SETI, ID, and Science

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.

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15 responses to “SETI, ID, and Science

  1. What I think you’ve revealed is that Schostak wasn’t telling us everything, when he said that all they were looking for was a narrow-band radio signal. Apparently that would only cause a suspicion of design. Then they would look for further evidence, such as a mathmatically complex signal coming from the same place.

    But if they obtained this further evidence, do you think scientists would accept it as designed?

  2. Belated Happy New Year to Mike and all his blog readers.

  3. Of course the SETI project is science.

  4. Alan,

    Does that mean that ID is science?

  5. The criteria for saying the SETI project is a scientific endeavour are:

    1. Testable hypothesis:

    If alien lifeforms exist elsewhere in the universe and have developed to the extent that they use electromagnetic radiation for some reason and they intersect with the past light cone of the Earth, this electromagnetic radiation may be distinguishable from other sources.

    2. Experiment:

    Use radio telescopes to look for anomalous sources of radio waves.

    This is all within the realm of reality. If you are aware of an ID hypothesis that is testable by experiment (even a thought experiment) then that hypothesis and experiment would of course be scientific. I am not aware of any such ID project.

    I am puzzled why you should think SETI being science has any bearing on ID being science. One must judge ID on its own merits.

  6. By anomolous sources of radiation you mean…what exactly, Alan.

  7. Unusual signals. But impossible to say what such a signal might be! That’s the fun part!

  8. Hi Alan! You know I love you to bits, but I respectfully disagree with you on SETI, because of the falsification criteria.

    Here are some examples:

    Gravity: drop a ball and measure the time it takes to fall

    Is it science? Yes. because we have positive entailments and it is easily falsified by non-falling.

    Dark Matter:

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2009/12/a_tantalizing_hint_of_dark_mat.php

    Is it science? Hmmphhhh. Well, from a bayesian certainty standpoint yes, (abductively) but from a falsification standpoint, NO.

    And then we have SETI. At what point does the experiment fail? How would we know? How long should we look?

  9. Alan: “Unusual signals”

    I think if SETI’s seach was as vague as that, then noboby would take them seriously.

    Rich, if SETI found their desired signals, would that be good evidence that they were designed?

  10. Hi Rich mon pote

    “Monsieur, à quoi peut bien servir l’enfant qui vient de naître ?”

    If we don’t look, we certainly won’t find anything. SETI’s methods are scientific; tha objective is, I grant, wishful thinking. But we don’t know what we don’t know.

  11. Bilbo:

    I think if SETI’s search was as vague as that, then nobody would take them seriously.

    The search is not vague. There is just no way of guessing a priori what is out there to be found. If and when an unusual signal is found, the real work will begin. It may be no intelligent life exists elsewhere within reach of our radio telescopes but serendipitous discoveries (as happened with quasars and pulsars) could occur. If we don’t look we won’t find anything.

    Until and if we find life unconnected to life on earth the Drake equation is essentially guesswork. But as life on earth has been and is being designed by its environment, I would not be surprised to see the same design input from an aliens’ environment having designed it appropriately. (But that’s just more wishful thinking, I guess!)

  12. Erratum

    “Until and if” should have read “until and unless”

  13. Hi Bilbo. I’m not qualified to answer that question. If (like in contact) they braodcast a set of rules whereby we could reconstruct grammer and syntax then possibly.

    *I assume by “they were designed” you mean the signals and not the senders.

  14. Once they find this “unusual signal”, Alan, what would make them think it is intelligently designed?

  15. Until anyone has an “unusual” signal to analyse, speculation, while fun and limited only by our imagination, is not productive.

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