Why Do I Find SETI Research Such a Downer?

Recently, the BBC reported on new research that tries to quantify the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.

The study was called “A numerical testbed for hypotheses of extraterrestrial life and intelligence” by D.H. Forganal, Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh. The article abstract reads:

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been heavily influenced by solutions to the Drake Equation, which returns an integer value for the number of communicating civilizations resident in the Milky Way, and by the Fermi Paradox, glibly stated as: ‘If they are there, where are they?’. Both rely on using average values of key parameters, such as the mean signal lifetime of a communicating civilization. A more accurate answer must take into account the distribution of stellar, planetary and biological attributes in the galaxy, as well as the stochastic nature of evolution itself. This paper outlines a method of Monte Carlo realization that does this, and hence allows an estimation of the distribution of key parameters in SETI, as well as allowing a quantification of their errors (and the level of ignorance therein). Furthermore, it provides a means for competing theories of life and intelligence to be compared quantitatively.

The findings of the research paper mean that there should be at least 361 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy and possibly as many as 38,000.

But, while researchers often come up with overall estimates of the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe, it is a process fraught with guesswork; recent guesses put the number anywhere between a million and less than one.

“It’s a process of quantifying our ignorance,” said Dr. Forganal, the University of Edinburgh researcher who carried out the work.

But here’s the part that always bothers me: SETI researchers are always at pains to point out (as Dr. Forganal does) that, “Even if alien life forms do exist, we may not necessarily be able to make contact with them, and we have no idea what form they would take…Life on other planets may be as varied as life on Earth and we cannot predict what intelligent life on other planets would look like or how they might behave.”

So my question is this: if there are alien civilizations but we can’t talk to them or even potentially recognize them as intelligent then what good is it to us to know of their existence? Isn’t it the ultimate cosmic tease to have them out there but not be able to do anything about it?

I’ve often heard SETI-minded folks give as a rationale for their work the line that’s usually used in STAR TREK plots: that discovering there are other intelligent lifeforms in the galaxy would mean humanity wasn’t so alone and would make us rethink fundamental concepts of our civilization…

But I don’t know if I buy that. Don’t get me wrong: I certainly hope there’s intelligent life out there amongst the stars; I certainly hope the SETI folks are wrong and we can and do make contact with it. I think communication (hopefully frequent) with alien life would indeed make us rethink some of our stupidity and short-sightedness.

But knowing they’re out there but we can never, ever talk to them? What is that supposed to do? Isn’t that a bit like suggesting that even though you’re in solitary confinement you should take heart that there are at least other people somewhere in the prison where you can’t see or hear or interact with them?

– S.

2 thoughts on “Why Do I Find SETI Research Such a Downer?

  1. We’re in a global economic crisis. I sincerely hope this kind of thing is first on the chopping block.

    How’s that for a downer?

  2. We still don’t have any real idea how to go faster than light. Rather than say “What if?” we can’t communicate with aliens, we should take that as given.

    I know that’s depressing, but it’s our current understanding of the universe. It might change in the future, but there are pretty good reasons (like causality) to think that it won’t. For that reason, I don’t really mind if the SETI folks listen to empty space. Anything interesting they might hear will be at least hundreds of years old.

    The second bit of bad news is that any aliens are just as likely to attack and destroy us as they are to solve our problems. Heck, maybe they’d just put us in a petting zoo.

    We’re not enslaved or dead at the hands of the Klingons, the Kzinti, or the Cylons. Cheer up!

    Neal F. Guye

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