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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Why SETI Experts Make Lousy UFO Commentators

When I was a boy reading about the prospects of intelligent life on other planets, I came to the conclusion that it was likely that within a few decades mankind would receive radio signals from other worlds. I thought this was quite likely to occur before the end of the twentieth century. Authors such as Carl Sagan were making it sound like we could expect to pick up extraterrestrial radio signals before very long. Sagan kept telling people that there were a million extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy alone. With so many civilizations, how long could it be before we picked up a radio signal from one of them? 

SETI scientists use radio telescopes like this one

But it is now the year 2016, and no such radio signal has been received. SETI (which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is the term used for the scientific quest to detect extraterrestrials by looking for radio signals. SETI has been a flop thus far, a failed enterprise. So we don't often see SETI experts on our television screens. When we do see our SETI experts on television, it is often on television shows discussing UFO sightings. But this doesn't make sense, because there are several reasons why SETI experts make lousy commentators on UFO sightings.

The first reason is that being a SETI expert is in no way a qualification for saying anything about a UFO sighting. You might think otherwise, on the grounds that SETI experts “know extraterrestrials.” But they don't. If SETI ever pays off, and radio signals are received from some extraterrestrial civilization, then (after what may be a long period of deciphering and analysis) it may become true that SETI experts know something about extraterrestrials. But right now our SETI experts don't know a thing about extraterrestrials.

The radio search for extraterrestrials (SETI) involves a set of things that has nothing to do with UFO sightings. SETI experts know things such as big radio telescopes, computer search algorithms, which planets might be habitable, and natural and artificial radio sources. No such things come into play in UFO sightings. So a SETI expert is no more qualified to pontificate about a UFO sighting than your plumber or your hairdresser.

A second reason why SETI experts make lousy UFO commentators is that it seems whenever SETI experts talk about UFO sightings, they seem to show no evidence of having researched the facts about the sightings, and resort instead to lazy armchair reasoning that might occur to anyone. In this way they follow a kind of rule of laziness typically followed by scientists trying to debunk ideas that may be taboo in their little tribe of scientists. Similarly, 95% of scientists making dismissive comments about extrasensory perception (ESP) or life after death show no sign of having researched the evidence for such things.

The armchair arguments made by such SETI experts are extremely weak. One of their arguments is that if extraterrestrials were to ever arrive, we would see a spaceship the size of Manhattan orbiting our planet, or a UFO landing on the White House lawn. Such arguments are not valid, because such possibilities are merely two of a million possible ways in which extraterrestrials might interact with us. 
 
Another armchair argument I recently heard by a SETI expert is that sightings of UFOs should be dismissed because they are merely eyewitness testimony, and don't involve permanent physical evidence. Using similar reasoning, we would have to let half of the murderers in prison walk free, because their convictions were based only on eyewitness testimony.

A third reason why SETI experts make lousy UFO commentators is that within this little tribe of scientists there seems to be some weird strategy that goes rather like this: SETI experts think that they can make themselves look like discerning, “no nonsense” scientists by dismissing all evidence of extraterrestrials except for the type of radio evidence they are looking for. This thought process is very weird. We can imagine a similar thing going on in the mind of a scientist researching Bigfoot.

Scientist: So I have asked the National Science Foundation for 10 million dollars in research money. I will use the money to fund a team of scientists who will go into the deep forests of northern Canada, and look for infrared heat signatures coming from Bigfoot creatures.
Reporter: Interesting. Do you believe any of those people who claim to have seen Bigfoot?
Scientist: Seeing Bigfoot ?!? Why, I don't believe in that type of nonsense.

It makes no sense for SETI experts to follow such a strategy. The more evidence there is for extraterrestrial visitations on our planet, the more likely it is that some SETI radio search for extraterrestrials will pay off. So why should SETI experts have a predisposition to reject UFO sightings? Perhaps it is some kind of “no one shall come to the extraterrestrials but through my path” thinking on the part of the SETI expert, similar to the “no one can come to God but through our path” thinking of narrow-minded theologians.

A fourth reason why SETI experts make lousy UFO commentators is a psychological reason. UFO sightings may act as a kind of “salt in the wound” for scientists who have invested decades of their life in a failed search for extraterrestrial signals.

Let's imagine you tell a person there are two investment options: Investment 1 and Investment 2. The man invests $20,000 in Investment 1, and loses all his money. Now suppose you say to this person after he had lost all his money: you would have made a million dollars if you had invested in Investment 2. Will this person tend to accept such an idea? No, he will never believe it. The man's loss of his $20,000 is his wound, and telling him that he would have become rich if he had invested in the other option is like rubbing salt in his wound.

Now consider a senior SETI researcher who has spent decades in a fruitless search for extraterrestrial radio signals. The failure of this quest is like his wound. If that person accepts that UFO sightings are good evidence for extraterrestrials, that is like salt in the wound. For now the SETI researcher has to have thoughts like this:

How foolish of me. I bet my money on the wrong horse! Rather than spending decades in a fruitless search for radio signals from extraterrestrials, I should have been investigating UFOs. Think of what I could have accomplished if I had gone down that path.

But such thoughts are too psychologically painful. So the empty-handed SETI researcher is someone we can always expect to speak dismissively of UFO sightings. Even when they are as dramatic as the Hudson Valley UFO sightings of the 1980's, in which thousands of people reported seeing UFOs the size of a football field (according to a report in the New York Times).