No Sense of Irony in Science!

Slate reports:  SETI to Congress: We will find alien life within 20 years. To which one can only reply: huh?

Let’s recap: so far, the evidence for life of any kind originating anywhere other than earth is, rounded to the nearest 8 decimal places, 0.00000000. We look around our own planet, and – nope, no evidence. We look at the moon and other planets in the solar system and – nope, no evidence. We scan the skies with expensive telescopes of various kinds for several decades and – nothing there, either.

If only we could find even *1* non-terrestrial life form!

I would be as excited as anybody – thrilled, even – if it turns out that there’s life on other planets. How cool would that be? If we could get our hands on some, we could check for DNA. If the DNA or DNA-equivalent turned out to use the same base components as ours, we’d have a clue as to how life might arise through actualization of potentials in dead matter. If it turns out to be much different than ours, we’d need to dig deeper.

For starters – the questions raised by non-terrestrial life would become the topic of science for decades to come. As it is, a mechanism by which dead matter become alive under its own power is just assumed – we haven’t found it, and we sure can’t do it.  (And even if we did, *we* represent an already-living power, so we would not have proved what we set out to prove. But that argument is a ways down the road, if it’s even someplace we can get to at all.)

At one point year ago, I read a bunch of Buckminster Fuller. It was a fun ride, until he lost me: at one point, he made the argument thus: since the top speed at which a human could travel had increased exponentially over human history – run, ride a horse, take a train, drive a car, fly a plane, fly a jet, ride a rocket – he thought it likely that people would be able to travel faster than light by now. All you have to do is look at that nice hockey-stick graph, and plot it out, and – boom! – we’re warping off to Vulcan in the 1990’s.

Or not. Predicting what we will discover or invent is a different game than predicting how a given technology will develop over time. In the latter, you start with actual things and try to see how they might work out; with the former, you start by pretending what is unknown is known, and assuming that unknown stuff has whatever characteristics are most conducive to whatever fantasy one would like to imagine. Great for Science! and other SciFi, not so great when proposed as real science.

Mix in some politics, and you’ve got a real horse’s stable floor. SETI is stuck with asking for money from government to fund an attempt to verify a particular theory. This theory, if true, regrettably has no prospects for short or mid-term economic payoff that are anything different than proposing we start digging in my back yard to find El Dorado – it could happen, but there’s no reason to suppose it will. And, regrettably, SETI doesn’t (yet) supply large numbers of jobs in large numbers of congressional districts.

What to do, what to do? How about we gee-whiz ’em? Why we expect (in the sense of hope against all evidence) to discover something new – extra-terrestrial life – that has yet never been discovered despite thousands of man hours and millions of dollars spent looking – within 20 years! Yes, just outside the reasonable range for most of our working lives, way after the voters can be expected to have moved on from this particular batch of elected officials, and way way after anybody will remember we said this, we think we will have discovered warp drive! Oops, I mean ET.

Why 20 years? Why not 2 or 200? Well, when one’s predictions are not tethered to any facts whatsoever, you might as well make them match what is most convenient for the purpose at hand.

Not that real scientists would stoop to sensational manipulation in order to get their pet project funded. No, this is Science! Shut up, sit dawn, and do as you’re told!

Would it be mean-spirited to accord all Slate articles exactly the level of trust this particular article deserves? It would be simple prudence.

As always, I blame Sagan. This time, it’s even demonstrably his fault.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “No Sense of Irony in Science!”

  1. Twenty years is the same horizon that has been promised for controlled nuclear fusion — for the past fifty years.

    Why not 2 years? Because it would be evident too soon that the prediction was bootless.

    Why not 200 years? Because that is a longer planning horizon than most funding sources are capable of imagining. And no one, funder or fundee will be around to claim credit or bask in glory if things really do work out.

    Hence, 20 years, like Little Bear’s porridge, is Just Right.

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