Browse By

NASA Scientists Claim To Know The Future

“It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when.”

That’s the kind of statement that was made by NASA scientists during a press conference yesterday at which technical advances in the search for life on other planets were summarized.

We’ll find life in the Solar System before we find it in the exoplanets, but we’ll find it there, too,” said one scientist. Another predicted, “Within our lifetime, we’re all going to understand that there is life on other bodies in the solar system. We’re going to understand the implications of that for life on Earth… That’s all going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years. How exciting is that?!?

bored at exobiology press conferenceThe mood was very eager among the NASA scientists, though many people in the audience seemed bored during the press conference, fighting off yawns or checking their smart phones rather than listening attentively to what was being said.

The eagerness of the scientists at times veered off into a kind of missionary zeal. The scientists advised children that they had all better learn science, math and engineering, because they will need those skills to study life on other planets. Such statements led me to wonder what kind of future vision the NASA scientists at the press conference had. It seemed that they were eagerly looking forward to an entire generation that would do nothing else but engaging in scientific study of exobiology. I wondered, do these scientists genuinely believe that we will not continue to need farmers and artists in the future? Will we be so consumed by the discovery of life on other planets that history and literature will become irrelevant?

Here at Irregular Times, we often make fun of hucksters like Jim Rickards, Thomas John, and David Wilkerson – people who seek to exploit other people for their own personal gain, making wild predictions to gain money and attention. Should we exempt scientists from the same scrutiny?

I don’t believe that the scientists at this week’s exobiology press conference are primarily motivated by personal self interest, but they did seem deeply concerned about gaining attention for their chosen profession, and in pursuit of that attention, they began to creep toward the kind of extravagant predictions made by professional hucksters.

It is possible that there is life in the universe beyond our planet. However, no convincing evidence of any such life has yet to be found, after decades of serious searching. It remains possible that there is no life anywhere in the universe but on our own planet.

The truth is that no human being knows that life on other planets is anything more than a science fiction fantasy. The responsible position of a scientist at NASA would be to acknowledge this, and say that nobody really knows if we will ever discover life anywhere beyond Earth. The responsible position is to admit that, even if extraterrestrial life is discovered, nobody knows when its going to happen.

In order to whip up enthusiasm about their work, and to gain attention for themselves as individuals, NASA scientists are becoming willing to make definite predictions about future scientific studies, claiming to know what will happen before it happens. Really, they were just guessing, but they cast their speculation as an informed prediction. When scientists engage in this kind of exaggerated claim to knowledge, they cast doubt on their credibility as individuals and as a collective.

If NASA scientists are worried that todays children aren’t as excited by the idea of space aliens as their parents were, they ought to remind themselves that the work of a scientist is to pursue knowledge through adherence to disciplined standards of evidence, not to pursue a modern mythology that makes the heart swell.

7 thoughts on “NASA Scientists Claim To Know The Future”

  1. Bill says:

    In my business career I have come to learn, from experience, that every time someone says “It’s a question of when, not if” then, in fact, it is very much a question of “if.” This is high on my list of signs that I’m dealing with someone whose judgement (or word) I shouldn’t trust.

    That said, I do get where this guy is coming from. We now know that there are bazillions of planets, gazillions of which are in what is widely thought to be the ‘sweet spot’ for the formation of life. Statistically speaking, it would be extraordinary if none of them had developed life. But he misses important points. Non-industrial life being pretty tiny (on the astronomical scale), we’ll probably need to send probes to other worlds to find life. And, the speed of light being what it is, we can send those probes only so far (and that’s not very far). And when our probes get there there’s an excellent chance that life either will not have developed yet, or will have developed and subsequently died off, perhaps leaving no trace (say, if it didn’t get past the single-celled stage before dying off, or if even an industrial society died off a couple of billion years prior to our arrival). This leaves myself and some others suspecting that while the universe may indeed be just seething with life, our chances of ever finding any of it are slim to none.

    1. ella says:

      “(say, if it didn’t get past the single-celled stage before dying off, or if even an industrial society died off a couple of billion years prior to our arrival).”

      Your own reply makes assumptions as well.Of course by the time a probe reached a planet populated with life as we know it, our own life forms may have died off. On the other hand, perhaps we survive, maybe biologically alter (or are altered by our brilliant scientists) naturally. We may move out to other planets in our solar system as planned by NASA and our government in the near future. (2024 I believe) Before we go there are many considerations, of course, but excitement is one of the biggest motivators of mankind. Excitement like hunger, greed and imagination. Humm, seems like those might have been industrial motivations as well. Not the same as business acumen,which tends to be sterile.

      1. Bill says:

        You’re right, ella. I made the mistake of assuming that Occam’s Razor makes a lot of sense. What was I thinking?

  2. Gary* says:

    J. Clifford. Well stated. I could not agree more.

  3. ella says:

    “Occam’s razor (also written as Ockham’s razor and in Latin lex parsimoniae, which means ‘law of parsimony’) is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian. The principle states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove to provide better predictions, but—in the absence of differences in predictive ability—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.” (Wikipedia definition in part.)

    Competing hypotheses = if/then. I agree, “Occam’s Razor makes a lot of sense.” In an absolute world it does not. There is little or no room for hypotheses. You wait for the theory to be developed and follow what is, not what may be, or what is possible in the future sense. That is the strategy of a good businessman. I guess you were thinking I didn’t know what I was saying, or that I was trying to be combative. I just wanted to illustrate another point of view. Life can be cut and dried or it can be dynamic with change and futuristic thinking. Is that how you see business? Maybe NASA is seeing a future they anticipate.

    1. Bill says:

      Keep yer day job, ella.

      1. ella says:

        I’m retired and bored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Psst... what kind of person doesn't support pacifism?

Fight the Republican beast!