwise and personally, I enjoy being taken for an idiot. But when it gets to the point that the perpetrator looks like he’s lost the plot, then the game becomes boring.

And Serpo and Doty and Reagan and his ET debriefing is very, very boring.