April 17, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Imagination as Science

Can a science exist without evidence?  Astrobiology, and its subcategory “the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” involve a great deal of scientific equipment, trained researchers, and funding, but still have no observational evidence to support their reason for being: extraterrestrial life.  Where is the line between imagination and reality in these fields?
    Some insight into the answer can be gained by looking at reports about the activities and beliefs of those involved.  At Astrobiology Magazine, a news feature of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, reporter John D. Ruley spoke about the conclusions of Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia about alien intelligence.  Watson, who was strongly influenced by James Lovelock and the “Gaia Hypothesis,” has come up with a rather pessimistic model of the evolution of intelligence.  He concludes intelligence will be rare in the universe.  Since we have no examples of intelligence on other planets, how could he present this as a scientific claim?
    Watson employed mathematics.  Since mathematics is ostensibly the language of science, that would seem to lend some scientific credibility to his work.  But if the assumptions behind his numbers are no more credible than the speculations of a teen-ager on spring break, can the result be any more trustworthy?  Watson first assumed the lifetime of likely stars with habitable zones, then assigned probabilities to four major evolutionary transitions:

Applying the limited lifespan to a stepwise model, Watson finds that approximately four major evolutionary steps were required before an intelligent civilization could develop on Earth.  These steps included the emergence of single celled life about half a billion years after the Earth was formed, multicellular life about a billion and a half years later, specialized cells allowing complex life forms with functional organs a billion years after that, and human language a billion years later still.
    Several of these steps agree with major transitions that have been observed in the archeological [sic] record.

Each of these assume evolution and its geological timeline.  Moreover, it could be that he omitted many other factors that should have been included in the equation, each with its own speculative probabilities.  When multiplying unknowns together, the error bars multiply accordingly.  The relationships between each factor must also be taken into account, and these are unknown.  The bottom line, therefore, can be so error-prone as to be meaningless.  The article, nonetheless, made it sound like Watson’s conclusions are more scientific because of the use of mathematics:

The mathematical methods Watson used assume that each evolutionary step is independent of the others, though they must occur in sequence.  Watson considers this “a reasonable first approximation for what is, after all, a very idealized sort of model, deliberately simplified enough that the math can be solved analytically.

The words solved analytically seem to lend a false credibility to the exercise.  Does a speculation admittedly this simplistic deserve the time of day?  The BBC News science page thought so.  Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute said, however, there is no way to prove it true.  He did think there is a way to prove it false: to “do the experiment” by detecting signals from alien civilizations (i.e., SETI).  But SETI is another “science” with zero evidence.
    Those who write for the Space.com “SETI Thursday” report are courageous, though, in the face of this lack of data.  Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition for the SETI Institute was at it again this month (cf. 03/17/2007) preparing civilization for contact with whomever.  “As the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) enters a new phase, with the recent start of observations for radio signals from other worlds with the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, the international scientific community has begun preparing all the more earnestly for the cascade of events that would follow the detection of an alien civilization.”  But the presence of instruments carries no promise of success.  Compare the Allen Array with a multimillion dollar array of bigfoot detectors, for instance.  It might enjoy great success videotaping squirrels and pine trees, just as the radio telescopes may detect pulsars and gamma-ray bursts.  But unless and until its prime target is detected, its grip on “science” is tenuous at best.
    Vakoch left himself an out:

But even if we never make contact with another world, the process of preparing for contact may help us become better, more integrated humans.  By reflecting on how we would portray ourselves to other worlds, we also have an opportunity to grow in our own self-understanding.  And part of that increased self-understanding can come about through a recognition of those aspects of ourselves that we would rather not be true, but that are a part of ourselves.

This sounds strangely like a psychoanalytic session than a science experiment.  Indeed, Vakoch pointed to Carl Jung for inspiration: “Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be.”  A number of questions get begged here.  Jung, largely discredited as a scientist today, built a whole model of dreams and archetypes after he split with Freud (another discredited scientist).  Be that as it may, how does Vakoch, or Jung, define good, better, or understanding?  With what scientific instruments would they measure these things?  How does Vakoch even know that a “more integrated human” is “better” than a disintegrated one?
    The employment of non-scientific language continued right through the end of the article.  By this time it sounded more like an inspirational desideratum than an entry for a science news website:

In a sense, the composition of messages to other worlds becomes a process not merely of being in touch with alien worlds beyond, but of unknown worlds within.  And such an exploration into our souls requires as much fortitude as does building and sustaining telescopes that will search the stars for decades and centuries, seeking evidence of life beyond Earth.  As we look within, let’s not forget to look at those parts of ourselves that we would rather look away from.  As Jung reminded us, “no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort.  To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.  This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”

Even Eugenie Scott recognized that the “oughts” and “shoulds” belong to moral philosophy, not science (04/14/2008, bullet 3).  Why should Carl Jung have been given prominence here, instead of Billy Graham?  What qualitative or quantitative difference puts the observation-free speculations of a SETI Institute person into a scientific category different from those of anyone else?  Should a variety of theologians and philosophers get equal time at Space.com’s SETI Thursday pulpit?

We hope it was apparent that there is no justification for the SETI and Astrobiology folk to call what they do science.  They deserve no more respect than a Raelian.  Their use of mathematics and scientific instruments is an irrelevant distraction: “no evidence” equates to “no science.”
    Progress will be made only when science reporters get the courage to nail the mythmakers with the hard questions they typically ask politicians.  Here are some suggestions: “How can you say that?  How do you know that?  Dr. Vakoch, a lot of critics would argue that your views have no scientific merit, and that you are making up stories out of your own imagination.  How would you respond to them?”  If he gives the typical smug elitist answer that he is doing “science,” not “religion,” keep pounding away.  “Dr. Vakoch, which definition of science are you using?  Do you follow Bacon, Buffon, Herschel, Whewell, Mill, Popper, Quine, von Fraasen, Laudan, Feyerabend, Foucault, Kuhn, Cartwright, etc. whose views contradict one another?  Are you a rationalist or an empiricist?  Does the use of scientific instruments and mathematics make something scientific?  Where is your evidence?  How do you define what is good or moral?  Why did you pick Carl Jung over other experts?  Wasn’t he a spiritualist who claimed to have a demonic spirit guide?” (source)  Shove the microphone to his face after this barrage, and make sure the camera gets a good shot of the flushed expression.  It will look lovely on the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “Charlatan Exposed.”

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Categories: SETI

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