The nature of science
SETI: a skeptical take
We’ve been looking for extra-terrestrial intelligence for several decades. What is that all about anyway?
I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Who isn’t? When I was a kid, I got into UFOs and such. Then the age of reason dawned and I realized that actual science is more interesting than fantasy. So I got into SETI, the (scientific) Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
I read about the pioneering work of Frank Drake (more on him in a moment), devoured everything Carl Sagan wrote about it, and even — for a long time — downloaded and used the SETI program screen saver, which doubles as data processor on behalf of the SETI Institute.
This is all good (and somewhat expensive, in terms of research program) fun, but is it science? The first doubt crossed my mind when I read about the famous Fermi paradox. The story goes that in the summer of 1950 four physicists — Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Herbert York and Emil Konopinski — were walking to lunch and conversing about the latest UFO sightings. At some point Fermi said: “But where is everybody?” Meaning, if life is so common in the galaxy as some believe, how come we haven’t encountered it yet? No matter how difficult, costly, and laborious, space travel is, Fermi argued, time is on the side of ET. Our galaxy has existed for billions of years. By now surely someone would have managed to knock at the door.
Needless to say, if you are a SETI enthusiast you will scoff at Fermi’s paradox. To your peril, because the question is a serious one. If Fermi is right, technological civilizations are either extremely rare or of very short duration. Which not only excludes visiting flying saucers, but also makes it extremely unlikely that we’ll be capturing a cosmic radio signal from another intelligence any time soon, or ever.
Physicist and skeptic Leonard Tramiel is aware of the problem (which I have first brought up in my Nonsense on Stilts), so much so that he has given a talk on the subject at New York City Skeptics, on the basis of which he has then published an essay in Skeptical Inquirer magazine. There, Tramiel takes a somewhat skeptical view of SETI. Not skeptical enough…