Tag Archives: ethics

should we intentionally seed life on other planets?

Some bacteria have been found surviving on the outside of the International Space Station. Tardigrades are an even hardier form of microbe that can supposedly survive even close to absolute zero. They can essentially go dormant in a state very, very near death, then bounce back if and when they find themselves in suitable conditions later on. There is even speculation that life on Earth could have arrived from space in a form like this, and/or life forms originating on Earth could be living on other planets right now.

Space dust collisions as a planetary escape mechanism (In press Astrobiology, 2017)

Hypervelocity space dust is a unique entity in planetary systems like our Solar System, which is able to go past and enter the atmosphere of planets, collect samples of those planets and deposit samples of other planets. The entire system of fast space dust in a planetary system thus contains the atoms, molecules and possibly even microbial life, from all the planets and provides a means to mix them up amongst the different planets. For collecting atoms and molecules that form atmospheres, the mechanism proposed in this paper is fairly straightforward. For collecting life and life related molecules this mechanism has interesting features, but many detailed issues would still need to be studied. The violent collisions involved in this mechanism could make it difficult for life to remain intact. There are several possible collision scenarios that would all need to be explored to get a definitive answer to this problem. But even if life itself does not remain intact, it could still permit the complex molecules associated with life to get propelled into space, and that is also interesting for the panspermia process. Since space dust is ubiquitous all over the Solar System and is believed to exist in interstellar and probably intergalactic space, the mechanism proposed in this paper for propelling small particles into space could provide a universal mechanism both for the exchange of the atomic and molecular constituents between distant planetary atmospheres and for initiating the first step of the panspermia process.

According to Wikipedia, panspermia is “the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroidsasteroidscomets,[1] planetoids,[2] and also by spacecraft in the form of unintended contamination by microorganisms.”

Of course there is still the Fermi Paradox – if life is so common, why haven’t we been able to find any evidence of it, anywhere, even once? There are ethical implications of all this. We would like to perpetuate our human species and current form of civilization, of course, and that means getting into space eventually. But if we don’t manage to pull that off, and all life on Earth is wiped out for one reason or another, panspermia means that life exists elsewhere, and somewhere, sometime, intelligent life will evolve again if it hasn’t already. But if there is absolutely no life anywhere else in the universe, the loss of it on Earth would mean the end of all life forever. That would be too heavy a burden to bear, and would mean we have a strong ethical obligation to get some self-sustaining human colonies out into space as an insurance policy. But there could be a cheaper form of insurance policy – intentionally contaminate space and nearby planets with hardy germs from Earth, and in a few billion years something will survive and evolve, somewhere, into something. Do this enough and again, eventually you will have intelligent life somewhere. But finally, if it turns out there is life on other nearby planets, even very primitive life, then intentionally contaminating them with our germs would not seem like such an ethical thing to do after all.

Sounding the alarm on biodiversity

What’s the elevator pitch to convince a skeptic that biodiversity is important? To people who value nature for its own sake and believe it is immoral to destroy it, maybe it seems as though the pitch should not be needed. But it’s needed, considering the difficulties communicating the practical/economic case against global warming when that case should be fairly obvious (reliability of the food supply; cost of food, energy, and water; cost to protect, relocate or abandon coastal cities; impacts of extreme weather, drought and fire inland).

Of course, the practical/economic case to fight biodiversity loss has to do with how much our civilization relies on free ecosystem services, and has neither the level of technology nor wealth to replace them in the near term. I believe many people will respond to the ethical case too, and more would if we emphasized ethics more in children’s education. But this paragraph is already too long for an elevator pitch now, isn’t it.

Here are a couple articles that talk about bolstering both the science and the communications.





