Michael Crichton: “SETI is not science”

Michael Crichton explains why SETI is not science:

Cast your minds back to 1960. John F. Kennedy is president, commercial jet airplanes are just appearing, the biggest university mainframes have 12K of memory. And in Green Bank, West Virginia at the new National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a young astrophysicist named Frank Drake runs a two week project called Ozma, to search for extraterrestrial signals. A signal is received, to great excitement. It turns out to be false, but the excitement remains. In 1960, Drake organizes the first SETI conference, and came up with the now-famous Drake equation:

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet’s life during which the communicating civilizations live.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

One way to chart the cooling of enthusiasm is to review popular works on the subject. In 1964, at the height of SETI enthusiasm, Walter Sullivan of the NY Times wrote an exciting book about life in the universe entitled WE ARE NOT ALONE. By 1995, when Paul Davis wrote a book on the same subject, he titled it ARE WE ALONE? (Since 1981, there have in fact been four books titled ARE WE ALONE.) More recently we have seen the rise of the so-called “Rare Earth” theory which suggests that we may, in fact, be all alone. Again, there is no evidence either way.

Back in the sixties, SETI had its critics, although not among astrophysicists and astronomers. The biologists and paleontologists were harshest. George Gaylord Simpson of Harvard sneered that SETI was a “study without a subject,” and it remains so to the present day.

But scientists in general have been indulgent toward SETI, viewing it either with bemused tolerance, or with indifference. After all, what’s the big deal? It’s kind of fun. If people want to look, let them. Only a curmudgeon would speak harshly of SETI. It wasn’t worth the bother.

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5 responses to “Michael Crichton: “SETI is not science”

  1. Crichton is arguing that we have no evidence that ET exists, or that it is very unlikely. But Crichton doesn’t say what you need him to say: “Even if we received a narrow bandwidth radio signal from outer space, this would not be evidence of ET.” And from the context, it sounds as if receiving such a signal would be the kind of evidence that would change Crichton’s mind. Keep looking.

  2. Hi Bilbo,

    Crichton is arguing that we have no evidence that ET exists, or that it is very unlikely.

    No, he is arguing that all of the variables in the Drake equation are subjectively determined: “The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.”

    And this raises the question as to why SETI has conducted no research to better estimate those terms. Can you think of a leading SETI proponent who is actively involved in research that tries to estimate the fraction of planets where life evolves or the fraction where intelligent life evolves?

    But Crichton doesn’t say what you need him to say: “Even if we received a narrow bandwidth radio signal from outer space, this would not be evidence of ET.”

    Why would you think I need to him to say that? Discoveries can be made outside of science. If SETI finds a signal, it will simply be due to luck. Just like a Bigfoot researcher can get lucky and maybe one day capture a real Bigfoot. As for the narrow bandwidth radio signal, be sure to read my next posting.

    And from the context, it sounds as if receiving such a signal would be the kind of evidence that would change Crichton’s mind. Keep looking.

    Actually, the more I probe, the more I am convinced that SETI is not science. But I am not sure why you think I must keep looking. Can you make a powerful case to support the “SETI is science” position?

  3. If a Bigfoot researcher captured a real bigfoot, I would expect scientists to say, “Hey! Regardless of the fact that that Bigfoot whacko really had nothing to go on, he was right. Bgfoot exists!”

    I suspect they would say something similar if we ever get the wished-for radio signal.

    And I know very little about who is involved in what kind of research.

    Looking forward to your next thread.

  4. Let me add that what would surprise me would be getting the radio signal and scientists saying, “Signal, schmignal. It doesn’t mean a thing.”

  5. Bilbo,

    If a Bigfoot researcher captured a real bigfoot, I would expect scientists to say, “Hey! Regardless of the fact that that Bigfoot whacko really had nothing to go on, he was right. Bgfoot exists!”

    Agreed. But why in the world give science the credit for such a discovery? It would be a powerful demonstration that discoveries can be made without science.

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