Wishful thinking?

Extract from the recent letter from a group of Political activists – oops I meant scientists – to President Obama:

“One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change”

These people should be careful what they wish for. A similar suit aimed at some of them might be interesting, to say the least.


PC Aliens? Part 2

Should we try to tell extra-terrestrials about gender equality and cultural diversity of human life on Earth? We could try, but it would certainly confuse them, argues Sage Vals.

This piece was inspired following comments attributed to Dr Jill Stuart of the LSE, most notably in the Guardian.

In summary, she believes that in future messages, like the one that was attached to the Pioneer spacecraft, should be updated to reflect how human attitudes to race and gender have changed in the years since Pioneer was launched.

I wondered how on Earth (given that is where we are) we could design a message that reflected values such as sex equality and demonstrated cultural diversity and make that meaningful to any intelligent life forms that might find it.

Species, Race and Gender are for the Birds

Here are two pictures of swans:


Figure 1 Swan 1 source RSPB


Figure 2. Swan 2 source RSPB

Can you tell these swans apart? Perhaps one of the swans is male and the other is a female? Perhaps one is a variety (race) of the other? Perhaps they are separate species?

Maybe this is unfair. I’ll give you a clue. In nature, swan 1 is bigger than swan 2. Does that help? Unless you are a birdwatcher, or have gone to look it up, I’m guessing probably not. Unless you know about swans, you probably are stuck with the same questions: Perhaps one of the swans is male and the other is a female? Perhaps one is simply a pygmy version of the other? Perhaps they are separate species?

So, unless you have prior knowledge, or have looked it up, you can’t really tell them apart from these pictures. In other words, you are a little like a hypothetical alien. But only a little bit. Because you are living in a world where there are birds, and you have seen them, and at least know that the drawings are supposed to represent birds. What possible chance has an alien of even guessing these are, in fact, representations of a whooper swan (figure 1), and a Bewick’s swan (figure 2) and therefore they are different species.

What Does Colour Mean to an Alien?

Let’s have another example. I suspect that everyone who reads this (if they are from Eurasia or North Africa certainly) will know the answers to this one. But this time, please consider the viewpoint of a hypothetical alien.


Figure 3. Bird 1 source RSPB


Figure 4. Bird 2 source RSPB

This time the birds look different. At least in terms of colour. Again, how could you possibly tell if these pictures were either of different genders, different sub-species or even completely different species altogether? This is ignoring the possibility that one is a juvenile (it isn’t), or even possibly a very old bird. In this case, bird 1 is a female blackbird, and bird 2 is a male blackbird.

Hopefully, you are getting the idea now. It’s very difficult to put a meaningful message about diversity or gender into a picture or drawing unless you have sufficient knowledge to place it in some kind of context. Aliens, with nothing to go on but the message itself, can’t do that.

And of course, we must consider people, which is presumably what any message to outer space will be trying to get over.

Human, All Too Human

human 1   Figure 5. Human                                    human 2 Figure 6. Human

Of course, you know the answers. Figure 5 is a black male human and figure 6 is a white female human. You can tell with the people, who are genetically almost identical with you and you are programmed by your human nature and human upbringing, to know what the differences and similarities mean.

But you were not designed by nature or nurture to spot the differences between two swans of different species at all, nor spot that the colour difference between the birds was only that of gender.

Bear in mind that you share a very high proportion of your genes with the birds, and you evolved and were born and brought up on the same planet as they were. Yet still you struggled with understanding what the variations shown in the pictures of the birds – be they obvious or hardly discernible – meant.

Clueless Aliens

I would suggest that an alien probably couldn’t tell the difference between figure 5 and figure 6. They most certainly wouldn’t know what any differences meant[1], so they would ignore them. Alternatively, they might see difference all too clearly and conclude two different species altogether were pictured. Either way, try explaining ‘gender equality’, or noting that racial difference exists but means very little, using pictures. It is difficult enough for an alien to see and understand what is represented, still less derive any moral values from it.

Clueless Humans

Given the above, let’s consider briefly what Jill Stuart is quoted as saying about the Pioneer plaque. “The plaque shows a man raising his hand in a very manly fashion while a woman stands behind him, appearing all meek and submissive”[2]. Firstly, the raising of the hand was supposed to be a ‘friendly greeting’.to the hypothetical alien, but I can just see that it could be considered a ‘manly’ sort of wave. Whatever that means. It would mean nothing to our alien.


Figure 7. Detail from Pioneer plaque

The second point is that the woman actually is not standing behind the man. It’s not terribly clear, but if you look at the position of the feet, they are both standing more or less in the same position. The woman is shown as being slightly smaller than the man, intended to reflect the fact that sexual dimorphism in humans involves women being, on average, shorter than men[3].

To see this picture as ‘sexist’ is perfectly possible, of course, but I suggest that to do so is easier if you are bringing your own preconceptions to it, which is what Dr Stuart has done. If you bring in a different set of preconceptions, like me, you don’t.

If Dr Stuart and I read this picture differently, can we expect an alien to read either of these views into it? Or anything at all?

Representing Diversity

I agree with Dr Stuart that the people in the drawing are obviously western European white people. One or both could easily have been drawn with facial features that we, as humans would associate with a different race, and that would have been preferable. It should be born in mind though that giving one or both a different skin tone on an engraving would have made the picture harder to read, especially after aeons floating through space. And the aliens may not be looking at it in the same way we do. They may easily ‘view’ such things by touch. Shading could confuse the image somewhat. But mostly, they just wouldn’t understand it.

