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SETI and Plausibility

by Stephen Propatier

May 9, 2013

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Donate Dr. Steven Novella MD is a well recognized leader in the skeptical community. He is personal skeptic hero of mine. I think you will see some of his thoughts anddescriptionsincorporated into my thinking. I often say I was always a skeptic, but thescientificskepticism movement was unknown to me before I heard my first Skeptoid podcast (Shameless skeptoid promotion butabsolutelytrue).Skeptoidlit the fuse, but once a week was not enough. The next podcast I started following was SGU. Well known as The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Although it is an ensemble cast it is primarily driven by Dr. Novella. The more involved I became in skepticism the more I wanted to emulate him. I respect him and I trust his attention to detail. I agree with his overallphilosophiesrelated to scientificskepticism. That does not mean that I blindly agree with everything he has to say.

Recently he wrote a blog entry on his site Neurologicaabout SETI or the Search for extraterrestrialintelligence titled "Is SETI Science?". I made some comments. I indicated that although I think SETI is a science I find the assumptions implausible.Albeitthe best methods we have right now. Dr. Novella had the director of SETI on his podcast last week. The conversation really started me thinking. What is it about SETI that bugs me as a skeptic?

First of all I would like to say that this is not going to be any type of argument fromauthority I know more about the BS of astrology than I actually do about the nuts and bolts of astrophysics. Secondly I understand and have a basic knowledge of Physics. Admittedly dated, 1989 undergraduate physics. So you know that some of my opinions may be dated or previoulsy debunked. Still I have several sticking points with SETI.

The primary method that SETI uses to search is Electromagnetic Radiation. I agree, that for right now, it offers the most possibilities for discovering a technical civilization. Still in my opinion radio telescopes aredependenton a big house of cards. Based on our only example ofTechniccivilization to date. More specifically humans.

Bear with me.... IF life develops alongsimilarlines on another world. If it developsmulti-cellularlife similar to ours. IF that life has theopportunityto evolve into a curious tool usinglifeforms. Also if those lifeforms are; sensitiveto the visible spectrum, short lived, broadcast EMR for communication or exploration, and has a technic civilization that does not exceed our knowledge of physics. THEN we may get a signal. That signal would have to come from a species at the right distance that the signal reaches us at this point in our civilization. In my opinion an extremely earth/human centric viewpoint. I will try to breakdown my points.

I have problems with the drakeequation, but lets assume that it is correct in overall assumptions. The odds say there must be other life in the universe. Does thatinvariablymean that it evolvesprogressivelyinto a technical society. The real answer is maybe? I ask myself would there be intelligentTechniclife on earth, if the massextinctionsin earth'shistorydid not happen? Or if they happened much more frequently. Maybe in addition to aGoldilockszone we have aGoldilocksplanetary history? Lets assume that some worlds have just the right amounts of extinctions for Techniclife to develop.

Our ability to sense visible light has a big influence on our technical development. Specifically transmitting data in EMR. Species on this planet see outside of our visual range. Stars all produce full spectrum EMR. What if we couldperceiveradio waves like we see visible light. That woulddramaticallychange what is visible/invisible. Construction materials, technology, and tools would be radically different. Like a streetlight shining in your window at night when the sun goes down, would it make sense to develop radio broadcasting equipment? What if they used ELF signals as the primary broadcasting wavelength. What if they only usedwavelengthswith extremely short range? This to me is a big assumption. We assume, that like earth, other life has about the samesensitivityrange to non ionizing radiation.

Short lived is another issue. It is a relative term but if you live for centuries and communicate over "days" would that make signals unrecognizable to us? Would a signal that was 1 earth year long be recognized as background noise or a signal? Again we have to assume that given our extremely short lifespans(at least on a galactic scale), that only short lived life would evolve quickly enough. Totally based on data point one.

My last point is the one I made in Steve's post. Are we too dumb to understand the primary mode of communication that the rest of the universe uses? There is no doubt that our knowledge of physics is incomplete. I specifically cited quantum entanglement for information transfer. Right now as far as we know there is no way to transmit information through a quantum entanglement. That was not the purpose of my point. Rather there are aspects of physics that give us clues that superluminal communication may be possible. Einstein-rosen bridges as an example. Impossible to us given our current knowledge. Maybe our primate brains are incapable of perceiving the real way around information transfer in general relativity. Overall a developed theory of everything may result in a practical method to send information over great distances. Maybe even overcome the speed of light limit for information. In the end what we are doing to send information may be a dead end that everyone else gave up quickly.

Bottom line I think it is arrogant human centrism that assumes our development of science, physics, civilization, and data transmission is a standard model of development. For all we know we are in a technological dead end that strands isolated civilizations in their home system eventually dooming them to star burnout and death.

We may never pass the next technological hurdle that allows us to survive beyond the life of our sun. Maybe we are cavemen looking for smoke signals from other tribes on theAfricanplains. When in fact everyone around them is communicating with fiber optics.

Does that mean we shouldn't be looking for Electromagenic Radiation? The short answer is we don't have any other options right now.

To my fellow bloggers sorry I put this up late, I am away and do not have reliable internet access.

by Stephen Propatier

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