Collaborating with Aliens

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UFO behind Delphi

The Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. Nothing to see here.

I’ve been kick­ing around an idea for a paper for a couple of years. Every so often Stephen Hawking will announce that con­tact with an extra-terrestrial civil­isa­tion would be a Very Bad Thing. Therefore silence, or as close to it as pos­sible is a good idea. It’s not just Stephen Hawking, many other people agree. Hawking makes the point that con­tact from Europe to other regions hasn’t gone well for the nat­ives since 1492. I think this is a bet­ter argu­ment than “Aliens are scary”, but I think he’s using the wrong ana­logy. There is room for a paper that takes another view. There’s a couple of reas­ons I haven’t pushed on with it.

The main reason is that I’ve not been clear about where the paper could be pub­lished. Ok, Hawking hasn’t pub­lished his belief as a paper either, but he’s a fam­ous phys­i­cist. Famous phys­i­cists are pre­sumed not only to be experts on Physics, but all sci­ences, pseudos­ciences, etc. I can’t claim this expert­ise. If I’m going to say any­thing mean­ing­ful I should at least have it scru­tin­ised. This is the second prob­lem. It would be weird if my pos­i­tion were unequi­voc­ally cor­rect, par­tic­u­larly as we have no data at all on extra-terrestrial con­tact — unless you con­sider the Mars nano-bacteria that were announced and then dis­missed as a trial run. I could rely on review­ers to pick up obvi­ous errors or blind spots, but there’s surely a bet­ter way to fix prob­lems before sub­mit­ting to a journal with some collaboration.

I am part of a group of people who were apply­ing to have a blog hos­ted some­where. I think that’s very likely to not hap­pen. I’ve been quiet here, partly because of a broken arm and partly with a pile up of work that I need to sort through because it’s been delayed by my arm. It’s a shame because the site has a big audi­ence, but maybe not too big a shame as this site has a qual­ity audi­ence. What I’m inter­ested in now is if a col­lab­or­at­ive or even massively col­lab­or­at­ive paper could be writ­ten and how could it work.

Before even dis­cuss­ing tools there’s an issue over dir­ec­tion. As I said at the start, I think Stephen Hawking is wrong. You might think he’s right. He may even be right even if the method he got there was wrong. One of the inspir­a­tions for this approach is Timothy Gowers’ col­lab­or­at­ive approach to solv­ing math­em­at­ical prob­lems. He pulled together a group of people to tackle a prob­lem for a couple of years that he alone could not solve. The prob­lem was solved in seven weeks by a method that came as a sur­prise to him. I can see how that can demon­strably work. In the case of this paper, the sample is zero, and the res­ult is (expec­ted to be) a counter-opinion. Without a real­ity check is it pos­sible to write such a paper with open collaboration?

Alan Cann has used another method. He put up a paper for open peer review. I think it was a clever idea and I could do the same. My worry here is that some of the ana­lo­gies will be out­side my period and I think there could be very good and insight­ful com­ments from people who say, “No, you’ve got this wrong. You should be look­ing at…” In my opin­ion this makes the paper bet­ter and it’s worth author credit. If you give the per­son credit then to an extent you tor­pedo the claim that the paper is pre-reviewed because to some extent it’s self-reviewed.

I’m try­ing to think of a work­able solu­tion, and you’re wel­come to tell me I’m wrong about this too.

I think I should put up the first draft of the paper, prob­ably on Google Docs. I prefer DokuWiki, but leav­ing it open for com­ments and edit­ing could leave it wrecked. For the people who leave sub­stan­tial com­ments which can be pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive, but also indic­ate a dir­ec­tion to go for­ward with the paper, I offer co-authorship. I close the paper from pub­lic view and we write and re-write until it’s ready to go to a journal that’s either OA or happy to have an arXiv pre-print up. The gamble here is that enough people will see the call to review the first draft that it gen­er­ates a sens­ible amount of feed­back to improve it.

Ideally, I’d like to have a sys­tem that can re-used so that I can use it for gen­eral his­tory or archae­ology papers as well as odd ones like this. The reason for choos­ing this topic as the test sub­ject is that it’s doesn’t mat­ter that much to me if it gets massively delayed and it will very neatly high­light some areas where I am emphat­ic­ally not an expert and that col­lab­or­a­tion could be useful.

Are Extraterrestrials a Greek thing?

