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Has SETI Been Barking Up The Wrong Tree (Mostly)

Illustration of the RIO Scale which attempts to define the value of a SETI strike.
by Milan M. Cirkovic
and Larry J. Klaes
Pasadena CA (SPX) Aug 07, 2006
In several recent articles, defenders of the conventional SETI projects, as exemplified by the activities of the SETI Institute and other radio/occassionally optical searches, have argued-perhaps preparing the grounds for the 50th anniversary of OZMA-that in spite of all budget cuts and occassional criticism, both scientific and extra-scientific, SETI is alive and healthy as ever.

A prototype of this genre is a recent article by Seth Shostak "Is SETI Barking up the Wrong Tree?"(). Unfortunately, part of the true set of problems the proponents of orthodox SETI have repeatedly failed to address is just exasperated by simplifications and rethorical florish of such defenses.

1. Suppose you are an aspiring archaeologist who has read well-argumented treatise about the abundance of unearthed archaeological treasures (say, 99% of the possible finds, using state-of-the-art technology has yet to be found). You have vast funds, we imagine, and tremendous will to achieve success and uncover secrets of ancient civilizations.

How do you proceed? Do you really do it "systematically" as analogy with the orthodox SETI would have you? Do you take your drills and scanners and host of people to coordinates 0,0 (marine archaeology included!) and then start digging up along meridians or parallels? Such thing would be utter stupidity. And yet, how comes that a similar nonsensical approach-"systematic" listening to Solar-like stars-is sanctioned (or even sanctified) in the SETI circles?

What our aspiring archaeologist needs to do (and the orthodox SETI establishment would certainly much profit from) is, of course, more theoretical work, research in the library, building some models of ancient civilizations spread and locations, finding correlations, etc.

Disdain of theoretical work is, unfortunately, one of the hallmark of pseudosciences, and sadly enough, there has very little serious theoretical work related to SETI in the last decade. Where are contemporary analogs of such important theoretical studies as for instance Sagan & Newman (1983)?

Where are equations going beyond the half-jocular Drake Equation? Epochal developments in astrobiology, such as the elaboration of the concept of the Galactic Habitable Zone (Gonzalez, G., Brownlee, D., and Ward, P. 2001, "The Galactic Habitable Zone: Galactic Chemical Evolution," Icarus 152, 185-200) pass unrecognized, or at least not accompanied by appreciation visible in research journals, as far as SETI studies are concerned.

As the great guy whose centennary of tragic death we remember in this year wisely said: "There's nothing more practical than a good theory". And good theory of SETI would, in our view, integrate rapid developments in astrobiology, evolutionary, biology, cosmology, computer science (especially the AI part) and, last but not least, philosophy of science (sorely lacking not just in SETI studies) in order to provide for much more efficient target selection and experimental approach than it has been the case thus far.

2. This is closely related to another problem of SETI, which could be called the lack of relevant memes. Where is the contact with astrobiological revolution which occured over the last 10 years? When somebody says "you're looking at the wrong stars, they are at Zeta Reticuli" and says so with no further argument, than it is a scarecrow which is easy enough to demolish, as Shostak does in the aforementioned article.

However, what if a guy says "They are at Omicron Hydrae because Omicron Hydrae is right in the Galactic Habitable Zone, near the corotation radius" or some such thing? When Lineweaver and his group calculate that an average terrestrial planet in the Galaxy is 1.6 Gyr older than the Earth (seminal result by any standard!), how is that operationalized in the SETI target selection?

How is the revived and currently heavily investigated array of panspermia theories? If it is, it is not visible to other researchers and general public; if it is not, it is highly problematic methodology.

3. Is there any other field in science so unresponsive to new and important developments? For example, Rose and Wright publish a seminal paper in 2004 on the efficiency of inscribed matter information transfer; does this provoke a massive debate in SETI circles, as any objective bystander would naturally expect?

If it did, it was for all purposes invisible. Such lack of response to new issues characterizes usually only pseudosciences, like astrology or ufology. True science has to response quickly and critically to any such challenge. In general, SETI is mostly in the same shape - and with the same set of philosophical, methodological and technological guidelines - as it was in the time of its pioneers (Drake, Sagan, Morrison, Shklovsky, Bracewell) in 1960s and 1970s.

