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Robin Hanson on SETI in USA Today

Robin Hanson, economist and author of Overcoming Bias, recently appeared in USA Today talking about SETI. He appears as a counterpoint to Seth Shostak, a guy who I believe is totally out of it. Here's the relevant section:

But researchers such as Robin Hanson of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., wonder whether the big picture really looks so promising when it comes to advanced life. Hanson supports SETI but finds it telling that humans haven’t come across anything yet. “It has been remarkable and somewhat discouraging,” Hanson says, “that the universe is so damn big and so damn dead.”

Great quote, love it. To quote Marshall T. Savage, author of that superlative masterpiece, The Millennial Project:

There is a program to actively search for signals from other civilizations in the galaxy: SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). This is a noble cause, but it seems slightly absurd. Scientists huddle around radio telescopes listening intently to one star at a time for the sound of dripping water, when what they are seeking would sound like Niagara Falls. The most cursory radio snapshot of the sky should reveal K2 civilizations as clearly as the lights of great cities seen from orbit at night. That we don't see any such radio beacons in the skies probably means there are no Kardasahev Level Two civilizations in this galaxy.

Perhaps advanced civilizations don't use radio, or radar, or microwaves. Advanced technology can be invoked as an explanation for the absence of extra terrestrial radio signals. But it seems unlikely that their technology would leave no imprint anywhere in the electromagnetic spectrum. We have been compared to the aborigine who remains blissfully unaware of the storm of radio and TV saturating the airwaves around him. Presumably, the aliens use advanced means of communications which we cannot detect. What these means might be is, by definition, unknown, but they must be extremely exotic. We don't detect K2 signals in the form of laser pulses, gamma rays, cosmic rays, or even neutrinos. Therefore, the aliens must use system that we haven't even imagined.

The argument, appealing thought it is, cannot survive contact with Occam's razor -- in this case Occam's machete. The evidence in hand is simply nothing -- no signals. To explain the absence of signals in the presence of aliens, demands recourse to what is essentially magic. Unfortunately, the iron laws of logic demand that we reject such wishful thinking in favor of the simplest explanation which fits the data: No signals, no aliens.

The skies are thunderous in their silence; the Moon eloquent in its blankness; the aliens are conclusive by their absence. The extraterrestrials aren't here. They've never been here. They're never coming here. They aren't coming because they don't exist. We are alone.

If Dr. Shostak wants to find some aliens, perhaps he should try ingesting some powerful hallucinogens. Then he will be able to see all the aliens he wants.

Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. That’s silly. Our SETI methods wouldn’t even detect our civilization at any significant range, and we’re pretty messy, in terms of emitting pointless (but detectably complex) radiation.

    You support anthropic and probabilistic reasoning, by which it’s overwhelmingly plausible that we’re not the only ones.

    I’m with Randall Munroe, they’re probably there, they’re just not screaming in all directions on the handful of frequencies we’ve listened to, on the stars we’ve examined, at the times we’ve examined them.

  2. That’s not the point. It isn’t important why WE haven’t found THEM, or what is wrong with our SETI methods, or whether we’re looking in the wrong place, or any of the dozens of other explanations I’ve heard.

    The point is that THEY haven’t found US. And they’ve had plenty of time to do so. Thousands of times over, by any conservative estimate.

  3. While the silence thus far is somewhat discouraging to expectations of alien intelligence, consider that a technologically advancing civilization may be noisy for only a short time. Perhaps they have turned inward and don’t want to be found. Or perhaps they blew themselves up within 200 hundred years of their first radio broadcast, thus giving us a very narrow window in time through which to catch a glimpse.

    Of course, if we consider the emergence of self-awareness to be a profound development for our universe, then it is our responsibility to act as though our intelligence is unique until we learn otherwise.

  4. Very interesting read, thanks. Although I have no say on whether there is or is not intelligent life out there, I have to offer this to the “there is nothing out there because we haven’t heard anything back” theory. We would never have developed ANY present day technology if that were the case…because well, we all know the earth is flat and there aren’t such things as atoms because we couldn’t originally detect them with our current 5 sense. See where I’m going with this? Leucippus and Democritus believed there was some infinitely small form of matter that existed & if we listened to Aristotle (who claimed it to be nonsense) we would never have known there to be atoms. Just because something is not visible by current standard does not mean it is not there.
    *Also, I thought everyone knew that just because we send out some hack form of communication (SETI…no offense…looking at it from adv’d civ perspective) we aren’t supposed to get a big “WELCOME TO THE REST OF THE GALAXY/UNIVERSE” response from somewhere. That’s like expecting a teenager present day to be all “OMG OMG OMG” over HAM radio…he would look at it like…why bother with that crap (without even turning it on) when we have this (points to iTunes and Sirius radio player)?
    **To add onto the statement: “The point is that THEY haven’t found US. And they’ve had plenty of time to do so. Thousands of times over, by any conservative estimate.” Lol. My HUMBLE opinion (without the sarcasm): Who IS to say they need to respond? Reminds me, and yes I apologize for bringing Sci-Fi into it, but was watching a “Star Trek: Enterprise” episode the other day where the Vulcan’s said something to the effect of…you weren’t even deemed worth contacting until you developed the technology to move out past your own solar system…we didn’t step out of our “own backyard” yet !!!!

  5. Also in reflection to my atom statement…the iron laws of logic make demands…but since when has a scientisy listened to them? O_o


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