They’re coming to get you, Chandra!

The crackpot wing of the astrobiology community (and I do know, there are rational and scientific members of that group!) has now flowered into full-blown paranoia. N. Chandra Wickramasinghe has published a remarkable paper on arXiv titled Extraterrestrial Life and Censorship, which isn’t as much a review of the evidence as a personal recounting of the global conspiracy to silence people who claim to have evidence of extraterrestrial life. It’s a bizarre piece of work that has the keywords “Dark
Astrobiology”, when it’s not really about any of those things; the keywords should have been “MenInBlack; They’reComingToTakeMeAway; Fools!I’llTeachThem”.

It’s strange to see Wickramasinghe constantly refer to his critics as “frightened” and characterize them as “scared out of their wits”. I have no idea what he thinks they are afraid of; he even begins the paper noting that there is nothing scary about astrobiology.

The ingress of alien microbial life onto our planet, whether dead or alive should not by any rational argument be perceived as a cause for concern. This is particularly so if, as appears likely, a similar process of microbial injection has continued throughout geological time. Unlike the prospect of discovering alien intelligence which might be justifiably viewed with apprehension, the humblest of microbial life-forms occurring extraterrestrially would not constitute a threat. Neither would the discovery of alien microbes impinge on any issues of national sovereignty or defence, nor challenge our cherished position as the dominant life- form in our corner of the Universe.

And then, with a complete lack of awareness of what he has just written, he goes on to assert that every one of his critics is terrified. Of what, I wonder? He almost gets the answer.

After 1982, when evidence for cosmic life and panspermia acquired a status close to irrefutable, publication avenues that were hitherto readily available became suddenly closed. With the unexpected discovery that comets had an organic composition, with comet dust possessing infrared spectra consistent with biomaterial attitudes hardened to a point that panspermia and related issues were decreed taboo by all respectable journals and institutions.

The peer review system that was operated served not only to exclude poor quality research but also to deliberately filter publication of any work that challenged the standard theory of life’s origins.

I’ve highlighted the important phrase there. One of the functions of peer review is to set certain standards and make a preliminary sorting of the wheat from the chaff. When you’ve got two explanations, one being that the work is excluded for its poor quality and the other being that there is active censorship of work the editors fear, and you’ve opened your paper by explaining that there is nothing to fear from astrobiology, doesn’t that imply that the first explanation is better?

As another indicator that Wickramasinghe is trying to publish garbage, I notice that throughout his paper he is remarkably incapable of noticing that “organic” and “biological” are two different words. Finding organic compounds is not evidence of biological activity.