The Cassandra Articles

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Inhabitable Planets and Scientific Dogma

Inhabitable Planets


I was reading This Article about a new telescope they are building in Chile when I ran across this line:

"... and thanks to its enormous size it could also contribute to finding extraterrestrial life by detecting whether exoplanets have oxygen in their atmospheres."
This seems to imply that extraterrestrial life is only possible in the presence of oxygen. Why do they make such a statement when there are already known anaerobic organisms that do not require oxygen? Maybe they are just implying that oxygen is required for advanced life forms?

I see statements like this fairly often about how scientists look for a certain set of conditions that are required to support life. Here's one from another article:

"So Mars does seem to have the two key ingredients needed to sustain life."
I really disklike these sorts of statements because it implies that scientists actually know what is required, which they most certainly do not.

When they are really trying to hedge their bets they add qualifiers like "life as we know it", which is really the equivalent of saying "we have no idea what is required". But my favorite scientific hedge on this topic is in the form shown in this Wikipedia Article:

"An absolute requirement for life is an energy source, ..."
Einstein has told us that mass can be converted to energy, so this is like saying:
"An absolute requirement for life is for there to be something there."
Brilliant. I am glad we've narrowed that down.

Marketing or Dogma?

Alien Marketing

I cannot help but think this connection of oxygen (or other conditions) and extraterrestrial life serves as nothing more than a scientific marketing campaign. If they find oxygen, that is not going to be nearly as sexy a headline as mixing in the bit about extraterrestrial life. They really have no evidence that one is a prerequisite for the other, yet they make these wholly unscientific deductions.

Or are there scientists that really believe they know what is required to sustain advanced life? This would be a dogmatic view, but one that often surfaces, where scientific knowledge is presented as having all the answers. It was scientists that told Marconi he could not send a radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean. It was scientists that had to backtrack when Marconi succeed. It was scientists that said that life at the bottom of the deepest oceans was not possible. It was scientists that had to bend their theories over backwards when organisms were found thriving in that environment.

The great thing about the field of science is it has has altered its theories when contrary evidence presents itself. I cannot say that religions have a good track record when faced with similar changes in knowledge. The bad thing about science is that its practitioners often lacks the proper level of humility given their past failures.

No Dogma Please

Scientific Dogma

There are some scientists that seem to have an attitude of superiority when they compare their theories to those of their religious counterparts. My favorite example is This Guy who, at times, seems to forget the broad range of unproven theories that much of science is based upon. Scientists have more experimental evidence for their theories than religious leaders do, but that's really about all that differentiates these two areas of philosophy.

It is fine to choose a believe system, believe it is the right one and debate about its merits compared to others. However, it is wrong for any philosophy to dogmatically declare the superiority of their viewpoints over another and not respect that they may be wrong and others may eventually be proven right.

And it is also intellectually dishonest to use non-scientific deductions to promote scientific endeavors.