Is SETI faith rather than science?

The search for extraterrestrial life is a legitimate and exciting scientific quest. However, what about all the semi-religious dreamers who constantly want to establish contact with intelligent aliens that look like us? Should scientists draw a line? and if so... where?

(This is a quick and dirty translation of my article in Ingeniøren, ing.dk )

ArXiv.org is an online database for quick publishing of fresh research news within the fields of physics and astronomy. The database contains a great number of science articles of high standard, freely accessible to anyone. However, once in a while articles pop up which are on the borderline of normal scientific standards.

In a recently published paper of the latter type, three authors - Dimitra Atri from University of Kansas, and Julia DeMarines and Jacob Haqq-Misra from Penn State - discuss the possibility of communicating with intelligent beings from Outer Space.

Of course, this is not the first time the SETI movement (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) published in ArXiv.org. The tendency is in fact on the rise, and as a science writer, one must consider where to draw a line between fascinating, mind-opening scientific problems and pop science, which may be fun, but suspiciously close to theories about UFOs and crop circles. Such articles (to say it mildly) do little more than reproduce an ancient mythological world view.

Please allow me to explain what I mean. The new paper published to arXiv.org discusses how to send messages into Space that can be understood by intelligent aliens. Besides the highly unlikely assumption that there is life out there listening to radio signals from Space, the paper revives a long standing criticism of the SETI-research: it is by no means certain that it is possible to interpret a signal which relies on totally alien linguistic, cognitive and cultural premises.

Dolphins and foreigners
We can’t understand the dolphins and we even struggle to understand foreign human cultures. How then, should we be able to understand an intragalactic bottlemail? Even worse: How should we tell a meaningful message apart from an unknown natural phenomenon?


The paper suggests to remove such anthropomorphisms - that is, such projection of human properties onto non-human things - by following certain ‘neutralising’ guidelines and then test the result on different groups of people.

Specifically, the authors suggest to create an interactive website where people from all over the world can test various types of messages, and then select the messages that are best suited for intercultural communication. The authors call the result a METI-protocol, where METI stands for ‘Messaging to Extra Terrestrial Intelligence’. The best message can then be sent to Alfa Centauri or Gliese 581, and we can hope for a reply in 42 years.

The authors indicate in their conclusion that their intention isn’t really to ‘talk to E.T.’. Rather, their aim is to influence people to acknowledge their fragile position in cosmos and shape up their behaviour. Precisely this is what many religious movements demand from their members, too.

Double standards
So many methodological, philosophical and logical problems surround the SETI idea that it is hard to decide where to set in the critique. At the end of the day it may not even matter if intelligent aliens do exist somewhere in the galaxy. It is, and will continue to be, a matter of faith.

The phenomenon vastly extends beyond that one article from ArXiv.org. A rising number of serious astronomers have started to work on CETI- and SETI- projects (CETI stands for 'Communication with Extra Terrestrial Intelligence' and refers to both transmitting and receiving signals, while SETI refers only to a passive listening strategy) - not because they believe in it, but because it motivates the audience.

One of the most well known attempts to make Space research sexy is the screen saver project SETI@home. It allows anyone with a computer to download a program which systematically chews through massive loads of binary representations of cosmic radio frequency emissions, hoping to discover a message from an alien world.

‘E.T. phone home’ was made into a serious business model for space research. Although people with insight into the matter knew that its scientific contribution is infinitesimal small, the project has nevertheless been a great success for the idea of crowdsourcing, where lay people are encouraged to contribute voluntarily to science by making their home computers freely available to scientific work.

Messages to Space
Other well known CETI projects include the Pioneer Plaques that were sent in 1972, and the Voyager Golden Record onboard Voyager in 1977.

In 1974 the so called Arecibo message was broadcast into Space from a radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The signal was directed towards the star cluster M13,  25,000 light years away. It was of course known that it would take at least 50,000 years before an answer could be expected, and that the message would in fact never reach its target, because M13 would have moved meanwhile. But who cares! The exercise was repeated in 1999 and 2003, this time directing the broadcast towards nearer stars.



Pioneer plaque

NASA placed this plague on board the two unmanned spacecrafts Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 to tell potential alien civilisations in Outer Space about the existence of humanity.  The content was designed by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan. In addition to the two naked persons depicted, the plague illustrates the solar system and its position relative to 14 pulsars and the Milky Way; the spacecraft in silhouet, and top left a spin-flip transition of a hydrogen atom from electron state spin down to spin up.


NASA is officially cautious and only speaks of ‘exobiology’. However, one can easily come to suspect that NASA operates with two standards. The first is a Hollywood standard aimed at a mainstream audience hungry for sensations, where intelligent aliens are always on the verge of being discovered. The second is a natural sciences standards where all that is hoped for is a bit of water on a moon or a couple of nucleotides in outer space.

