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.


2 thoughts on “PC Aliens? Part 1

  1. Hi there,

    Thank you for writing one of the best responses out there to the hysteria that followed the Guardian quoting me on gender and ETI. I stopped reading all of the nonsense for a while (including the seriously creepy, rapey, death-threaty physical and online hate mail that I received), so only just came across your piece.

    You’re absolutely right on several things: that it was taken out of context; it was one small part of a much larger discussion; that I am a political philosopher and not a hard scientist (I never said I was- I was at the press meeting as I was the 2015 Margaret Mead Award Lecture recipient from the BSA- the social science Award); that my point was that message composition forces us to reflect back on ourselves and not so much what aliens might interpret (I don’t believe they’ll recognise our language or imagery even if we did manage to reach them- we search the universe to find ourselves); that I’m not a member of the U.K. SETI network (though I am a Trustee of an organisation called METI International).

    I admire your research and acuity on all of these points. Thank you.

    And I respect your right to disagree with me as you say, but also truly appreciate your weighing things up first.

    The only small thing I would correct is when you say other scientists haven’t discussed this. It’s not been a major topic of discussion but it has been raised, including by Carl Sagan himself when he designed the plaques. He put thought into both gender and race. It has also been raised by Dr Doug Vakoch (though he too is a political philosopher), and others (notably, mostly men too- I can’t help but wonder whether the vitriol I received would have been the same if the articles hadn’t noted my own gender? Irony!).

    Anyway, thanks for writing this up, and if I ever have the stomach to re-open this can of worms by writing further on the topic, I’ll be sure to link to you.

    Warm Regards,
    Dr Jill Stuart

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