SETI – Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter: part 1

[ 11 ] Comments

Ha ha! The title should garner angry crowds bearing sharpened spoons*, chanting before my office window in Mountain View.

*Because spoons are the only tools their caretakers will allow.

Not so seriously, a hilarious article in the tabloid, Daily Mail, is illustrative, and reminds me of the famous “heavy boots[1]” questionnaire:

Even the link is funny! An apparently reputable journal recently published results of interviews with 116 college undergraduates describing their scientific “opinions” about SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence). We leave aside the societal relevance of opinions from 18-23 year olds who’ve never worked a day in their life! (Uh oh, I hear jingling spoons again.) Ha ha, just kidding, all you large, young, and physically intimidating people attending their first years of college!  The crucial results:

(a) 82.1% think it is important to have a space agency.

(b) 71.4% think the military should have the main role in the event of contact with an alien civilisation.

(c) 80% believe if we find aliens more advanced than us they will try to conquer us.

(d) 78% believe there is a chance we’ve been visited by aliens in the past.

From (d) we infer that most undergraduates received their foundational science education from science fiction movies. This helps explain the rest. I’m most worried about question (b). Should the military be the first of “diplomats” that aliens meet?  The army has a hammer, called war. What better way to start a war than by throwing spitballs at aliens?

Actual posted comments to the article:
” When the Old Ones, who dwell among the stars return, they will put us in our place.”

“It would destroy religion and the oil industry.”

Fan favorite:

” The Vatican is at this very moment expecting to meet an alien to save the world. This will be the seed of Satan!”

The point I’m making is that SETI is a branch of science. The opposite of “science,” for want of a better word, might be called “belief.” (jingle, jingle…) Example: Recently at the ATA (visitor hours 9am-3pm M-F), a courageous young man told me straight to my face, “I don’t believe in aliens.” What was I to do? I said, “Well, it’s not a religion.” (jingle, jingle…) Ah! Not to disparage religion or any other system of beliefs.  To avoid the imminent mobs, I’ll re-label what I called “beliefs” as, “convicted opinions that cannot be tested by observations of nature,” or opinions for short.

Whether or not aliens exist is not a matter of anyone’s opinion. It is a scientific question that can and should be answered with science.

For more see parts 2 and 3 on this blog topic.


About gharp

Trained in condensed matter physics at U.W.-Milwaukee; was once Assoc. Prof. of Physics at Ohio University, Athens, OH. Switched to Astrophysics in 2000 and joined SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA . Presently Harp is the director for SETI research and works with the radio telescope. Allen Telescope Array (ATA), to perform SETI and astrophysics observations.

11 Responses to SETI – Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter: part 1

  1. gharp says:

    So are humans prepared for contact with aliens? No! Nor should we be.

    Humans never prepare for events that have never happened before. From an evolutionary perspective, this seems like the correct decision. Preparing for non-events wastes precious energy.

    How about all those folks who built underground bunkers against nuclear war in the 1950’s? Was this time well-spent? Might as well have been sailing.

    • David says:

      Should the dinosaurs have prepared for a major asteroid impact given it had never happened to them before? Well, if the dinosaurs had colonized the galaxy, they’d probably still be alive today. It’s because we are human that we have the brains to understand and do risk forecast analysis and prepare for it – that is one of the few things that sets us above dumb animals. (And the danger of nuclear war was very real – many came very close to needing those bunkers during October 1962, for example – and I know of several hundred thousand Japanese who could have done very well with underground bunkers at some point.)

      • gharp says:

        I’m humbled and gratified by the number of posts to my blog.

        Yes, the Japanese may well have benefited by bunkers. Unfortunately, they had no concept at the time, that such bunkers would be useful. The physics of nuclear bombs was not well understood by anyone, until after the bomb attacks on Japan. I’m very sad that such a tragedy occurred.

        This is totally off the wall, but I sometimes wonder if the dinosaurs did not, after all, give rise to a dominant species in the same way humans have become dominant on the Earth. How could we know for sure? The dinosaurs died off in a quick period (in geological time), much like humans have exterminated many species in recent times. This is a totally crazy idea, so I ask my scientist friends to pay no attention. Many people wonder if human species, in its present form, can have a long lifetime (on geologic time scales). Lets hope that humans adapt, or even evolve, into a species with longer life expectancy.

  2. Tobias Gerritzen says:

    Dear Dr. Harp,

    your comment left me puzzled. For the simple reason that it would be very naive to believe we could not or should not prepare for impact of contact. In fact we should prepare by thinking through all kinds of eventualities, and this has not been done so far (not even by SF writers). A kind of preparation would be that scientists who do SETI invite scientists of other disciplines (psychologists, theologists, historians, sociologists) and actually listen to what they have to say and to do research regarding the cultural aspects of contact in the human history. Doug Vakoch and Al Harrison do great jobs – but it is far too little and insufficient. Especially the complication of politics and the role of the media in the case of a contact has not been studied at all sufficiently. Instead, this attitude of not preparing for contact appears to me like a ignoring all storm warnings and go out sailing. With SETI listening every day, we know the contact can happen any time – this is something different than saying: we don’t know when it will happen. Remember earthquakes. Nobody knows when they will happen. But e.g. in Japan, many lives are saved because some engineers invented earthquake-proof architecture and technology in the event of a monster quake.

