In Space No-One Can Hear You Scream
August 16, 2022
“Decolonizing” the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) could boost its chances of success, says science historian Rebecca Charbonneau.
From Scientific American, obviously.
Increasingly, SETI scientists are grappling with the disquieting notion that, much like their intellectual forebears, their search may somehow be undermined by biases they only dimly perceive—biases that could, for instance, be related to the misunderstanding and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups…
But of course. Some editorial trajectories are, I guess, inevitable. As one might imagine, the author of the article, Camilo Garzón, is keen to signal his own modish sensitivities, and so the interview with Ms Charbonneau begins as it means to go on:
“Decolonisation” seems to be a problematic term,
This prompts much rhetorical nodding, along with the news that space exploration is “a stand-in for encounters with Indigenous peoples.” Sadly, before this claim can be explored or tested in any way, we shift sideways in search of a point. Says Ms Charbonneau:
Space exploration is also an extension of our imperial and colonial histories. We know that space infrastructure, including SETI infrastructure, exists in remote locations, with places that often have colonial histories or vulnerable populations, particularly Indigenous peoples.
Yes, telescopes tend to be built in locations optimal for the purposes of astronomy, which are often remote, away from city lights and electronic interference. Apparently, this too is problematic.
SETI in particular carries a lot of intellectual, colonial baggage as well, especially in its use of abstract concepts like “civilisation” and “intelligence,”
Inevitably, these things - “concepts like ‘civilisation’ and ‘intelligence’” - are also deemed frown-inducing, and causes of “real, physical harm,” unlike their opposites, presumably. Though I’m not sure they’re entirely abstract. I mean, without the realities to which they refer, one tends not to arrive at things like telescopes, maps of the early universe, or probes on other planets. And one might, for instance, contrast the insights of aboriginal astronomy, a wildly inflated term, with those of – dare I say it - more civilised cultures at the same points in history.
Despite the list of problematic things and much furrowing of brows, it remains unclear what the “decolonisation” of SETI, and of astronomy in general, might realistically entail. “Listening to marginalised and historically excluded perspectives” is mentioned as imperative, though the specific benefits of doing so, and any consequent enhancements of twenty-first century science, are left mysterious and intriguing. Whether those “Indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups” – these keepers of hidden knowledge beyond the ken of white devils - might have “biases” of their own, or any shortcomings at all, is not explored.
After some pre-emptive disapproval of the “colonial” violation of hypothetical microbes, whose autonomy and wellbeing would apparently be desecrated by human curiosity, we’re told that “making SETI more diverse” – i.e., giving influence and authority, and a salary, to people with no relevant skills – is a matter of great importance. “There’s really no downside,” says Ms Charbonneau. The upside, however – i.e., the premise of the whole 2,300-word article – is, to say the least, a tad vague. Apparently, hiring Iroquois or Pawnee people, or Australian Aboriginals, or whoever is deemed sufficiently brown and therefore magical, would result in “the expansion of our pool of what civilisations might look like.” “It just makes sense,” says she.
Readers unschooled in intersectional woo may be puzzled as to why those chosen as suitably indigenous and put-upon would have much to add to the doing of modern astronomy and space exploration. A pivotal role in any success seems unlikely. Readers may also wonder why those who can construct orbital telescopes and land robots on distant planets should defer in matters of science to those who can’t. And in terms of any discovery of beings elsewhere, I suspect that a century or so of science fiction would be a more expansive resource for anticipating how things might turn out and what not to do. Scenarios of that kind are, after all, a staple of the genre.
We are, however, told that we must begin “prioritising the sovereignty of Indigenous cultures and respecting their wishes regarding settled scientific infrastructure.” Which I assume means dismantling the aforementioned telescopes and moving them to less problematic locations, where they will be less effective. Thereby advancing our knowledge in leaps and bounds.
And this is a theme throughout. We get the usual, wearying references to “racism, genocide and imperialism,” albeit with little obvious relevance, and lots of tutting about notions of civilisation and intelligence – the latter deployed in scare quotes and denounced as “dangerous.” Likewise, we’re told, emphatically, that “including Indigenous voices is so critical,” but the supposedly enormous practical advantages for space exploration – those boosted chances of success - remain shrouded in mystery. “It’s… important to think very critically,” says our fretful academic, while offering a near-total lack of substance, just endless rhetorical faffing.
Indeed, what might be gained, scientifically or otherwise, from a deference to Ms Charbonneau’s rather narrow and monomaniacal worldview is hard to fathom. Beyond, that is, a salary for Ms Charbonneau and those similarly determined to find things problematic.
A button, you say? I wonder what it does.