January 24, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

SETI Head Discusses Criteria for Failure

When does the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project decide enough is enough, and close up shop?  Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute, took up that question on Space.com.  He thinks people should realize that this is a much bolder expedition than the classic voyages of discovery by James Cook and Ferdinand Magellan.  He likens it more to the multigenerational projects of the medieval cathedrals.  When will it be completed?  “not in my lifetime, nor in that of my children or grandchildren.”
    Still, a cathedral project had a blueprint and an expectation of completion.  Shostak gave the following indications that some day it could become appropriate to at least think about throwing in the towel.

  1. The search technology is picking up speed, so by mid-century it would be difficult to continue arguing that SETI is still in its early stages.
  2. If missions searching for earth-like planets fail, “That would be a premium-grade bummer.”
  3. If expeditions to Mars and Europa fail to turn up evidence that these bodies ever produced a microbe, “then that would certainly put me on the defensive.”

He hastened to add that none of these has caused him to “break out the worry beads” at least yet.  He claims the elements of the Drake Equation have become more encouraging with time.  “The more we learn about the universe, the more it seems disposed to house worlds with life,” he claims.  “It didn’t have to be that way.”
    Even so, continued failure might not mean nobody is out there.  It might just mean the search strategy is wrong (06/30/2006).  New discoveries in physics may unveil methods much more cost-effective, he explains.  “This doesn’t seem likely, but science is all about surprises.”
    His final inspirational thought for the week says more about philosophy, anthropology and character than science:

Indeed, my personal feeling is that if SETI hasn’t turned up something by the second half of this century, we should reconsider our search strategy, rather than assume that we’ve failed because there is nothing—or no one—to find.  Would I ever conclude that we’ve searched enough?  Would I ever truly give up on SETI’s bedrock premise, and tell myself that the extraterrestrials simply aren’t out there?  Not likely.  That would be to assume that we’ve learned all there is to know about our universe, a stance that is contrary to the spirit of explorers and scientists alike.  We might yearn, or even need to believe that we are special, but to conclude that Homo sapiens is the best the cosmos has to offer is egregious self-adulation.

In short, don’t expect the SETI Institute to close up shop any time soon.  See also the 07/25/2006 entry.

You have to hand it to Seth Shostak for at least trying to tackle the biggest criticisms of his craft head on.  We had raised the objections here that SETI had no criteria for failure (02/11/2003, 04/17/2006).  It still doesn’t, despite his hints that some eventualities might be discouraging – but at least he talked about it.  As long as he wants to spend Paul Allen’s millions, it doesn’t hurt anything to look.  It might even keep them busy so they don’t cause political trouble.
    Shostak might be the latest incarnation of Percival Lowell.  That committed advocate of life on Mars squinted through his telescope at the red planet for decades looking for the fabled canals with nothing but faith in flawed assumptions to keep him going.  His failure bequeathed to us the Lowell Observatory, where some legit science (like finding Pluto) has been done.  It’s also a nice place to visit when passing through Flagstaff on the way to Grand Canyon or Meteor Crater.  Someday a docent may tell students at the Allen Telescope Array, “Here, children, is where people who used to believe in ET tried for 50 years to detect signals from other civilizations” (sounds of giggling from the group).  “Now astronomers use it for mapping the cyanogen distribution among Seyfert galaxies.”
    What we’ve said before about SETI still holds: it is not a science till it has a subject (06/03/2006).  Using scientific equipment no more validates SETI as science than using mortars and pestles validated alchemy.  Moreover, it is held to with religious zeal (notice Shostak’s appeals to courageous faith in the face of their daunting lack of evidence).  Paradoxically, most SETI proponents are evolutionists (11/30/2006, 09/30/2006) despite using intelligent-design principles in the expectation of being able to separate natural from intelligent causes (02/16/2006, 12/03/2005).  But unlike the intelligent design movement, which has an observable message already in the bag (DNA and molecular machines), SETI has nothing at this point but faith.  It is, therefore, indistinguishable from a secular religion (01/04/2007).  They can build their cathedrals if they want to on their own time and dime.  Try to force it on students in textbooks and science classes, though, and there will be a fight for Separation of Search and State.  (Wow; has anyone thought of that SETI line before?  Copyright!)

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Categories: SETI

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