Let us continue to consider SETI and its relation to both ID and science. There is a simple fact that is often overlooked in these discussions – SETI has failed to come up with a single positive result. This is important. It means that even if one thinks SETI is science, we can still argue that without independent evidence of the designers, science has a) never detected design and b) never seriously proposed design as an explanation for any given phenomenon. So as it stands today, SETI fails as a counter-example to my position:
Without independent evidence of the designers, science has no method to evaluate and determine whether or not something was designed.
But let’s dig a little more deeply. Since SETI has yet to come up with a single positive result, we must rely on our imagination to anticipate the reaction of the scientific community. So let’s again consider Seth Shostak’s description of SETI’s method:
In fact, the signals actually sought by today’s SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. We’re not looking for intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens’ version of “I Love Lucy.” Our instruments are largely insensitive to the modulation – or message – that might be conveyed by an extraterrestrial broadcast. A SETI radio signal of the type we could actually find would be a persistent, narrow-band whistle. Such a simple phenomenon appears to lack just about any degree of structure, although if it originates on a planet, we should see periodic Doppler effects as the world bearing the transmitter rotates and orbits.
Let me be the first to point out that if SETI ever discovers a persistent, narrow-band whistle, SETI will succeed in generating interest about this new phenomenon, but most scientists will not embrace this as evidence for ETI.
What SETI will have found is some phenomenon that cannot currently explained by natural causes. This, by itself, is not evidence of intelligent causation. SETI, of course, will argue that it was their hypothesis of intelligent causation that led to the discovery of this signal, and this will carry some weight, but in the end, scientists will need more powerful evidence to accept this simple signal as evidence of ETI. As Sagan noted, in science, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Science will demand this better evidence not only because it is inherently conservative with its claims, but because of precedent. In 1967, Jocelyn Bell detected a series of pulses that occurred at a regular interval of 1.333 seconds. When she shared her findings with others, there was a slight suspicion of that she had discovered something wild. In her own words:
We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission.
But as it turned out, what Bell had discovered was the emission of rotating neutron stars which came to be aptly labeled ‘pulsars.’
So there is precedent here. Long ago, SETI detected a simple signal and it turned out to be a new natural phenomenon. Thus, if a new signal is ever discovered, who is to say that it will not eventually be determined to arise from another natural cause? Why should we jump the gun when such a premature conclusion in 1967 might have precluded our ability to discover pulsars?
So what is the significance of this signal? When not trying to convince people that SETI is very different from ID, Shostak offers a little more information:
People frequently assume that, in trying to recognize E.T., we look for particular patterns in the radio noise—the value of pi, perhaps. We don’t. We’re not looking for a modulation, just a narrowband signal. The wider the bandwidth, the more noise collected by the receiver. So if the aliens want to be heard, they’d take all their transmitter power and put it into a one-hertz-wide channel or less—as narrow as they can make it. They can’t push much information through a channel like that, of course, but at least it tells us that they’re on the air. Then they could have lower-power transmitters sending more interesting signals. If we found that narrowband signal, we’d go after that spot on the sky for all we were worth, looking for the information channel.
So the signal is nothing more than an attention-getting tactic. By itself, it will not convince many people that ETI exists. What would matter is what was found by going “after that spot on the sky for all we were worth.” At this point, it’s not another persistent, narrow-band whistle that will be sought. Instead, what scientists will need is intricately coded messages, mathematical series, or even the aliens’ version of “I Love Lucy.” (to quote Shostak from above) Then it will be time to recreate what Drake originally did with Bell’s pulsar:
“I made long recordings of the pulse intensities, on tape and on chart paper, and then sat scrutinizing the charts, trying to discern signal patterns in them. I stared at them for hours at a time, but even in my eagerness to find an alien message, I never saw any evidence to make me think these tracings were of intelligent origin.”
If none is found, the signal will remain an anomaly and the SETI folks will be stuck in the awkward position of watching their positive result become something of icon among the UFO crowd and New Age religions, while being unable to convince the scientific community that they have evidence for ETI.
In the next installment, let’s look more closely at the signal and the message.