December 9, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

SETI Ignorance Gets Stronger

Science is not about blind faith” begins a video posted on MSNBC about SETI.  Part of an article by AP reporter Seth Borenstein, “Evidence for E.T. is mounting daily, but not proven,” the video explains Frank Drake’s famous equation that tries to quantify the probability for extraterrestrial intelligence (09/29/2010, 11/24/2008).  Though Drake confidently asserts the probability that 50,000 advanced communicating civilizations exist in the Milky Way, Borenstein’s subtitle asserts, “So far, first signs of life elsewhere are more likely to be closer to slime mold.”
    Confidence exudes like a strong perfume from both the video and the article.  “Lately, a handful of new discoveries make it seem more likely that we are not alone – that there is life somewhere else in the universe,” Borenstein began, diving immediately into Wolf-Simon’s claim that some microbes can imbibe arsenic as a substitute for phosphate in their proteins and DNA (12/02/2010).  Then Carl Pilcher, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, was given the microphone to say, “The evidence is just getting stronger and stronger” that “There’s got to be life out there.”  After a brief caveat that “Since much of this research is new, scientists are still debating how solid the conclusions are,” Borenstein reassures the reader that even if something simple, like slime mold, is detected first, “It can evolve from there.
    Borenstein’s confidence is based on the premise that the search for E.T. is based on “Some science, some pure guesswork.”  Since every non-scientist has access to guesswork, to what science does he refer?  Admitting that the Drake Equation includes guesswork factors, “such as the likelihood of the evolution of intelligence and how long civilizations last,” Borenstein strips it down to two factors: “How many places out there can support life?  And how hard is it for life to take root?”  Bolstered by Wolf-Simon’s arsenic microbes, he beamed, “That means the probability for alien life is higher than ever before, agree 10 scientists interviewed by The Associated Press.”  He said additionally, “nothing topped last week’s news of a lake bacterium that scientists could train to thrive on arsenic instead of phosphorous.”
    Perhaps Borenstein celebrated too soon.  Live Science said, “Many skeptical scientists not involved with the study have raised questions about its methods and findings.”  Later, Karl Tate on Live Science included the arsenic claim as #10 in his list of top ten “Kerfuffles” – “The debate over arsenic-based life is just the latest example of science — blown out of proportion or just plain misunderstood — exploding across the news media.”  (Others included Martian bacteria and overhyped human ancestors).  And Nature News said that the announcement got a “toxic response” from other scientists, who called it “premature at best” and complained about the way it was publicized.  Steve Benner, an origin of life researcher, “used the analogy of a steel chain with a tinfoil link to illustrate that the arsenate ion said to replace phosphate in the bacterium’s DNA forms bonds that are orders of magnitude less stable.”  Not only that, the NASA Astrobiology team failed to show that the microbes actually incorporated arsenic into their molecules.  Some scientists were upset that NASA’s teaser to the press had them thinking life had been discovered beyond Earth; indeed, even Fox News reporters were expecting an announcement that life had been discovered on Titan.
    Did Borenstein have any other science, less dubious, to amass in favor of his contention that the evidence for E.T. is getting stronger and stronger?  Indeed he did.  Calling on SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak, who “ticks off the astronomical findings about planet abundance and Earthbound discoveries about life’s hardiness,” he agrees that these points “have gone in the direction of encouraging life out there and they didn’t have to,” – so much so, that denying the existence of extraterrestrial life, Shostak alleged, is tantamount to believing in miracles (i.e., that life only exists on earth).  Time out for a brief reality check:

Astronomers, however, do believe in proof.  They don’t have proof of life yet.  There’s no green alien or even a bacterium that scientists can point to and say it’s alive and alien.  Even that arsenic-munching microbe discovered in Mono Lake in California isn’t truly alien.  It was manipulated in the lab.

