Daniel Whitmire, a retired astrophysicist who teaches mathematics at the University of Arkansas, once thought the cosmic silence indicated we as a species lagged far behind.
“I taught astronomy for 37 years,” said Whitmire. “I used to tell my students that by statistics, we have to be the dumbest guys in the galaxy. After all we have only been technological for about 100 years while other civilizations could be more technologically advanced than us by millions or billions of years.”
Recently, however, he’s changed his mind. By applying a statistical concept called the principle of mediocrity — the idea that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary we should consider ourselves typical, rather than atypical — Whitmire has concluded that instead of lagging behind, our species may be average. That’s not good news.
In a paper published Aug. 3 in the International Journal of Astrobiology, Whitmire argues that if we are typical, it follows that species such as ours go extinct soon after attaining technological knowledge. (The paper is also available on Whitmire’s website.) Paper. (public access) – Daniel P. Whitmire. Implication of our technological species being first and early. International Journal of Astrobiology, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S1473550417000271 More.
From the Abstract:
According to the Principle of Mediocrity, a cornerstone of modern cosmology, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we should believe that we are a typical member of an appropriately chosen reference class. If we assume that this principle applies to the reference class of all extant technological species, then it follows that other technological species will, like us, typically find that they are both the first such species to evolve on their planet and also that they are early in their potential technological evolution. Here we argue that this suggests that the typical technological species becomes extinct soon after attaining a modern technology and that this event results in the extinction of the planet’s global biosphere.
This is an old idea and there is a certain tragic beauty to it—if we were staging a big utterdoom theatre production like the Ring Cycle.
But the current situation is just as consistent with the intelligent aliens never having existed, for whatever reason.
Maybe the Principle of Mediocrity is itself bunk. Sheer numbers might not matter if extremely complex and unusual conditions are required. And we discover more complexity here on Earth every day.
On what law of physics is it founded?
See also: But surely we can’t conjure an entire advanced civilization?
How do we grapple with the idea that ET might not be out there?
Not only is earth one nice planet among many, but our entire universe is lost in a crowd