Thursday, 28 July 2011
Astrobiology = mainstream science, not protoscience
Rejection of the Montana group argument against astrobiology being established science:
[first published in Crisisinphysics, 15 July 2011]
Astrobiology is mainstream science - in comparison 'String theory' is emergent ‘Protoscience’
Prasanta Bandyopadhyay and colleagues at the interface between Astrobiology & Philosophy - based at Montana State University - did respond to the first criticism of their Origins 2011 Poster (presented at the ISSOL/Bioastronomy conference, July 2011).
We develop the thesis that astrobiology is to be seen as a complex of studies using scientific methods, taking from and contributing to the body of knowledge from several scientific disciplines, including meteoritics, extremeophiles, planetary (and exo-planetary) environments, space biology, hypervelocity impact…. If not before, it certainly came of age in 1996 on NASA’s announcement of evidence for life in a martian meteorite.
Origin-of-life studies are largely a separate scientific field; what Bandyopadhyay et al. call Metabolism First and RNA World theories may have “serious defects” [limitations], but this does not characterise astrobiology as a whole.
Panspermia is an important part of astrobiology science, starting as a fruitful hypothesis that developed into a ‘good’ coherent theory – over many decades it has made predictions and stimulated experimental checks. It unifies themes, eg. apparent biomorphs in meteorites, space hardiness of microorganisms. It’s pretty secure in terms of transfer of life between solar system bodies, though not (yet) for interstellar transfer.
Philosophers of science need to recognise the criticisms of physicists that string theory is more a hunch than a ‘theory‘ (‘t Hooft) with its fundamental principles unknown, as is the mathematical language for framing it (Smolin). It’s a research programme that could be fundamentally flawed (Woit). Insofar as science is what scientists do, string theory is protoscience, an area of scientific endeavor that’s largely conjecture. It’s not a ‘theory’ and suffers from some features of pseudo-science.
A final point is not to confuse string theory with Einstein’s General Relativity, developed into gravitational field theory, which indeed has “garnered huge amounts of evidence in its favor”.
We need philosophers of science to explore why astrobiology and panspermia have low status within the wider science establishment – the latter being being sidelined even by such as bioastronomer Caleb Sharf – while protoscience as in the misnamed string ‘theory’ is revered.