Saturday, February 21, 2009

SETI is for chumps (and other reasons why we have yet to hear from aliens)

As I've illustrated in previous postings, I'm not convinced the "Fermi Paradox" is quite the insoluble puzzle it's generally made out to be. On the contrary, I think there's ample reason to think the human species could be interacting with a fantastically novel (and secretive) form of ETI, although I realize that proving my hunch is another matter altogether.

Nevertheless, it's worth examining some of the reasons we have yet to receive the popularly conceived extraterrestrial signal currently sought by mainstream SETI researchers. If nothing else, a breakdown of the options casts our own brief legacy as a technological species in a sobering glow.

1.) Maybe some intelligent ETs forego radio transmission in favor of crewed exploration. Although unwieldy by human standards, there are innumerable reasons why spacecraft might be deemed preferable to manning radio telescopes. Put less gently, perhaps SETI is for chumps.

2.) Forget exploration; maybe aliens lose interest in such arduous ventures as soon as they develop technologies that enable them to inhabit custom-engineered realities. Imagine a future incarnation of Second Life; would users voluntarily leave worlds (and bodies) of their own creation if their needs were provided for?

3.) Maybe the situation's grimmer than we like to admit and ET civilizations almost inevitably self-destruct. We've only narrowly avoided nuclear Armageddon here on Earth, and we're still far from reaching a sustainable geopolitical milieu. Why should ETs necessarily be any different?

4.) Of course, there's the "quarantine" hypothesis, which maintains that while at least one ET presence in aware of us, it elects to remain unseen -- at least until we reach some arbitrary level of sophistication or enlightenment. In one version of this scenario we're being actively (if clandestinely) groomed for eventual contact, which might explain aspects of the UFO phenomenon.

5.) Perhaps aliens do rely on radio, but only briefly, inevitably graduating to vastly improved modes of communication (some possibly beyond the scope of modern physics). In this case there's a chance we could eavesdrop on a stray transmission, but it would be so old that it would tell us very little about what the originating civilization was up to now . . . or if it even still existed in recognizable form.

6.) We could be the first. After all, someone has to be. But the sheer number of stars in our galaxy -- to say nothing of the discovery of ubiquitous exoplanets -- argues that we aren't. (Perhaps it's equally likely that we're the last, and that other intelligences have long since abandoned long-distance radio communication in favor of hedonistic virtual worlds or a "postbiological" existence antithetical to scientific curiosity. Having ensured their survival, advanced aliens might be a curiously unimaginative lot.)

7.) On a more ominous note, maybe detectable civilizations arise regularly but are quickly snuffed out by a galaxy-spanning intelligence that's adopted the role of cosmic exterminator. Interstellar warfare would seem to be the stuff of pulp science fiction, but the survival imperative is rooted in basic Darwinism. We can't rationally exclude the possibility, however slim, that candidate civilizations invariably fall victim to vengeful self-made gods.

8.) Encrypted transmissions could be so complex -- or so excruciatingly simple -- that we simply don't recognize them as the work of intelligence. Although we take great pains to envision "the alien," our objectivity could be hobbled by our innate tendency to assume ETs will resemble ourselves in at least basic respects.

9.) Some scientists insist that while primitive ET life is relatively common, ET intelligence is effectively impossible in light of the myriad variables that spawned complex life on Earth. Proponents of the "Rare Earth" hypothesis aren't afraid to argue that we could be the only intelligent species in the galaxy, if not the entire universe.

10.) Finally, returning to the scenario outlined in my previous post: Maybe we have intercepted a signal, recognized it as such, and kept it a secret for fear of its potential to destabilize entrenched social structures.

This piece originally appeared at


Intense said...

Quite a good and succinct summary of points that, at the very least, suggest how and why standardized radio SETI tech, procedures, and guiding principles [and why rigid or hard science interpretations or the simplistic false orthodoxy of the standard Fermi Paradox definitions themselves] can now be considered a rather primitive and narrowly conceived/focused process which, since it was established over 40 years ago, and has yielded no known credible results, may now have outlived its likely efficacy and primacy in the field when compared honestly to and in view of all the other possibilities, technologies, and principles/processes which can and should be applied to the search for non-human intelligence.

