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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, October 28, 2016

Are They Extraterrestrial Signals From 234 Stars?

A study by Canadian astronomers has attracted considerable attention, because the astronomers claim that they may have found evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. The astronomers used spectra, which is what results when you pass the light from a star through a scientific instrument such as a spectrograph, which splits up the light into component parts. The astronomers say they have picked up irregularities in the spectra of 234 stars. 

A cluster of stars (credit: NASA)
Viewed without any transformation or alteration, the “signals” in question look completely natural. But the astronomers monkeyed with the data to get it to cough up some blips.

The paper gives figures such as the one below, showing something received from one particular star. 

But this data is not raw data from the star. It is data that has been transformed by the astronomers, who keep telling us in their paper that they are showing a “Fourier modulus of the frequency spectrum (after subtraction of its smoothed spectrum).” That's some kind of abstruse mathematical contortion – something many times more complicated than an average. Why should we be impressed by some kind of blip that emerges only after some statistical or mathematical tinkering has been done? There are 101 ways to massage data to get it to produce some type of blip, if you are looking for some type of blip to appear.
Press reports claim that these “signals” match exactly signals predicted in a 2012 paper. But that isn't actually true. The 2012 paper shows a type of blip that might appear in a stellar spectrum, but it shows a great big blip. The type of blips shown in the new paper by the Canadians are only small blips.

Here is the graph shown in the 2012 paper, which is just a "we might get signals like this some day" type of graph:

 The graph above shows a blip much, much more dramatic than the type of blips shown in the paper of the Canadian astronomers. 

I find it rather hard to believe the idea that extraterrestrials would artificially modify the radiation coming from their stars (presumably a very expensive business) in the hopes that such signals would be detected by people on other planets who just happened to apply a Fourier transform (plus an additional subtraction) to such signals. Such a message would be merely a “we are here” type of message that would not transmit semantic content, such as you can transmit in a radio message. But if you are going to go to all the trouble of trying to communicate with planets outside of you, why not use radio signals, which allow you to send detailed, meaningful content (such as a description of what your planet is like, and what type of beings live on it)?

Then there is the coincidence problem. Since the stars in question are scattered throughout space, if we are to believe that most of the spectra blips were produced by extraterrestrials, we would have to believe that coincidentally more than 100 extraterrestrial civilizations decided to use the same weird technique for signaling their existence, a technique that is not one of the five main techniques we would think extraterrestrials would use. Such a coincidence seems far-fetched.

I am also troubled by the fact that the signal is not directly found in the data, but only emerges after some monkeying with the signal that is not straightforward. We can imagine a UFO investigator presenting similar evidence:

UFO Investigator: Here's my photo showing a disk-shaped UFO in the sky. Pretty impressive, eh?
Skeptic: Wow, nice work. So that's the original photo?
UFO Investigator: No, the UFO only showed up after I applied multiple transformations to the photo. First, I applied a “Fish eye” transformation. Then I performed a “horizontal shift” transformation. Only then did the disk-shaped UFO show up.
Skeptic: Get outta here, that's worthless. Try showing me an unaltered photo!

What is very strange is that astronomers seem to be ignoring evidence of unexplained sky anomalies and UFO's in our own skies, but then they try to go torturing data from other stars until it drips out signs of extraterrestrials. There are very many unaltered photos and videos of unexplained phenomena in our own skies. Such photos and videos do not use exotic transformation techniques to produce evidence of something unusual. There is also abundant eyewitness testimony, and the witnesses were not wearing “special light transformation” glasses when they saw what they saw. Why should not such things be regarded as something much more substantial than evidence that only emerges when you have massaged data until it produces the effect you are looking for?

Why might a scientist ignore a great deal of photographs, videos, and eyewitness sightings, all suggesting evidence of something unexplained or extraterrestrial in our skies, but instead prefer to focus on some minor blips from distant stars that only emerge after some contrived methodology in which raw data is massaged until it looks very different? Perhaps the explanation has something to do with snobbery. All those UFO photos and videos are taken by ordinary citizens. There seems to be an unfortunate tendency among the very clannish scientific community for scientists to think along the lines of, “An observation doesn't count unless it was produced by someone in our little country club.” This type of snooty elitism makes no sense.

Besides a kind of people snobbery, I think there's also a kind of technological snobbery going on. A scientist may prefer some mildly suggestive observation produced by some fancy expensive piece of scientific equipment, rather than accept a much more substantial observation made by someone using some $80 point-and-click camera. This also makes no sense, since the reliability of an observation has no relation to how complicated or expensive was the equipment used to produce it. In fact, the fancier the equipment, the greater the opportunities for error.

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