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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 and descriptions incorporated into my thinking. I often say I was always a skeptic, but the scientific skepticism movement was unknown to me before I heard my first Skeptoid podcast (Shameless skeptoid promotion but absolutely true). Skeptoid lit 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 overall philosophies related to scientific skepticism. That does not mean that I blindly agree with everything he has to say.

Recently he wrote a blog entry on his site Neurologica about SETI or the Search for extraterrestrial intelligence titled "Is SETI Science?". I made some comments. I indicated that although I think SETI is a science I find the assumptions implausible. Albeit the 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 from authority 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 are dependent on a big house of cards. Based on our only example of Technic civilization to date. More specifically humans.

Bear with me.... IF life develops along similar lines on another world. If it develops multi-cellular life similar to ours. IF that life has the opportunity to evolve into a curious tool using lifeforms. Also if those lifeforms are; sensitive to 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 drake equation, but lets assume that it is correct in overall assumptions. The odds say there must be other life in the universe. Does that invariably mean that it evolves progressively into a technical society. The real answer is maybe? I ask myself would there be intelligent Technic life on earth, if the mass extinctions in earth's history did not happen? Or if they happened much more frequently. Maybe in addition to a Goldilocks zone we have a Goldilocks planetary history? Lets assume that some worlds have just the right amounts of extinctions for Technic life 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 could perceive radio waves like we see visible light. That would dramatically change 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 used wavelengths with extremely short range? This to me is a big assumption. We assume, that like earth, other life has about the same sensitivity range 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 the African plains. 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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