Origins2011: Challenge to Astrobiology as Science

Who dares question astrobiology as science?

The challenge to Astrobiology as science in Poster P9-6 appears misconceived.  First, it  is not an “emerging science” but an assemblage of scientific  disciplines covering emergence and evolution of life in the universe (cf. Poster P1-16) so the philosophers’  “theory appraisal” does not apply.

An appropriate question might be – is panspermia a “good” scientific theory?  We need to address this in view of common disregard of panspermia by scientists and science commentators outside astrobiology.  In comparison, let’s consider the status they accord to “string theory”.

String “theory” is a collection of concepts, with no empirical basis­.  It assumes space (or space-time) has many dimensions, the extra dimensions crling up but also ‘leaking’ to the ordinary space dimensions.  Surely this is questionable and is characterisable as pseudoscience, practised by an in-group of believers.

In contrast, panspermia over many decades has made predictions and stimulated experimental checks, evolving from a hypothesis into a coherent theory.  It’s pretty secure in terms of transfer of life between solar system bodies, though not (yet) for interstellar transfer.

Time for philosophers of science to say why panspermia has low status within the wider science establishment – called ‘controversial’ even by bioastronomer Caleb Sharf – while eg. string ‘theory’ is taken seriously.

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2 Responses to Origins2011: Challenge to Astrobiology as Science

  1. crisisinphysics says:

    from Prasanta Bandyopadhyay, Trevor Beard, Sara Wallaer:
    We work in the intersection of astrobiology and philosophy of science. We enjoy very much discussing issues concerning astrobiology. So, we appreciate your comments on our poster. However, we are puzzled by your comments because we are unsure about exactly the main point of your argument. The following is an attempt to see what you might be saying.

    You wrote “First, it is not an “emerging science” but an assemblage of scientific disciplines covering emergence and evolution of life in the universe (cf. Poster P1-16) so the philosophers’ “theory appraisal” does not apply.

    OUR RESPONSE: You would like to call astro-biology science proper. However, then most standard criteria of theory choice should apply there, but they don’t. Should we then call it non-science? Perhaps, neither you nor we would like to brand it as “pseudo-science.” You wrote that it is “an assemblage of many disciples”? What does this expression really mean? The justification of your claim that astro-biology is an assemblage of many disciples (and not a science proper) draws its strength from your claim that it is a collection of several disciples; hence, the criteria of theory of appraisal should not apply. Think of cases like bio-chemistry or geo-physics where each of them is a combination of at least two disciples. Should they be called just an “assemblage of two disciples” and not “science”? You might reply “no.” Why should then bio-chemistry be science while astro-biology be JUST an assemblage of many disciples? So it seems that either your characterization of an “assemblage of many disciplines” is arbitrary or you just mean astro-biology is a science, but none of the standard features of good theory fits it, which is really odd. In either case, we are unsure about the content of your objection that our characterization of astrobiology as an emerging science is misconceived.

  2. crisisinphysics says:

    SECOND COMMENT from Prasanta Bandyopadhyay, Trevor Beard and Sara Wallaer
    You wrote, “An appropriate question might be – is panspermia a “good” scientific theory? We need to address this in view of common disregard of panspermia by scientists and science commentators outside astrobiology. In comparison, let’s consider the status they accord to “string theory”……………….. Time for philosophers of science to say why panspermia has low status within the wider science establishment – called ‘controversial’ even by bioastronomer Caleb Sharf – while eg. string ‘theory’ is taken seriously.

    OUR RESPONSE: We are not going to contend, “is pansmermia a good scientific theory?” is an inappropriate question. But, we are not interested in that question, although we do think that it is a good question. We don’t fully understand why our question does not deserve the same importance as yours. Perhaps your point is different. Since you mention “string theory” and would like to compare its status with theories of astro-biology then you won’t mind extending your comparison to theories of the origin of life. We think that it is a bad analogy to compare the status of string theory with that of theories of the origin of life. We have argued that none of the features of a good scientific theory fits astrobiology.
    Compare those features with string theory. The latter has made several predictions, (i) every particle has a virtual particle, (ii) space has extra –dimensions along with its ability to unify general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. We concede that none of its stunning predictions is yet being tested. However the objection that it is poetry or metaphysics since it is not testable is misconceived because the energy we require to test the theory is yet to be achieved in the present super colliders. This should not brand string theory to be a non-testable theory. For many decades general theory of relativity did not have any testable consequence except misinformation about it being tested by Eddington before 1920’s. During this period, the theory was considered a beauty, and not non-scientific because it did not have testable consequences. Later on, the theory has garnered huge amounts of evidence in its favor.
    Our point is that two theories of origin of life, the Metabolism First theory and the RNA World theory have serious defects known as the inefficiency objection. None of them is able to unify any major themes in its domain because we don’t know what to unify in each of its domain. None of them is testable.
    So, string theory and the origin of life theories in question are not on same the par, and the former should not be compared with the former.
    Folks at Montana State University at the interface between Astrobiology & Philosophy.

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