In contrast, our views of astrophysics, biology, and especially, computer science - arguably the three key scientific disciplines for SETI - changed revolutionarily since that epoch, to put it mildly. Also, some of our epistemological and methodological guidelines pertaining to life and intelligence have also changed.

4. Have skeptic's arguments been sufficiently scrutinized? A trademark of good science is unsparing criticism and scrutiny of all adverse arguments and ideas. Not so in the modern SETI rendition.

Fermi's Paradox, one of the deepest puzzles of all science is dismissed easily enough: "To use the Fermi Paradox as a reason for the lack of a SETI signal is to make a very big extrapolation from a very local observation.

Seems chancy to me." (Shostak, 2006) A powerful anthropic argument of the distinguished astrophysicist and cosmologist Brandon Carter (1983) is usually completely ignored. And yet, we think that even one accepts the plurality of life and intelligence in the Milky Way, one can learn a lot from careful, serious, scientific and quantitative scrutiny of these (and others, like the argument from biological contingency, originating with Alfred Russell Wallace, and promoted by no lesser personalities than George Gaylord Simpson and Ernest Mayr) skeptical arguments.

5. How about much stronger emphasis on the manifestations of the advanced tehnological civilizations, what could be called Dysonian approach to SETI? Even if they are not actively communicating with us that does not imply that we cannot or should not attempt to detect them and their astroengineering activities (cf. Freitas, 1985).

Their detection signatures may be much older than their communication signatures. The same general idea applies to other unnatural effects, like the antimatter-burning signatures (Harris, 1986, 2002; Zubrin, 1995), anomalous lines in stellar spectra (Valdes and Freitas, 1986), or recognizable transits of artificial objects (Arnold, 2005).

Searches for megaprojects such as Dyson Shells, Jupiter Brains or stellar engines are, in our view, most likely to be successful in the entire spectrum of SETI activities (Slysh, 1985; Jugaku et al., 1995; Jugaku and Nishimura, 2003). Why are they either ignored or relegated to the footnotes of the orthodox SETI papers and reports? If there is any rational reason why this Dysonian approach should be thus sidelined, we are still to hear it; or is it just that it's not "marketable" enough compared to the nebulous and highly improbable "dialogue with aliens" scenario which is peddled to fund-raiser and the general public?

6. Finally, the subtlest scarecrow of them all is succintly formulated by Shostak: "Some people mistakenly confuse a long search with a thorough one, and figure that the lack of a SETI detection indicates that we're alone in the Galaxy."

Why, when we astronomically illiterate people realize how big the Galaxy is, we shall all repent and ask the SETI community for an indulgence! This black-and-white picture is clearly responsible for at least some of the bad press associated with SETI-and it has nothing to do with real skepticism vis-a-vis extraterrestrial life.

The situation is significantly more complex: while we, for instance, think that the astrobiological revolution gives us very strong reasons to expect life and intelligence abound, this has almost nothing to do with actual practice of SETI which we believe is largely misguided (with some exceptions listed above).

Defenders of the SETI orthodoxy obviously-as, sadly enough, similar to many other well-documented cases in the history of science-put more weight upon the "orthodoxy" than upon the "SETI" part of the syntagm. In order for this rhetorical trick to pass below the radars, they substitute a scarecrow: whoever doubts the prospects of SETI as we do it, surely holds the pretentious and preposterous view that we are alone in the Galaxy. We strongly beg to differ.

SETI is a human endevoar, perhaps most quintessentially human of all scientific pursuits in the entire history of our species. As such, it is prone to typically human mistakes and delusions. This is clearly unavoidable. What is eminently avoidable, however, is that such mistakes and delusions are publicly defended in a dogmatic, "no-alternative" manner; especially when such mistakes and delusions are grounded in an old-fashioned, conservative and anthropocentric view of the mind and the universe.

Related Links

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Chris McKay, a planetary scientist with the NASA Ames Research Center, is involved in nearly every investigation of interest to astrobiologists. He is working on the return to the moon with both the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program and the Constellation Project.

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