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NPR: Were There Aliens Before Us?

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Asks Adam Frank:

Earlier this year, my colleague Woody Sullivan and I published a paper in the journal Astrobiology presenting new results that, I believe, throw new light on the ancient question. And, based on that work, last month I wrote an OpEd in The New York Times that ran with provocative title “Yes, There Were Aliens.” The Times piece found a large audience and generated strong responses running from agreement to dissent to folks telling me I really should look into UFOs (sorry, not my thing).

Just what he’s got against the UFOs is not, under the circumstances, clear. But anyway,

One of the principle objections raised to my piece was that the fact that just because 10-22 is small does not constitute a proof that exo-civilizations have existed before us. In particular Andersen took issue with this sentence: “… the degree of pessimism required to doubt the existence, at some point in time, of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization borders on the irrational.”

It is here that I have to agree with the critique. I should not have used the word “irrational.” That’s because, in spite of the tiny size of the pessimism line, it’s not “irrational” to doubt that we are unique in cosmic history. In fact, the only empirically valid claim Woody and I can make is as follows: We can say with certainty where the pessimism line lies (one in 10 billion trillion). In the absence of more data it is rationally possible to construct an argument that claims nature’s value for the bio-technical probability lies below 10-22.More.

People who haven’t noticed that we haven’t found so much as a bacterium way out there should be careful not to throw around the word “irrational.”

See also: But surely we can’t conjure an entire advanced civilization?

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One Reply to “NPR: Were There Aliens Before Us?

  1. 1
    mahuna says:

    Peace & Joy. Let’s all play nicely in the sandbox.

    I’m perfectly willing to accept almost any idea for discussion purposes. The last book I read was about Roswell, and it told me easily a dozen facts I had not heard anywhere.

    BUT… unless you only want to start arguments in bars, the burden of proof is always on the guy with the new theory, using “theory” in the loose, friendly conversation. (Um, Hitler escaped from Germany on a U-boat in 1945 and is still alive, living either in Argentina or the huge Nazi base under the ice sheet in Antarctica…)

    To argue that a thing MUST be true because I can’t disprove it by this afternoon is about as anti-scientific a position as I can imagine. But of the course the real question is whether he can get a grant to pursue his silly idea instead of working.

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