The SETI Delusion

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The SETI Delusion

In August 7, 1996, President Bill Clinton spoke to reporters about a Martian meteor:  “Today,” he said, “rock 84001 speaks to us across all those billions of years and millions of miles.  It speaks of the possibility of life.  If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.  Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined.” 

It took scientists several years to fully debunk claims of extraterrestrial fossils in that meteor and, even then, hardly anyone outside the astrobiology community ever became aware that the claims President Clinton referred to did not stand up under rigorous analysis. 

Clearly a “dog bites man” story never gets the coverage of a “man bites dog” story.  So when NASA scientists claimed to have made a similar discovery in early 2011, we weren’t too surprised that it received a good bit of press. 

However, this time, other NASA scientists moved quickly to point out that the meteor was likely contaminated after reaching Earth and that the “peer review” process was not adequate for this kind of claim.  But, as before, the sensational story received much more attention than the truth. 

History shows that, regardless of how often these stories pop up and are debunked, there’s a persistent belief that extra-terrestrial life and even “technologically sophisticated visitors from space” actually exist.  In fact, among much of the population, there is clear evidence of a hope, bordering on religious faith, that the universe is teeming with “intelligent life.”

Many well-educated people, including Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help fund the search for this life through groups such as the SETI Institute.  SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.  Even larger sums are devoted to astrobiology research at universities and government labs around the world.

However, rather than hard science, these hopes and wishes are really just subjective speculations based on several broad assumptions, such as “the universe is so vast, the chances are that other life forms must be out there.” 

A variation on this type of belief is called the Principle of Mediocrity.  This hypothesis assumes the following:

  1. Earth is a typical planet,
  2. in a typical solar system, and
  3. in an unexceptional region of a common galaxy, therefore
  4. since Earth has complex life, the universe must be teeming with complex life

In 1960, Dr...

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