Guess It Depends on Your Peers

Guess It Depends on Your Peers

For years now, in nearly every discussion of global warming climate change climate disruption, I've encountered condescending references to the "settled science" in "peer-reviewed journals." I couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that peer review isn't what it used to be, now that people can get doctorates in "Studies" Studies.

There's no further room for doubt. I refer you to a sublimely content-free article published in Acta Astronautica, Volume 68, Issues 11-12, June-July 2011, pages 2114-2129, entitled "Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis," written by two Penn State professors (one of geography, the other of meteorology) and a member of NASA's Planetary Science Division. Acta Astronautica purports to be a peer-reviewed journal sponsored by the International Academy of Astronautics, a somewhat fluffy organization that nevertheless is not entirely inhabited by tin-foil-hatted wannabes, to judge from the number of space agency heads, world leaders, and academicians the IAA claims (with photographic evidence) to have lured to its 50th anniversary gala in Washington, D.C., almost a year ago.

But if this truly is a peer-reviewed publication, it's a profoundly embarrassing example. What self-respecting editor would swallow this abstract with a straight face:

While humanity has not yet observed any extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), contact with ETI remains possible. Contact could occur through a broad range of scenarios that have varying consequences for humanity. However, many discussions of this question assume that contact will follow a particular scenario that derives from the hopes and fears of the author. In this paper, we analyze a broad range of contact scenarios in terms of whether contact with ETI would benefit or harm humanity. This type of broad analysis can help us prepare for actual contact with ETI even if the details of contact do not fully resemble any specific scenario.
The authors warn that our greenhouse gases may attract unfriendly notice from distant observers; just another reason to rein them in before it's too late. Alternatively, aliens "might invite humanity to join the 'Galactic Club' only for the entry requirements to be too bureaucratic and tedious for humans to bother with." So that could be a problem.

No chanting of words like "scenario" and "analysis" can hide the vapidity of this undisciplined speculation on a subject that is 100% free of data. In its breaktaking freedom from factual fetters, it reaches nearly the level of most climate-whatever modeling. All we're missing is a computer-modeled prediction of when the aliens will land, and what shade of green they will be, which can be updated every year that contact fails to materialize.

It's one thing when a conservative presidential candidate delivers offhand remarks about evolution and creationism that you somewhat wistfully wish he'd kept to himself. At least Rick Perry doesn't claim to be a scientist -- or even a professor of geography. I am mortified that NASA employs a man who would publish the kind of pseudo-technical drivel that should have been laughed out of a sci-fi fanzine. And frankly I thought better of Penn State as well.

Per HotAir, NASA is nonplussed enough about this publicity this article is getting to announce that it was in no way an official agency study, despite the NASA affiliation of one of the authors. Well, that's something.

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