In “SETI Gets Good Press” (June 25, 2012), Creation-Evolution Headlines asks why the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is treated with such respect, despite 50 years of They never write, They never phone:
As SETI researchers continue to hope for signals, they have plenty of time to ask philosophical and even theological questions. On Live Science, in an article adorned by a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the suggestive but discredited microphoto inside Martian Meteorite ALH 84001 that launched the contentless science of Astrobiology, Mike Wall speculated, “Would Finding Aliens Shatter Religious Beliefs?” The short answer is, No, because religion thrived after Copernicus, who (according to popular myth) removed man from the center of the universe (watch The Privileged Planet documentary for needed correctives). SETI Institute talking heads Seth Shostak and Doug Vakoch were given the typical softball questions for granting Live Science readers authoritative opinions about a field – theology – for which they are unqualified.
In the context, the softball questions provide a clue: SETI is “spilt religion,” that is, an essentially religious enterprise that doesn’t recognize itself as such. If it did, it would have to ask harder questions.
Two characteristics of spilt religions is that their experts are not theologians and only puffball questions are batted their way. And they demand little. When the public has something to move on to, it tires of them and the hardballs start to land.
Wall did not consider the inverse question, “Would not finding aliens shatter naturalistic beliefs?” Nick Lane did, though. On New Scientist, he asked an either-or fallacy question, “Life: is it inevitable or just a fluke?” Most inhabitants of Earth believe an unstated third option, that it was designed, but to humor Mr. Lane for awhile, we watch as he puzzles over the Fermi Paradox (the “Where are they?” conundrum). He was clearly astonished by the complexity of Earth life’s energy transport systems. He even included a link to an animation of ATP synthase in his article. For relief of headache caused by contemplation of irreducible complexity, he practiced transcendental meditation repeating Michael Russell’s mantra that life could have started in hydrothermal vents (see 2/15/2008 and its embedded links). “Such vents, Russell realised, provide everything needed to incubate life,” Lane comforted himself as he prepared to recline back to his naturalistic slumbers; “Or rather they did, four billion years ago.” Drifting off, the thought generated a nightmare: if life is a fluke, intelligent life might indeed be rare. Maybe that’s why SETI hasn’t heard anybody yet.
Besides which, SETI is a religion pop science media can live with. Any pop science star can be a theologian and no one can make any demands – except on other people.
If you were a space alien,how would you answer alien hunter Seth Shostak’s two questions?
An anthropologist looks at SETI the way SETI fans speculate about space aliens …
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2 Replies to “Why, exactly, has Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) got good press for fifty years?”
SETI would flip their dish if they ever found the Fibonacci sequence in a signal from the stars. But maybe they should “flip” their equipment around and point it at the human genome.
I’ve read that these ratios act as a checksum, but is there a naturalistic explanation for why the ratios have to be golden? Unfortunately I don’t have access to read the entire paper.
“They never write, They never phone”
Still they must be out there. Scientific orthodoxy remains pumped up by grant money, peer review and popular media. I wonder if the right questions will ever begin to be asked. A good one would be “why are we not finding life out there?”