October 12, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

SETI Could Find Design in Neutrinos

Most of the scientists involved in SETI research are very antagonistic to Intelligent Design.  Nevertheless, they find the design inference perfectly “natural” when looking for ways to comb through natural phenomena for intelligently-designed signals.
    Two new methods for detecting alien messages were reported by Science News in the Oct. 11 issue.1  Both involve teasing intelligent causes out of patterns of neutrinos instead of tuning into the celestial radio dial.  One method involves Cepheid variable stars.  The regular pulsing of these stars could be altered by aliens if they could send beams of neutrinos into their cores.  If timed just right, the well-known period-luminosity relation would be altered.  The target star would stand out because its predicted pulsation rate and amplitude would appear artificially modulated.  Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute likes this idea of “star tickling” –

If it could work, then this is an answer to one way to build an omnidirectional beacon.  It would be an example of an ‘almost natural’ signal that would get captured in a survey of the universe by an emerging technology, that’s us, and finally recognized in a database by some curious grad student.

The method has a couple of drawbacks.  It would require an “incredibly advanced civilization to be able to do this.”  Another drawback is the low message content.  Only the barest hint of intelligent design would be detectable.  Still, the message would beam out in all directions and thereby reduce the luck factor of finding the needle in the cosmic haystack.
    Another method aliens could use would be to send a coded message of dots and dashes with neutrino beams.  Since neutrinos are broadband, the detector would not have to know the transmission frequency.  An alien civilization might reach us from 20 light years if they could generate the 100-trillion electron volts necessary.  Even then, our state-of-the-art neutrino detectors might only find 7 to 10 muons per year.  If we missed some dots and dashes we might not know it was a message, but at least we could tell where they were coming from.
    Both these methods rely on inferring design in natural phenomena.  The aliens would not be transmitting on a spiritual wavelength.  They would be modulating existing natural phenomena with the intent to convey a message.  SETI researchers feel comfortable with the idea that detecting design in these venues is a proper scientific endeavor.
    The article includes a picture of the woman astronomer who discovered the period-luminosity relation for Cepheid variables, Henrietta Swan Leavitt (see our bio).  This law opened up astronomy to measurement of distant objects.


1.  Ron Cowen, “With a twinkle, pulsating stars could deliver signals from ET,” Science News 174:8 (Oct 11, 2008), p. 5-6.

SETI researchers still do not get it.  They employ exactly the types of scientific reasoning used by the Intelligent Design community to justify the design inference as scientific.  ID claims that intelligent causes can be separated from natural causes by means of a design filter – design is the last-resort inference when chance and natural law have been ruled out.  Would not the SETI people do the same?
    In fact, they would probably work hard to rule out natural law first.  They would see whether an altered Cepheid belongs to a new class of naturally pulsating stars.  Natural law would probably be their default hypothesis.  The astrophysicists would go to work on theories to explain the Cepheids that don’t fit the current theory.  Only as a last resort would the improbable hypothesis of an intelligent cause be considered.  The same is true for the neutrino beams.
    Even so, this article makes it clear that SETI researchers would feel justified in inferring intelligence from natural phenomena.  So do forensic scientists, cryptographers, and archaeologists.  There is nothing new, really, in the ID approach.  People have employed ID reasoning ever since ancient Sumer and beyond.  ID just formalized the logic behind the way we separate intelligent causes from natural causes.  The identity of the designer is not the question.  A coroner may have no clue who the murderer was when deciding a crime victim did not die of natural causes.  A cryptanalyst may not be able to read the message or know its purpose when determining that a string of bits is too improbable to have originated by chance.  The reasoning is the same in any field where design principles are used: whether studying the contours of a possible stone tool, the marks on a cliff in an unknown language, or the information content in DNA.  The ID Movement is really a call for fairness.  What’s good for SETI should be good for biology.
    SETI has no recourse in counter-claiming that the aliens evolved by natural causes.  You can’t tell anything about the aliens from the content of their message.  Even if they were to tell us they evolved, how could we know they were telling the truth?  Jill Tarter would have no way to tell that demons were not out there lying to her for the fun of watching her trip over herself on the way to the phone to tell the world she had found another case of the evolution of intelligence.  Liars can be clever.  “We are here to serve man,” their cookbook says.  More likely, though, the whole world would just miss the message.
    This illustrates another important ID principle.  The Design Filter can leak false negatives, but never false positives.  A false negative means that something might be designed but we didn’t detect it.  Modern art doesn’t look designed sometimes, and a murderer might have committed such a perfect crime that the coroner thinks it was a natural death.  In the same way, could SETI know whether all Cepheid variables have been tweaked by aliens?  No way.  The aliens could be in cahoots.  They could have a standard of tweaking Cepheids that misleads us novices on earth into thinking that the stars are just obeying a natural law.  We would not see the design that is there: that’s a false negative.  The Design Filter is impervious to false positives, however.  If the stringent criteria for design are met, a scientist can be certain it was designed.  Once natural law and chance are ruled out, and a match to an independently specified pattern is found, it clinches the case: the phenomenon was designed.
    ID has set the criteria so high, it’s overkill.  ID’s standards are much higher than those stated in the Science News article.  If it is fair for SETI to theoretically infer design from a few neutrinos, and if an archaeologist is allowed to infer design from a sharp-edged rock, and a court of law can convict a felon based on evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt, then all scientists should be willing to consider the overwhelming evidence for design in astronomy and biology.  They should not rule out the design inference due to prejudice.  Design detection is as neutral as an input in computer software passing a series of if-then statements.  The identity of the designer is downstream from that decision node. 

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