Sunday, May 22, 2005

The End of SETI As We Know It?

When I was doing radio spots promoting my book I was asked a lot of dumb questions, mostly in keeping with the David Bowie/Spiders from Mars theme. But I remember one particularly good question, I think by a DJ in Dublin. Essentially, he wanted to know what business I had writing a book on scientific subjects since I had no formal scientific background. (Unlike Richard Hoagland, who didn't graduate college, I can't claim experience as a planetarium director or advisor to Walter Conkrite, nor can I claim to have inspired NASA with the idea to include messages on deep-space probes.)

The gist of my answer was: Who exactly is qualified to assess candidate artifacts on the Martian surface? The stark truth is that there are no experts. There are no "working teams" exploring this possibility (with the exception of the Society for Planetary SETI Research, of which I'm a member). There's no grant money, no exo-archaeological funds on NASA's Mars exploration budget. Unfortunately, what we do have are lots of pseudoskeptics content to cling to dated "straw man" arguments in order to keep the status quo afloat -- even if that means misrepresenting or ignoring contradictory data.

It's not just Mars, of course. We've allowed a handful of people, foremost among them Seth Shostak and Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, to become veritable ambassadors for the aliens they pretend to understand so well, despite a pronounced, utter failure to provide the hard evidence they claim is so vital. We're assured that aliens can't get here from there -- essentially because we have yet to get there from here using primitive chemically fueled rocket technology. We're treated to endless assurances that extraterrestrials will choose to communicate via radio (for a host of anthropomorphic reasons too numerable to explore in the available space).

Worse, SETI personalities tell us -- again and again -- that radio contact with ETs in inevitable, even imminent . . . and when the deadlines expire, the mainstream media dutifully forgets. Consequently, we're subjected to an intellectually vacuous false dichotomy between brash, self-proclaimed debunkers and equally brash believers, typified by the already-infamous Peter Jennings UFO special (which some commentators expected to break the UFO documentary mold for reasons still unclear to me).

But the edifice is cracking under an onslaught of fresh ideas and new discoveries. SETI's cult-like grip is slowly but certainly weakening as scientists dare to suggest alternative methods by which alien beings might contact us (assuming they want to). From messages grafted into our DNA to communiques wafted through space in the form of tangible artifacts (up to and including autonomous robots capable of building copies of themselves from raw materials), a chorus of vital new theories and revised assumptions about our role in the Cosmos has insinuated itself into the mainstream, posing a grave challenge to SETI and rocking our existential foundations.

I think the scientific community, for all its jaded self-assurance and adherence to brittle paradigms, is unconsciously tiring of SETI's charade. And who wouldn't? We've managed, against all odds, to grant a technocratic minority the right to effectively speak on our behalf, to tell us what to expect, to define the parameters of a universe we have yet to adequately map. Almost unbelievably, we've allowed the consuming question of extraterrestrial intelligence to become boring, the stuff of ha-ha sound-bites and rote dismissals of anyone inclined to dissent.

But we have reached a turning point. And the assumed "rules" have been revealed to be unexpectedly pliant, suggesting a galaxy vastly more colorful than that painted by SETI's equations.

(This essay originally appeared at Posthuman Blues.)


Blogger Kyle said...

Paul -

Nice piece!

SETI is definitely losing its "gloss". I'm sure that some of the reason for "competing" theories is to try to draw some of that SETI money away.

And just one more "any day now" pronouncement from Seth and co., will hasten the onset of its denouement exponentially.


10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as "qualifications as a scientist", this is part of the problem with modern science. It has become so complex and arcane across the various disciplines of study that the layman treats science as a sacred priesthood of the appointed, and takes their pronouncements on blind faith. For the average layperson, science is a metaphysical religion. Scientists are quick to point out that this is the fault of an uneducated public and not of science itself, yet, the scientific community does little to adress this issue. Worse, images like the "Catbox Face" reinforce that mainstream science will exploit this ignorance on the part of the public when convienient.

What qualifications did Gallielo have, or Newton, or a host of other early observers of scientific phenomenon? You do not need to be an accredited scientist to observe the natural world around you and apply scientific method to what you see, and the fact that you would be asked a question like this shows how horribly (and sadly) uninformed the general public is on how science *really* works.

