May 26, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

SETI Advocates Try to Persuade Congress for Funds

In hopes of keeping funding flowing, the SETI Institute promised US congresspersons that scientists will find extraterrestrial life in our lifetime.

According to Live Science, Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute told a House committee he believes we will find extraterrestrial life “within everyone’s lifetime in this room.”  He bases his optimism on three improving technologies: (1) improved robotic searches within our solar system, (2) ability to detect biomarkers on earth-like extrasolar planets (see 4/29/14), and (3) vastly improved surveys for alien signals, searching millions of stars.

Another reason for his optimism is the sheer abundance of extrasolar planets being found by the Kepler spacecraft, convincing him the galaxy is “teeming with life.”  If so, it’s only a matter of time before we sample enough regions to find it.  ( says that Shostak had to disabuse some Congresspersons of any connection between SETI and belief in UFOs.)

Dan Werthimer, director of UC Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, agrees, turning to evolutionary theory for support.  “He suggested that some planets evolve selective pressures that guide evolution toward different characteristics,” Live Science reports.  “On one planet, it may be most beneficial for life to be fast, while on others, it might need to be strong to survive.

“I think there are going to be some planets in the universe where it’s advantageous to be smart,” Werthimer said.

One thing is sure; it’s smart for Werthimer to be selling these ideas to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, since increased funding would be advantageous to SETI scientists.  A prominent subsection of the article is entitled, “Funding the Search.”  One of their strategies was to worry the Committee that the Chinese might beat America if we cut funding to the primary radio telescopes involved in the search.  “The U.S. may not continue to lead this work,” Werthimer said.  Their presentation appears to be effective:

Both Shostak and Werthimer expressed their optimism that intelligent life exists somewhere in the galaxy, and that it should be detectable in the near future, as long as SETI continues to receive the support it needs. Between the knowledge that might be obtained from an advanced civilization and the idea of mankind’s biological intellectual place in the universe, humans stand to gain a great deal from learning that we are not alone.

“Finding other sentient life in the universe would be the most significant discovery in human history,” said Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

Shostak admitted, though, that there is no hard evidence for his optimism.  “It’s unproven whether there is any life beyond Earth,” he told the Committee.  It will take a lot of luck to find it, Miriam Kramer said on

How can you put a price on the most significant discovery in human history?  It would be priceless.  That means the public won’t get their tax money back.

You can’t make a case on a sample size of one (8/31/10).  Philosophers know this; that’s why they play mind games with urns and marbles (see 12/09/10 and 1/15/12 commentary).  If you have one blue marble in your hand, and before you are billions of urns filled with marbles, you cannot assume there are other blue marbles out there, especially if every one sampled so far is white.  No probability calculations can be made.  Yours might be a one-of-a-kind work of art; maybe that’s the case with Earth.  It doesn’t hurt to look, but why should the taxpayer pay for it?  Shostak and Werthimer are free to raise money on their own.

The SETI people can have their own opinions of significance based on evolutionary thinking and a high perhapsimaybecouldness index, but some of us think the “most significant discovery in human history” was the empty tomb near Calvary.


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  • John C says:

    Well spoken, David!
    I downloaded a writeup (I believe it was on Yahoo Science), and in a matter of minutes had turned a nearly one-page article into three pages of footnotes! You hit the nail on the head with every word in this report. Now, about those Mars meteors…

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