With that brief time out over, Chris McKay assured readers that, “There are real things we can point to and show that being optimistic about life elsewhere is not silly.”  He called on the red dwarfs to sing in agreement – red dwarf stars may not be the anti-life districts once thought; “That didn’t just open up billions of new worlds, but many, many times that,” Borenstein chimed.  The giants chimed in, too: “scientists now believe that as many as half the stars in our galaxy have planets that are two to 10 times the size of Earth ? ‘super Earths’ which might sustain life.”  With a recent estimate that the universe may contain six times as many stars as thought, the chorus just keeps getting louder.
    Of course, 300 sextillion lifeless locations would still be lifeless.  “The other half of the equation is: How likely is life?” Borenstein continued, calling briefly on Donald Brownlee to debunk the notion that intelligent life is common, but agreeing that microbial life could be.  “By making life more likely in extreme places, it increases the number of planets that are potential homes for life,” astrobiologists agree – even though all those extreme places studied are right here on Earth.  But does a potential habitat rise to the level of scientific evidence?  Never mind; potential is enough: Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus – places where no life has been found – put dollars on the bet that aliens inhabit the universe, so much so that “Shostak puts his money behind his optimism,” Borenstein ended.  Apparently Shostak bets a cup of coffee at his lectures that scientists will find proof of alien life by 2026.  “The odds, he figures, have never been more in his favor.

Got odds?  We do.  Read our online book, especially chapters 6-7.  How convenient to bet a cup of coffee when he won’t have to pay up for 16 years, by which time he may well need embalming fluid instead, if there’s a difference.
    Let’s unpack this reasoning about odds in this SETI coffee klatch.  “The odds, he figures, have never been more in his favor.”  What are the odds when your sample size is one?  You have one example, and you want to extrapolate the odds to 100 billion planets in the galaxy.  This is like winning the world’s biggest lottery on your first draw the only time you play, and thinking the odds are great of winning many more times because there are a lot of convenience stores where you can play the game.  But even that is overly gracious to this gratuitous line of thinking that depends on fortuitous causes (11/14/2010).
    Statisticians like to think about urns with colored marbles, so let’s say you are walking on your terrace, and discover an iPhone, not yet aware of its purpose or function; also on the terrace you find an urn with marbles in it, but you know nothing about what kind of marbles are inside.  You reach in and pull out an orange marble, then a red one, a pink one, another orange one, and a white one (these represent Venus, Mars, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus), along with a lot of black marbles.  Because your iPhone contains some of the same colors that are in the marbles, you concoct a theory that iPhones evolve out of marbles.  Then you look off into the distance and see many more urns you think must have marbles, too – billions of them.  You get all excited, thinking that the odds of finding more iPhones must be astronomical.
    In your ecstasy, you produce an equation you call the Flake Equation, and calculate your odds: N is the number of iPhones that must exist in all the urns.  R(u) is the rate of formation of urns, f(m) is the fraction of those urns with marbles, n(i) is the number of urns large enough to contain iPhones, f(c) is the number of urns where circuits begin evolving from the marble material; f(i) is the number of marbles that evolve into iPhones (after all, once the process starts, “It can evolve from there”), f(c) is the number of iPhones capable of calling you up, and L is the lifetime of the average iPhone battery.  According to your calculations there could be 50,000 iPhones out there – even though the only one you have ever seen is in your hand.  So great is your faith, you organize a Search for Extra-Terracetrial iPhones, and try to find rich suckers to fund it, assuring them that it is not silly to be optimistic.  (A quote from David Berlinski comes to mind: “Wearing pink tasseled slippers and conical hats covered in polka dots, Darwinian biologists are persuaded that a plot is afoot to make them look silly.”)
    Even if there is an iPhone out there that calls you up some day, it would not support your theory that the device evolved out of the marbles, even if it calls itself a Droid Evo.  It would validate the view that both devices were intelligently designed.  But in our day, such reasoning is disallowed a priori, because it’s not “science.”  Thus, science has devolved into absurdity, where sophisticated ignorance is glorified, because intelligent causes have been excluded from the very definition of science.  The cult of Darwin has given birth to the cult of SETI (11/13/2010), where marbles evolve into iPhones, and molecules evolve into minds.

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