NASA is happy to sponsor cosmic bottlemail projects, but restrains from taking responsibility for their scientific merits. Once in a while, however, NASA’s own news stories cross the line and turn wild. As in 1996, when a group of NASA-researchers discovered the ALH84001 meteorite in Antarctica and announced that its carbonates stemmed from bacteria on Mars. No one (beyond themselves) believes that theory today. More recently, NASA announced that they had found a previously unknown life form on Earth that was based on arsenic rather than phosphorous. The discovery’s hyperbolic media announcements have since then been thoroughly dissected.

A proto-religion
Thore Bjørnvig from the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen has studied the SETI-movement for several years. Parts of the SETI research is, according to him, best understood as a religious movement - or rather, a scientistic religion.

“There are in SETI tendencies and structures which closely resemble the structures we find in certain religions. Of course, many persons within the SETI movement try to remain neutral; but there are also those who go over the top’’, Bjørnvig says.

Frank Drake belonges to that category. He was the man behind the Drake-equation - which supposedly calculates how many observable intelligent civilisations a galaxy can contain. He was also co-author of the Voyager Golden Record and the Arecibo-message together with Carl Sagen.

“Drake felt that if we managed to communicate with aliens, then we would obtain the key to immortality”, Bjørnvig says.

“The logic is strange, to say it mildly: we have only used radio communication for about 100 years, and therefore, most other intelligent civilisations must be much older, and therefore much more clever than us. Their technology must be exponentially ahead of ours, he says... because SETI-people have the strange idea that technological progress is an evolutionary determined regularity.”

The battle for eternal life
“Thus sooner or later the advanced civilisations will find the key to immortality. Once a species becomes immortal it will, according to Drake, be very afraid to die because its life has increased tremendously in value, being eternal. A civilisation that has achieved eternal life will need to ensure that all other civilisations obtain immortality too, so that they value their life the same, and therefore won’t go to war”, Bjørnvig explains.

Branches of the SETI movement also encompass visions about a ‘galactic encyclopaedia’ where all knowledge is collected and circulates between civilisations. Like a cosmopolitical bible, the universal encyclopaedia will finally tell us a lot of nice things about how we can avoid to get into fights, how to obtain eternal life, and all the other lovely humanistic values.

“These apocalyptic and millenarianistic tendencies are also found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly in the Book of Revelation”, says Bjørnvig.

“Herein lies the idea of a Millennial Age where everything turns good, and death disappears together with grief, sorrow and other bad things. What these movements have in common is to offer a ‘Road to Heaven’ based on a dualistic hypothesis stating that we humans are imperfect and need to overcome all the bad things we surround ourselves with. All we need to do is to follow the road that is pointed out to us”, he says.

Others warn against contact. The science-fiction author David Brin and physicist Stephen Hawking both think that E.T. doesn’t necessarily have good intentions. Just look at what we do to our fellow humans here on Earth, they say. What, then, would E.T. be capable of doing to us?

A mirror for self-reflection
One of the best books about why it is so hard, if not impossible, to communicate with alien life, is ‘His Master’s Voice’ by Stanislav Lem, written in 1968. It depicts a research teams which tries to decode a foreign signal without luck.

The reason they don’t succeed is that any interpretation requires a methodological choice, which must necessarily be based on assumptions. A foreign message can never rid itself of cultural ballast; it will always seem like a message written in bad ink.

Any communication in the form of images or symbols contains a conceptualisation of the world which presumes a biology, a culture and a history; thus a mutual understanding will be impossible without those common denominators.

The problem does not only apply to language, but to any representation. Even universal truths like the Pythagorean theorem (in Euclidean geometry) and the first law of thermodynamics about the preservation of energy contain anthromorphisms in their mathematical formulations.  The relation between the signifier and the signified will always be arbitrary, and therefore never be deduced from self-evidence.

What do these abstractions lead to? That a truly foreign signal with no common denominators can serve as little more than a mirror. A mirror that reflects our own thoughts. The interpreter becomes victim of a projection and begins to read his own worries and hopes into the decoding of the signal.

The military will probably hope for new weapons, the scientist for new insight, and the esthete will hope for eternal life. However, at the end of the day, we humans won’t be able to realise or understand signals from alien worlds, even if they are written with flaming letters in the sky.

Our desire to contact E.T. is really a matter of faith. Intelligent aliens constitute a highly viral myth, constantly expanded and supported by some scientists and research institutions, and popularised in fantastic and fun science-fiction stories. It would be a shame to spoil the sport completely. On the other hand, some restraint is needed.

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