I would suggest that a couple of the premises or reasons why the Fermi paradox may persist, as you noted, are much less likely than others on the list, as when the pattern of the very best "substantiated" UFO cases are reviewed, sufficient evidence does exist, IMHO, to at least establish that some form(s) of non-human intelligence very likely do exist, regardless of origins or source, and that are relatively "nearby," which in turn implies origins from somewhere, to here, so I doubt we are "alone."

Radio SETI may then be for "chumps" (when I first scanned the headline, I briefly thought it said "chimps," which might also be appropriate in an anthropocentric context), since it has fruitlessly sought (with ever increasing and more sophisticated technical radiotelescope arrays and computer scanning technologies--and relative funding) a signal from "way out there" or the great beyond, when in fact it seems the best evidence before us suggests something is present here, now, for a very long time, closer at hand, and thus more amenable to broader scientific, empirical study and analysis.

It does seem we should at least couple "SETI" (I prefer "non-human intelligence," or NHI, as it avoids the restrictive assumption of place, or "extraterrestrial"--not from around here) with serious alternative approaches linked to a close scientific multi-disciplinary study of already pre-existing indicators where applicable processes and technology can be most readily and directly applied, which is on, around, and near Earth, and within the greater solar system, rather than briefly scan 100's of thousands of stars for a moment or two on relatively narrow and perhaps somewhat arbitrarily selective radio emission bands.

In fact,the more I think about radiotelescope-based SETI, given your considerations and some I and others have cited previously, the more silly, almost surreally counter-intuitive, and rather absurd it seems to limit ourselves to the usual mainstream SETI protocols, or its self-reinforcing presumptions of topmost legitimacy.

Emporer Shostak and Queen Tarter have increasingly fewer and more transparent clothes to wrap themselves within as time goes on and the more this is realized, and the only data we already have are better understood, the more will be shed.

Even so, I also still see a place for radio SETI, and variants, regardless of most of RSETI's more strident advocates, and their rejection of "UFO/ET" hypotheses as legit (which is more a limited, ideological form of thinking or perceptual fear of competitive ideas than science-based), but it really should try to lose it's arrogance and refusal to seriously even consider alternative "near" hypotheses--I see RSETI as a parallel or supplemental approach more than anything.

A good foundational meta-start regarding an approach to first principles to base alternatives to radio SETI might be Davis' and Vallee's "Incommensurability" white paper.

May a thousand (well, maybe start with half a dozen) broader search techniques for NHI bloom.

Bruce Duensing said...

In an our species own relatively brief evolution where quantum encryption is poised, extraterrestrials may as well bang on a drum as far as the "souped up" Marconi technological, critical assumptions are concerned.The whole concept is a self referential form of cultural anthropology akin to a cargo cult. Its a nice romantic and quaint 19th century sort of notion. Between NASA suppression as charged in the COMETA report and this tomfoolery, all I can say is...and so it goes, "where it stops nobody knows."

Chris said...

I find it strange that this question is still so perplexing, since to date we just haven't had the capability to detect a civilization like our own from more than about 50 light years away. Radio SETI is relying utterly on the hope that someone out there is deliberately and consistently announcing their presence, and doing it with transmitters considerably more powerful than anything we possess. Since we don't do that, why should we assume anyone else would want to bother?

Just sayin' don't leave out the simplest explanation.

Bruce Duensing said...

Another perspective is our own desire to technologically improve nature which has placed us on a proverbial cliff with a mass extinction in our future with such benefits as drought, famine and disease. Another is the assumptions of a singularity wherein we wrest control of the nature of the universe. I seriously doubt that our self centered position that we assume to occupy is shared by others.
We are more than likely viewed as quite mad.

Anonymous said...

We are more than likely viewed as quite mad.

Some of these theories are quite mad, I agree, but if you know absolutely nothing about the others, ET or howerver you want to call them, how could you say that?

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, if I had to pick one, "Rare Earth" seems most plausible. (Though imo rare does not equal only.)

Anonymous said...

I think people are forgetting the vastness of the Universe, how short a time we've been looking, and how primitive our equipment.

Even if millions of civilizations in the Universe were broadcasting, I think it could take generations of listening to find a radio signal.

There are probably other communications that we are not sophisticated enough to receive, that would be easy to hear.


purrlgurrl said...

The title of your article pretty much says it all . . . ;-)

Elton said...

I suspect the answer is that the aliens are so alien that we simply can't understand. We assume that they would have patterns but we only assume that because we do.