June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

pets and ecological footprint

This article from Alternet asks which pets are the most environmentally friendly. Their conclusion: chickens, ducks, goats, and rabbits. This makes sense, although keeping these in an urban environment could be impractical unless we are going to do it on a communal basis (actually not a bad idea). Dogs and cats are a mixed bag. I have mixed feelings – I think in our highly industrialized, urbanized modern lives that are so unnatural to begin with, pets give us some sense of connection to nature and the natural environment that would otherwise be missing. That they prime our immune systems to some mildly threatening pathogens and allergens could actually be a good thing, particularly for children. I don’t like the idea of cats killing birds, although if the area weren’t industrialized and urbanized there would probably be all kinds of predators going after the birds. There would also be a lot more birds, of course.

I have always wondered about the ecological impact and ethics of keeping semi-domesticated animals that occur naturally in the local environment, or would if it hadn’t been industrialized and urbanized. Collecting them in the wild is clearly wrong in my view, but if they are bred domestically and kept in humane conditions, it doesn’t seem bad at all. I’m thinking small native snakes, turtles, and fish in particular. Even insects and spiders if you are into that sort of thing. Beekeeping is a cool hobby if you have the interest and time. Granted, none of these are furry or cuddly. If you have some outdoor space, I wonder if keeping a semi-domesticated raccoon or de-scented skunk is really that bad. These animals would be around anyway. I don’t like the idea of confining birds at all. They are so easy to attract and enjoy in their wild condition. Butterflies and other pollinators are also easy to attract and fun to watch. For that matter, plants are kind of fun to watch, if you ask me. Watching plants grow forces you to slow your body and mind down to their speed for a few minutes each day, and if you do that for a few minutes each day, the way they grow and change and interact with each other and the environment is really fascinating over the course of the growing season.

free philosophy courses

That’s right, this is a list of free online (or podcast) philosophy courses. I think if more people studied ethics and morality throughout their lives, and really challenged themselves to struggle with it (them?) on a regular basis, the world would be a better place. And no, I am not talking about just business and professional ethics, but personal ethics or morality, whichever you prefer to call it.

Finnish-ing school

Certain countries just lend themselves to English puns. Hungary? Try some Turkey Chile fried in Greece. The Finnish must get particularly tired of this sort of thing. But luckily they can be smug in the knowledge that their schools are good.

Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best…

Children at this and other Finnish public schools are given not only basic subject instruction in math, language and science, but learning-through-play-based preschools and kindergartens, training in second languages, arts, crafts, music, physical education, ethics, and, amazingly, as many as four outdoor free-play breaks per day, each lasting 15 minutes between classes, no matter how cold or wet the weather is. Educators and parents here believe that these breaks are a powerful engine of learning that improves almost all the “metrics” that matter most for children in school – executive function, concentration and cognitive focus, behavior, well-being, attendance, physical health, and yes, test scores, too.

The homework load for children in Finland varies by teacher, but is lighter overall than most other developed countries. This insight is supported by research, which has found little academic benefit in childhood for any more than brief sessions of homework until around high school.

The Sokal Affair

From Wikipedia:

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax,[1] was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmoderncultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.[2]

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”,[3] was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[4][5] On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.[2]

The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of humanistic commentary about the physical sciences; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.

I get that he was trying to expose poor practices in the publishing industry. I still find it unethical that someone would use their own reputation and credentials to publish information they personally know is fake or deceptive.

Sokal also created a Postmodernism Generator, which generates a random article using postmodern buzzwords each time you refresh it. I don’t find this unethical, because it is not pretending to be something it is not. Just for fun, I’ll refresh it just now and give you the first paragraph. But you really should try it for yourself.

Neotextual structuralism in the works of Rushdie

The main theme of Werther’s[1] essay on dialectic
postsemanticist theory is the common ground between class and society. If
Sontagist camp holds, we have to choose between dialectic postsemanticist
theory and neodialectic construction. It could be said that the subject is
interpolated into a neotextual structuralism that includes consciousness as a

The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct

Two academics wrote a joke paper called “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct“, submitted it to a peer reviewed social science journal, and got it published. While are a couple excerpts. And I want to say that while I am amused by this, I don’t find it remotely ethical.

We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change…

Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset. This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology. When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.