help, help! alien hunters are being oppressed!

April 13, 2011

Scientific papers and their preprints are used for many different purposes. They can be used to entertain new and strange ideas, generate feedback on a concept before the paper is ready for publication, encourage like- minded collaborators to contact you, and generally, just get your work out into the world. But one use for which they’re definitely not intended, is to serve as soapboxes for one’s whining and conspiracy theories. Chandra Wickramasinghe, who recently gained some notoriety on science blogs for his involvement with an eccentric, publicity-hungry journal which served as one man’s crusade to convince the world that we found alien life, should probably know that. Regardless, he decided to publish a recitation his woes, sprinkled liberally with several conspiracy theories in which astrobiologists are being systematically silenced, on arXiv. If you expect roughly sixteen pages of paranoia and allusions to a sinister scientific cabal censoring research that doesn’t meet some silent consensus the author fervently opposes, you’re not going to be disappointed by his essay, which also tries to to present a few vague findings as irrefutable proof for panspermia events along the way.

Over the decades, there have been a few projects trying to figure out whether life did come from space and it actually is considered to be a viable hypothesis by numerous scientists interested in its many variations. Did life form completely on Earth? Was there some interference with alien bacteria? Could alien bacteria make a trip between the stars and seed our planet? Or did we just get seeded with organic compounds during the solar system’s formation and had the elements to from into RNA and then DNA, kick-starting life? We really don’t know and in the past, the evidence for life coming from space was rather inconclusive and experiments which tried to get some answers but failed to really wow space agencies and universities were shut down so their limited funds could be used to peruse more promising lines of research. But in Wickramasinghe’s mind that’s not at all what happened. Apparently, as he and Sir Fred Hoyle, as well as some other researchers had a few fun ideas at the time, the Sinister Scientific Cabal went to work, covering up the growing proof for aliens seeding our world and rejecting papers with concrete proof that this is exactly what happened. Somehow, he must have missed the last decade of research into whether bacteria can survive atmospheric entry and if tiny organisms known as tardigrades could weather the rigors of space, as well as the search for life on Mars, life that Wickramasinghe insists is being covered up by the agency for reasons that apparently make sense only in his warped, self-focused psyche. To him, astrobiologists are a persecuted minority.

Of course this must be the case because his own astrobiology office was shut down following the disaster that was his work with Schild’s Journal of Cosmology and his publication of awful papers in which the laws of physics and basic logic were turned on their heads to make his hypothesis work. It’s not that he worked with a crank perusing woefully outdated ideas and is decades behind the field, publishing utter nonsense in eccentric vanity journals. No, it must be the machinations of the aforementioned SSC suppressing evidence for extraterrestrial microbacteria, alien viruses, and fossilized remains of creatures from other worlds found in meteorites held by NASA. Keep in mind that this is the same cabal which allowed NASA scientists to publish a highly inconclusive paper arguing for the possibility of arsenic-based life, and let researchers note that a rock impregnated with bacteria and carried by Columbia survived reentry and the craft’s disintegration, which they took as evidence for the notion of microbes arriving on other worlds intact. It’s almost as if the only kind of research that the Cabal  is censoring is Wickramasinghe’s ramblings and his pet projects, which either rush to conclusions based on lackluster evidence, or make grandiose and ridiculous claims based solely on other grandiose and ridiculous claims. Now if he were a scientist, he might start wondering if his work is lacking a little rigor and if he were to try something different, he might have a paper worth publishing in a journal which doesn’t outsource its site design to someone who’s never seen the web past the late 1990s.

Unfortunately, Wickramasinghe has turned into a crackpot, and his reaction is to cry persecution and proceed to very loudly defend himself from his perceived enemies, who are apparently just plotting to take him and his work down from the shadows, as per the textbook behavior of a crank in the final stage of his affliction. It’s ridiculous to argue that today, the topics of panspermia and alien life are somehow taboo because NASA has a whole lot invested in hunting for aliens and looking for habitable worlds. In fact, the vast majority of its space exploration budget is used for some form of alien hunting, and that’s not to mention that SETI is regarded not as a collection of random kooks who think they’re going to talk to aliens, but a perfectly respectable scientific organization which is pursuing a very difficult but scientifically justifiable goal. Just because you don’t get your day in the sun for recycling ideas you concocted with a man who had a track record of being spectacularly and demonstrably wrong about almost everything outside of astronomy to such a degree that a fallacy often cited by creationists bears his name, doesn’t mean that you’re a victim of a conspiracy. It just means that you’re an old geezer who hasn’t had an original idea since the 1980s, and you’re furious that scientists have moved on and won’t let you ride on Hoyle’s coattails anymore, much less coast on your own recycled half-guesses.

[ illustration by Aaron Sims ]

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