Public Relations for Astrobiologists

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 5th UK Astrobiology Society of Britain Conference in the lovely city of Edinburgh. It was a very enjoyable and well organised few days of interdisciplinary science and good whisky, friendly folk and an obligatory bagpipe recital. However, upon reflection sometime in-between the well-lubricated poster session and the céilidh — replete with some fine displays of motility I should add — it seemed to me that astrobiology in the UK has a potentially serious image problem.

Views are shifting, but at present the public perception is that astrobiology is the study of little green men from Mars. However, the reality is very different, as anyone working in the field will tell you. I’ve always seen it as an organic extension and interdisciplinary marriage of the natural sciences, with solid scientific foundations firmly laid by the likes of Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis. Astrobiology carries significant intellectual clout and I am convinced that contributions made by those working in the field will likely produce some of, if not the most, fantastic discoveries of this century.

This is why outspoken minority opinions that come to dominate discussion can be detrimental to both the public perception of the field, and also the direction and coherence of the discipline itself. When the press is seeking an ‘astrobiologist’ to comment on the latest Curiosity announcement or claim of life from outer space, there is a chance that they will go to the person who shouts loudest, regardless of whether that person represents the broad consensus of others in the field.

Don’t get me wrong, every discipline tends to attract their fair share of eccentrics and contrarians, but if that field is relatively young and already struggling to find a foothold amongst mainstream science in the UK, this can prove a bit of problem. To make matters worse, this field, unlike others, lies on the rational border of the fertile pseudoscientific pastures of aliens and UFOs and associated guff.

So, what to do?

Exclude the relevant parties from the forum and proceed as normal? This strategy risks alienation (ahem), and could end up backfiring as the troublemakers shout from the rooftops about systematic silencing by the ‘academy’ and the existence of an overarching conspiracy to keep their fantastical research from the public, thereby further accentuating the stereotype of the paranoid alien hunter to the public and other academics,and providing them with the attention they originally sought from their peers.

I think the answer is more integration, not less. Yes, these individuals may have made fundamental flaws at nearly every stage of their research, which itself was based on significant misapplication of the scientific method, but that is all the more reason to give them access to the ears and opinions of members in the field. This way, their methods can be improved and some of the more unscientific claims can be weeded out prior to steering any potential publication towards a peer-reviewed journal where its merits can objectively assessed by the wider community.

The organisers of the conference had a difficult decision to make, and made the right one I think by including the research in the schedule. It was then up to the attendees to highlight major errors, foster discussion and debate and attempt to reduce the isolation of this group from the community and the higher standards required to publish good work in this field.

It would have been easy to do this in Edinburgh. Firstly, when given the opportunity, challenge their claims! This could be done after their talk, during a poster session, or in the literature. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit reluctant to do this. It might be that I’m an early career scientist, or because of my inherently British fear of confrontation and misguided diplomatic aspirations toward a plurality of opinions, but there should be a limit. When a claim impinges on that limit the immediate repercussions should take the form of an erudite and impassioned, yet polite, rebuttal. Insist on hard evidence, critically scrutinise methodologies and deconstruct their results – this is science in action and it’s how progress is made.

This is where the attendees of ASB5 may have faltered. We all had multiple opportunities to address the relevant parties and their claims, but instead hid behind a passive-aggressive tut and endured comment after comment of rambling through gritted teeth. I understand that any learned society cannot make assertions and give direct answers to difficult questions, but they can take stewardship of the conversation and advance the discussion in a democratic forum, the rest is up to the audience. We owe it to the hard work conducted by researchers in astrobiology to ensure that we adhere to only the highest standards of scientific investigation and scrutiny as a community because the future of this discipline as a viable and respected avenue for research and funding is at stake.

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3 comments on “Public Relations for Astrobiologists

  1. Pingback: Recent Posts | the II-I- blog

  2. I can’t agree. I think the history of US creationism shows that it doesn’t work to give crackpots a floor. Psychological research says people only remember the raised points, not the answers, meaning both the crackpots and the general public construes this as sanctioning the ideas.

    Today biologists have started to ignore the creationists, which has taken the edge of the US ID movement. I doubt there is a good statistics on this, but it appears there is a lot less room for their anti-science in the US media. (Meaning the ID movement is now forced to work solely by convincing local politicians that religion in the science classroom is legal.)

    • Thank you for the comment Torbjörn, you make a very good point.

      I guess I left an important assumption out of my write-up: the willingness of the estranged party to ‘integrate’ into the community. It’s a two-way street; if we provide a platform for their conversation, it has to be just that, a conversation between two parties with take home points and compromises on both sides. If it improves the quality of their work along with the views of other researchers towards them, then all the better.

      I can imagine that the creationist and ID movement are not really into conversing as such, but more into foisting their views on the audience regardless of the feedback.

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