September 2, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

SETI Preacher Prophesies

One of the leading lights of SETI describes why he believes aliens will be found.

Seth Shostak is former director of the SETI Institute, and remains on staff as Senior Astronomer there.  The Conversation arranged a Reddit dialogue with him recently.  His responses are titled, “Why I believe we’ll find aliens.

Shostak’s answers underscore several important points that distinguish SETI from astrobiology.  One is the importance of “signal.”  The other is the importance of “intelligence” that would purposely send a signal.  A third is the significance of the search for addressing human uniqueness:

If intelligent life is not out there, then we have done far better than merely win the lottery. And if you think we are that special … well, consider that you might just be wrong. And that possibility makes it worthwhile to try to answer the question with experiment, rather than saying “I know the answer already”.

Another questioner asked why SETI typically looks for evidence of water and oxygen.  Shostak responded,

Chemistry suggests that carbon-based molecules are probably the best bet for biology. But SETI doesn’t make any assumptions about this.

If SETI truly makes no assumptions, must the signaler be biological at all?  He suggested that, based on our advances with artificial intelligence (AI), we might end up receiving a signal from AI on their end.  Presumably, biological intelligences would have created robots that send their signals.  If that is the case, though—the nature of the source being once removed—it would be impossible to determine if the original source was biological, or even material.

No Dough in the Green Bank

Meanwhile, the search continues.  Astrobiology Magazine reported that SETI scientists are using the Green Bank radio telescope to scan some of the most promising Kepler candidates.  The astronomers second-guess the intentions of the senders: “Some scientists have suggested that if an extraterrestrial intelligence were to deliberately signal other intelligent beings, they might chose [sic] this band,” i.e., the famous “water hole” band between hydrogen and hydroxyl ions.   The article makes a surprising statement: “An advanced alien civilization may even use a pulsar for signaling, which can be more easily and effectively detected in a wide-band search.”  Historians may recall that the discovery of the first pulsar prompted a brief but false hypothesis that aliens (Little Green Men, or LGM-1) had been detected.  Now, because pulsars present a wider radio bandwidth, “a wide-band signal may be more commonly used for intentional signaling.”

The report contains a familiar refrain, “Of course, no radio signals were found….”

Shostak’s “lottery” response echoes what he said nine years ago in the documentary The Privileged Planet: “The bottom line, actually, when people ask why do you think they’re out there, is that the universe is extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily vast. The number of stars that we can see, its on the order of ten thousand billion billion star systems.  So unless there is something very very special – miraculous, if you will – about our solar system, about our planet Earth – unless there is something extraordinarily unusual about it, then what happened here must have happened many times in the history of the universe” (You Tube, ch. 3, starting at 2:00).  Here, he says, “If intelligent life is not out there, then we have done far better than merely win the lottery.”  As we have stated before, though, you cannot draw any sound conclusions from a sample size of one (e.g., 5/26/14 commentary).

SETI has been searching for over 50 years now, yet no reproducible, unquestionable signal of intelligent origin has ever been found.  Proponents of SETI excuse their failure on the grounds that the search space is too vast to expect a success in such a short time.  It sounds reasonable, therefore, “to answer the question with experiment, rather than saying ‘I know the answer already’.”

There are problems with this answer.  One is, who pays for it?  The search equipment is expensive.  We say, if private companies and foundations will fund it, have at it.  It keeps some evolutionists busy looking at nothing day after day instead of making a scene at school boards.  But if they expect government to pay, that’s another issue.  There are many proposed experiments with high cost and low probability of success.  Surely taxpayers should not expect to bankroll every pet project.

But, Shostak thinks, the payoff for success is so profound, it justifies a prolonged search.  But he never offers criteria for failure.  Shall SETI researchers spend quadrillions of dollars searching for hundreds of thousands of years?  When would they give up?  They place their opponents in the impossible position of trying to prove a universal negative.  No matter how many billions and billions of planets they search, they can always claim the next one might be “it.”   (Once again, if it’s on their dime and their time, we don’t object; keep them busy and out of trouble.)

The main objection to SETI as practiced is that it begs the question of evolution.  Shostak and the other SETI advocates are hardcore Darwinians with a strong aversion to intelligent design.  But SETI is a classic intelligent design project!  They believe that they can distinguish an intentional signal from a natural one.  Intention—purpose—signal: that’s ID.  Why don’t they admit it?  They despise ID but find it extremely useful in their life’s work.  Of course, they believe that our intelligence evolved, and alien intelligences would have evolved, too.  We could debate that question separately, but it would be honorable for them to admit up front that they are using ID theory in their work, and thereby admit that ID is a sound scientific method.


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