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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Methodological Timidity and Taboos Hinder SETI

Recently a new 10-year, $100 million dollar initiative was announced: a project called Breakthrough Listen. The project will use two of the world's largest radio telescopes in an attempt to look for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. It's a new jolt of cash to SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and has largely been funded by a Russian billionaire named Yuri Milner.

We can be sure that this money will be spent in very conventional ways. Virtually all of it will go for listening to radio signals using big radio telescopes like the one shown below.


Our scientists seem to be fixated on big machines. It is as if they are thinking: the way to make a big discovery is to use a big, big machine. But I can imagine some ways in which you could conduct a search for extraterrestrial life without using big machines. Some of these ways would involve searches very different from looking for radio signals from distant planets.

One method would be to investigate all the evidence suggesting that we may be visited regularly by one or more extraterrestrial civilizations. Currently the analysis of UFO sightings is done only by poorly funded organizations and private individuals. Just think of what might be found if, say, 1 percent of that 100 million dollars was devoted to investigating this topic. We might find very good evidence of extraterrestrial life, which is the very thing SETI is supposed to be looking for.

Another method would be to look at the human genome for evidence of the non-natural. We might find some evidence that someone tinkered with human DNA, and such tinkering might have been done by extraterrestrial visitors that came here and modified our DNA. Or we might actually find some message left behind by extraterrestrials who came here long ago and modified our DNA to leave some message inside it. This is a fascinating idea that was charmingly presented in an episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. DNA contains nucleotide “letters” that could be used to spell out any imaginable message. Such a message could be included in the “noncoding” part of DNA that has no known purpose.

Another way in which we could search for extraterrestrial intelligence without using big machines is to investigate crop circles. These mysterious things have so far only been investigated by poorly funded  private researchers. But what might we learn if a million dollars or two were spent investigating these anomalies? We might get some proof that these mysterious things are of extraterrestrial origin.

Another way in which we could search for extraterrestrial intelligence without using big machines is to systematically investigate photos taken in our solar system of Mars and other bodies, looking specifically for traces that may have been left behind by extraterrestrial visitors. Currently the only people who do this are poorly funded individuals, but with even minimal funding some very interesting photos have been found. We can only wonder what might turn up if a million dollars or two was devoted to such an investigation.

Still another way we could search for extraterrestrial intelligence is to investigate fully the photographic anomaly of orbs. These strange anomalies are showing up repeatedly in photos, often as objects that look too big to be dust, too bright to be dust, too fast to be dust, and too colorful to be dust. These anomalies cannot be generally explained as dust particles, because (as explained here) the blockage fraction of dust particles in ordinary  air are too small (a particle of dust in typical outdoor air blocks only about 1/15000 of the area right in front of a camera). Could it be that orbs represent some strange extraterrestrial life form that has come to our planet? We might find out by spending perhaps a thousandth of the 100 million dollars recently allocated to SETI.

Still another way we could search for extraterrestrial intelligence is to try making use of clairvoyance or ESP. If extraterrestrial civilizations are millions of years more advanced than ours, the minds in such civilizations may have psychic abilities that dwarf any that a human being has. There may therefore be some chance of leveraging such a possibility. We can imagine a program that could search for humans with relatively strong ESP or clairvoyance, and then use them in an attempt to receive telepathic messages from extraterrestrials (or at least some indication of which corner of the sky they live). Such an impression might be received if there are extraterrestrial superminds out there with something like super-telepathy. Such an approach could be carried out at relatively tiny expense, so it might be worth trying, even if it is highly unlikely to succeed.

These are all interesting and inexpensive alternative ways in which we could search for extraterrestrial intelligence without spending much money, and without using big machines. But I think it unlikely that any of them will be undertaken by the new SETI initiative. Instead, almost certainly that initiative will follow the conventional mainstream wisdom regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence: the principle that when looking for aliens, we must put all of our eggs in one basket.

Part of the reason is a kind of “big iron” fixation that dominates the minds of scientists. The thinking is kind of like this: the bigger the machine you use, the better your chance of success. So scientists build incredibly expensive machines that often produce modest results, when the same funding (used to fund a hundred little projects) would probably produce much greater results.

But the main reason why SETI has been so narrowly focused may be perhaps that scientists want to find something consistent with their worldview, but don't want to find things inconsistent with their worldview. So they don't want to follow approaches that may lead them to what they are looking for, but also may lead them to other things they don't want to believe in. By getting involved in edgy SETI approaches, scientists might find the extraterrestrial civilizations they are looking for. But they might get evidence for things they don't want to believe in, and have declared taboo: things such as psychic phenomena, undiscovered spiritual realities, or some design in the origin of humanity.

So SETI is burdened by a kind of methodological timidity. The typical SETI researcher's attitude is like this:

People who think there might be evidence we are now being visited by aliens are a bunch of kooks and crackpots. It's all too obvious that if aliens were here now, they would have a giant spaceship that everyone would see in the sky. Ignore anything strange happening in our skies when looking for evidence of extraterrestrials. The only sensible way to look for aliens is to keep trying to listen for radio signals (the same way we've been trying for 50 years without success).

The wisdom of this attitude is by no means obvious. One problem is its fallacy of assuming that we can presume to infer what it would be like if extraterrestrials had arrived on our planet. Since extraterrestrials might have arisen many millions or billions of years ago, we have no idea whether they would still be using anything we could recognize as technology. For all we know, they could have evolved long ago into beings of pure energy that are now floating around in our skies. The other problem with this attitude is the insistence that the only viable search option should be to keep trying a technique that has not proven successful after 50 years.

Imagine you had a very sick little daughter, and you knew that if you found out more about some medical treatment, you might save her. You would leave no stone unturned in your search for that knowledge. That is the approach that a good SETI program should take: damn the taboos, and leave no stone unturned in searching for extraterrestrials. But instead SETI programs seem to limit themselves to turning only one type of stone (the “radio signal” type of stone). While it still may make sense to use the lion's share of SETI funding on radio searches, a decent fraction of the budget (perhaps 10%) might be better spent on alternative SETI approaches.