    Kind regards,
    Tobias Gerritzen

  3. gharp says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Tobias.

    OK, you got me. The comment is glib. Yet preparing for earthquakes isn’t the same as preparing for ET communication, since earthquakes have happened before.

    I was trying to say that the human tendency to ignore dangers until they reach crisis level (like global warming), might have served a useful purpose in humanities successful descendance. Is it in our nature?

    If you were king, how would you create an environment where the right people would be motivated to study this issue?

  4. Tobias Gerritzen says:

    Well, this is a very good point. I think the human ability to ignore dangers should be part of the psychological and sociological study of the possible outcomes of a contact. This would help to avoid that we, perhaps, rush directly into disaster. But continuing to ignore the potential dangers of contact could be fatal to us as humans.
    To outsmart this human tendency to ignore the dangers throughout human history would, in terms of SETI contact, comprise also the possibility that SETI is, perhaps, not the only way of making contact, but also e.g. SETA. Contact my occur in as diverse scenarios as a detected signal or in an alien robot space probe found on moon. Therefore, I think SETI should broaden its perspective and cooperate with other scientific disciplines more intensively (“New SETI” as proposed by Circovic or Tough).

  5. David says:

    I don’t really see the need to make excessive ‘pomp and ceremony’ of ‘meeting’ aliens, and the idea of implementing restrictions (e.g. ‘military/government only’) is utterly fascist and abhorrent – if we do that, I suspect the visiting aliens would be disturbed by our fascist/militarist mindset – if they are intelligent sentient species then it would be fair to grant such visitors the liberty of meeting with whoever they please (provided they seem harmless enough). If they want to attend military or pseudo-ceremonial opportunistic PR opportunities for our politicians, then that should be their choice. But if they rather just want to, say, browse a Chinese street market or go up the Eiffel tower and purchase cheap tourist trinkets to take back home, that should be their choice. If they have some scientific mission, then allow them to focus on that. A humanitarian and ethical meeting implies basic courtesies like allowing freedom of movement and free trade. Imagine you visited an alien planet, and just wanted to hang around in their pubs and mingle with the locals, and you were denied this and instead forced to engage in some huge, costly ceremonial/militarist engagement … it seems bizarre. The universe is there and open for individuals to travel and meet, not only for military leaders and politicians. If aliens are visiting here, it’s unlikely they’ll be sending their politicians anyway – the nature would probably more likely be scientific/exploratory, trade, or individuals looking to settle elsewhere, like the early pioneers who left for the New World.

    Of course there are some pragmatic basics – e.g. making sure their intentions seem benign, or checking that we’re unlikely to to spread infections that could be deadly to one another.

    As life is probably relatively common, I think it’s unlikely that space-faring aliens regard it as massively special to encounter life, unless it’s also their ‘first’ … it’s probably a bit like losing your virginity – the first discovery of an alien species might prompt silly ceremonial or militarist responses due to the novelty, due to the ‘wow factor’ … but imagine we get to a point where we’re discovering life form after life form all over the galaxy … we’re hardly going to go into conniptions each time we discover a new one then.

    • gharp says:

      Hi David

      I don’t have much to say because I don’t disgree with your sentiments. I will say only that I think real, embodied, visitiations by extraterrestrial will be rare (understatement). My person opinion is that ET will not bother to visit Earth in body, simply because the equivalent of “warp drive” or faster than light (FTL) transportation is physically impossible. Science fiction and Star Trek are wonderful forms of entertainment, but no physics known today actually allow FTL travel. I don’t believe there ever will be such a thing. Reasonably, we can expect only transmissions (light / radio waves) to be the primary form of communication between interstellar civilizations. Again, this is only my thoughtful opinion…

  6. Margaret says:

    Discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe would mean that we are not alone in the universe. This does not negate the existence of God. He can create as many creatures as He wishes.

    As far as the oil industry, if any human or alien comes up with something cleaner and more efficient than petroleum, that would be great.

    There is a possibility that there are no extraterrestrials that are available to meet us. The human imagination will continue to create them, nonetheless.

    • gharp says:

      Hi Margaret

      I was busy responding to your message, but then my computer spontaneously rebooted. I’ll try to recover my earlier remarks.

      Please try to understand my comment about the existence of God. I am not an atheist, nor am I devout theist. My remark said only that science cannot reveal or deny the existence of God. In personal human experience, many people have experienced the existence of God. If you will forgive me for making an association, many people known to me have revealed having personal communications with extraterrestrials. Or Angels. I do not discount any of these experiences in the least. It is a part of human nature to be aware of supernatual entities. I cannot explain this, especially with science, but such experiences are so common — practically all humans have such experiences at one time or another — that I am not ready to believe that they are all psychotic episodes.

      Still, I believe that science will never reveal the existence of God. Science is the study of the natural laws of the universe, which until now, appear to be (mostly) determinate and anyway unbiased. God exists in another realm.

      FWIW, I have a close friend who believes that when science is finally epitomized, it will be consistent with his religion and it will all fit together like a puzzle. He is also a highly trained an excellent physicist. I won’t contradict him.

  7. gharp says:

    Right! As an example, we have looked for artifacts left at the L4 Lagrange orbit that might radiate signals. So far, no luck.

    I have a hammer called a radio telescope. To me, everything looks like a nail. I’d love to explore the moon for artifacts, if only I could.

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