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I had a slight worry earlier today. I have an idea that I think has cross-over rel­ev­ance between SETI and Ancient History about ancient spec­u­la­tions on extra­ter­restrial life. I was slightly alarmed when I read Jean Schneider’s new pre-print on arXiv, The Extraterrestrial Life debate in dif­fer­ent cul­tures. In it Schneider argues that argu­ments about life on other worlds can be traced back to ancient Greece. It sounds like an idea I’ve been kick­ing around for a couple of months. It was a topic raised by the atom­ists like Democritus and Leucippus who said that in an infin­ite cos­mos with an infin­ite num­ber of atoms there must be infin­ite worlds. Plato rejec­ted this idea, as did Aristotle who argued for a hier­arch­ical cos­mos. Schneider says debates in other cul­tures are derived from this and then asks why it should be only the Greeks who spec­u­lated on off­world life.
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Temple Grandin, Kinds of Minds and SETI

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You’ll see me put up more TED videos over the next few months. I’ve had one in the drafts folder since Christmas, but I need some pho­tos to go with it, and haven’t had the chance to get them. The prod is that I’ve applied for a TED fel­low­ship. I don’t have a real­istic chance of get­ting one, but I thought it might help with organ­ising a TEDx event in Leicester. I’ll be vis­it­ing TEDxWarwick to see how they do it next week.

Temple Grandin is an inter­est­ing per­son to post regard­less of any­thing else. I first heard of her after read­ing an inter­view in NewScientist. I put in an order for Animals in Translation when it came out, that sadly has sat on my shelf since wait­ing for qual­ity free time for me to read it. Temple Grandin has a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent view of aut­ism to the com­mon ste­reo­type pushed by the press. I hadn’t real­ised there were many people who see Autism and Asperger’s as pos­it­ive aspects to their lives. In the video below Temple Grandin reframes the aut­istic spec­trum as a need for dif­fer­ent kinds of minds, which quite lit­er­ally requires a whole new way of think­ing about the mind.

If Grandin is right then this is a major span­ner in the works of Evolutionary Psychology. EP as it’s some­times not so affec­tion­ately known, is based on the idea that the human mind is more or less unchanged from the Pleistocene era, so our actions and cog­ni­tion should be under­stood with ref­er­ence to a Palaeolithic world. The video above tor­pedoes that assump­tion. First we have to remove the idea that evol­u­tion is a lin­ear pro­gres­sion from there to here.

Evolution and nudity

Evolution explained by Nick D. Kim at Strange Matter

Instead we have three kinds of mind accord­ing to Temple Grandin, and a social and edu­ca­tional sys­tem set up to dis­crim­in­ate in favour of verbal minds. She’s also very clear about the idea of a spec­trum, so there could be people at the extremes of all three kinds of mind, and the rest of us in the middle with plastic minds. We get shaped to develop verbal minds because of the primacy of verbal com­mu­nic­a­tion and the out­come is a pop­u­la­tion that devel­ops verbal cog­ni­tion to the det­ri­ment of other forms of think­ing, and is unaware that it is doing so. Like she says, it’s nat­ural to assume every­one thinks the way you do. The abil­ity to digest milk is a rel­at­ively recent adapt­a­tion in humans, but it spread quickly. The advant­ages verbal cog­ni­tion could mean that the mod­ern mind is dif­fer­ent to non-literate minds. It opens up whole mine­field of edu­ca­tional policy that I’m com­pletely unqual­i­fied to talk about. It also has implic­a­tions for SETI because it seems we have been rub­bish so far at recog­nising a dif­fer­ent kind of mind in our own species.

The idea that aut­istic people might be more sen­su­ally aware than the aver­age per­son doesn’t fit the ste­reo­type, unless you think of cute sav­ants. Nonetheless it makes a ser­i­ous altern­at­ive cog­nit­ive model. A lot of what I’ve read in SETI is pretty inflex­ible. It’s still the default pos­i­tion that math­em­at­ics could be a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. It relies heav­ily on Platonic ideals in math­em­at­ics, and the ques­tion of whether or not you need a Plato for a Platonic philo­sophy. There is the ques­tion about the unreas­on­able effect­ive­ness of math­em­at­ics. Sundar Sarukkai has debunked this (PDF) (in my opin­ion) by show­ing math­em­at­ics is a lan­guage. Everything in the uni­verse can be described in English, but no one would say English is unreas­on­ably effect­ive. It’s pos­sible that math­em­at­ics appears to work because of an inher­ent struc­ture in our cog­ni­tion and not a struc­ture in the uni­verse, a span­drel of a verbal mind. If that’s the case then math­em­at­ics is a sign of a kind of mind and we will need to rad­ic­ally rethink what we look for in intel­li­gence to recog­nise intel­li­gent extra-terrestrial life.

That’s why I think Temple Grandin has an import­ant mes­sage for SETI, but equally she also has an import­ant mes­sage for Earth. It’s a topic which should be of interest to any­one who’s plan­ning to do some think­ing in the future.