In Summary

The earlier part of this essay shows that I am far from convinced that sending pictures of people to aliens would be convey much at all. While I am not saying that such pictures shouldn’t be sent, I am saying that they are not likely to convey as much information as we might like to think. So I am not here meaning to argue in support of the Pioneer plaque. I am trying to say that Dr Stuart’s criticisms are irrelevant in terms of providing information to an alien who might read it.

I could perhaps be accused of dumbing down the aliens. It is an assumption of SETI that any alien society receiving a message is going to be at least as scientifically advanced as we are. They may well be able therefore to look at the pictures we send and imaginatively construct our society from them. However, it is much harder, as I hope I have demonstrated, to do this at all, still less to get it right, than to know about universal physical laws such as those of chemistry.

So Is There Any Point?

Dr Stuart, this time quoted by BT.Com, says, “Part of the exercise is looking at our collective humanity and deciding what’s important to us”.

Well, space is huge. “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space”[4]. You could easily conclude that there is such a fadingly slight chance that anyone will pick up any message cast out into deep space on the back of a bit of junk that there’s no point in writing one. That the only reason for doing it is actually for ourselves.

I think that Jill Stuart is actually saying this: We should write a letter to ourselves, trying to show what’s best of humanity, and use it as a blueprint for how we make our culture and our world. Very worthy, no doubt. It might even work, politically, and move the agenda on. But if that is to be the aim let us be honest about it, and admit it is nothing to do with actually contacting any extra-terrestrials.

[1] Perhaps because of the biology of life on their planet, they may have no concept of gender at all, all members of the same species being hermaphrodite, for instance. So, if they did happen to suspect there were two genders represented it would probably be the last thing they thought of, not the first.

[2] Guardian website http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/10/aliens-modern-messages-earths-equality-diversity-seti-yuri-milner

[3] This might actually be cultural. It’s possible that women have been sexually selected for smallness, or that women get less nutrition when growing up, and as these things change the sexes will become more nearly equal in height over coming generations. I think there’s at least anecdotal evidence of this, but I will leave this aside for now.

[4] Douglas Adams, ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe’, but you knew that didn’t you.

PC Aliens? Part 1

The Guardian attempts to make science more interesting to its core readers by making the search for extra-terrestrial life just a bit more Guardian-ish. Sage looks at their misreporting.

Is this another attempt to climb Peak Guardian? “Messages sent into space to tell extraterrestrials about the nature of humankind should be updated to reflect gender equality and the diversity of life on Earth, scientists say.” Note the words “scientists say”.

What do Scientists Say?

The Guardian is reporting on a conference of the UK Seti Research Network (UKSRN) in Leeds this week, where a debate was held on the wisdom of broadcasting messages into space. While the Guardian does mention that debate in the article, it leads on a quite different issue, claiming that “The UK entrants to a Breakthrough Initiative competition agree on one thing: any missive to extraterrestrials must be an up-to-date portrayal of humankind”.

It is true that someone did raise the issues of diversity and sexism. This is reported elsewhere too, but no other news source led with that. Why did the Guardian? And why did they represent the meeting as they did?

What Scientists say it?

The only person cited by the Guardian is Jill Stuart. Who is she? Well, according to her CV, she is a visiting fellow in the Department of Government at the LSE. She “specialises in the law, politics, and theory of outer space politics” and is knowledgeable in “gender and international relations”, amongst other things of a similar nature.

Now some may mock at this. I don’t actually. I can see the fun and interest in some of it, and there is a lot of politics both in space (the International Space Station) and about space (use of military satellites).

What are Dr Stuart’s qualifications? Well her BS is in Political Science, her MSc is in International Relations, and her PhD? It’s in “International Relations, ‘Exploring the Relationship Between Outer Space and World Politics: Regime Theory and English School Perspectives’”. Now, I don’t know what that means in terms of research as I haven’t read it. But I do know is that it means that she’s not a scientist!

Well, OK, she is a social scientist, but not a white-coated, safety glasses and Bunsen burner, big telescope, scanning electron microscope, test tube and retort stand physical scientist. And this is what nearly everybody thinks of when they read “scientist”.

How many scientists say it?

It seems that only one scientist wants a message ‘that reflects gender equality and diversity’ if you count Dr Stuart as a ‘scientist’. None if you don’t, at least insofar as we can tell from the Guardian piece.

So the Guardian Article is Crap?

It appears that he Guardian is either being disingenuous or is incompetent. Or both. Quelle surprise!

Let’s try it again, shall we? What the Guardian should have written is: “Messages sent into space to tell extraterrestrials about the nature of humankind should be updated to reflect gender equality and the diversity of life on Earth, Dr Jill Stuart, a social scientist said.” This makes clear it is the view of one person, and that person being a social, not a physical, scientist.

But that doesn’t sound so impressive does it? I suspect that the Guardian reporter, or sub-editor, knew that it doesn’t. So they chose to be economical with the truth instead.

PS There’s more to come

Now that I’ve put the Guardian in its place, I want to be very clear that here I’m not knocking what Dr Stuart is quoted as saying. She has every right to state and argue for her opinions on the content of any future message sent out into space.

Personally, I think she’s wrong, but that will be for my next blog: PC Aliens? Part 2. Coming soon!

Post post Script

It gets worse. According to the BBC, Dr Stuart is not even a member of the UKSRN. So presumably she was not even at their meeting! If so, the scientists who were there absolutely, definitely, did not say that our messages needed to be updated.