The frustrating thing for me with regard to things like the Cyndonian region is our individual inability to apply real science beyond our initial observations. We are beholden to either corporations or governments, both prone to self interest and corruption, to generate the capital to make any meaningful progress with regard to physical research of these (and other) anomolies. As long as that remains the case, everything we know and hear will be subject to suspicion.

Donovan Colbert

11:40 AM  
Blogger U.F.O. 'Space Dude' said...

Twas a very foggy night. Mum sent me to the grocery store to fetch a bottle of milk and a box of baby diapers for baby Grundyke.
i left the house and was down the road for about a quarter of a mile or so.
Just at that moment i remembered i had left my jacket on the back of my arm chair.
twas a nip of cold in the nights air.
i looked slightly to my left and saw a swift flashing light of green and blue. At first the lights were at a distance, and slowly started right at me at a high rate of speed. I was so scared i got out of my car and took about three steps and i froze in motion. My feet were about four feet off the ground. I was weightless. The only part of my body i was able to move was my eyes.
Then i was approached by a figure of a man. A man not of this world. His head was large and his eyes were silver in color with green inner colors. He had tiny little ears and a large hole for a nose. The nose cavity was leaking a green slime of snot. His mouth was very small. His teeth were filthy and looked like an old service station oil rag.
His ears were like the ears of a gold fish. I remember him looking to his left and mumbling a strange noise.
Then another figure came into view. it was a female from another world. Her features were much the same as the man except she had a pinkish liquid comming out of her nose that smelled of oxygen.
She came to me and a tenicle from her forehead came out and she guided it through my ear. it went into my ear and through my brain. Even though there was no pain in the brain, my head was dead. A loom of doom.
The tinicle was retracted from my brain and ear as the male floated over to the female.
The female beings tinicle was bound with redish wax from deep within my ear.
The male being began to extract his lips and lick my ear wax from her tinicle. his lips were big and greenish purple and shaped like a garlic clove. His breath smelled of onions, mixed with skunk oil.
His eyes began to change colors and two of his teeth fell onto the ground.
The female came up to me and said she now had all the information she gathered from my brain, put into a computer chip in her brain and could now comunicate with me.
she said her name was Philis and they were from another galaxy far, far away.
i ask her if they were going to harm me. She said they were friendly people and just passing through looking for plopez, which is a fuel they use for their space ship.
we then floated straight up for about twenty five feet or so and went inside the space ship.
Just to my right side was a computer that looked like a thirty six inch television set.
I could see that they were downloading illegal mp3 music from the net.
The lady from another world said they had permission from the President of the planet Ziptoetoc to download it and they would not reproduce, sell, or give coppies to pirates on the high seas.
i told them i would except that, and not turn them over to the s p c a, and they were happy.
she poured me a cup of tea, and we began to visit.
She put two table spoons of ground garlic into her cup of tea.
i ask her if she had ever tried sugar in her tea and she ask, what is sugar?
i told her i woud be glad to go to the grocery store and get them a bag.
She was so happy because from their planet there was no sugar.
She also told me her husband had dibetes and could only have sweet n low.
she floated me to the door and i floated down to my car.
When i got to the store, i bought five pounds of sugar and a box of sweet n low.
i also got a quart of low fat milk, and a box of depends for my little brother, Grundyke.
as i was driving back to the location of the space ship, i was in a hurry.
I kept telling my self, speed kills.
I drove very carefully.
As i got back to the space ship, i shut off the engine of my car and set the emergency brake, i began to float upwards.
Again i was in the space ship and Phillis had made another pot of tea.
She added two tea spoons of sugar to her cup of tea and drank it all up.
She looked at me and said, this sugar stuff is great.
I replied, oh, i am so glad you like it.
Her husbands name was Milton.
Milton loves all kinds of music. Even country and blues.
He told me his teeth are in bad condition because back on their planet, all the men mow the grass and, when finished mowing the grass,
they have block partys and eat it with sweet bread.
Plillis and Milton told me the favorite drink on their planet is aligator milk.
Yuck, i explained.
I told them how dangerous they can be, and they replied, they are our pets on our planet.
I answered, oh, that is nice.
Just at that moment, i remembered, my lunch break was about over at the factory, and i must return to work soon.
They understood and told me they realy injoyed the visit.
Again they floated me back to my car and i was on my way back to work.
To this day i will never know why there is a bottle of milk and a box of depends, in a grocery bag, sitting in the front seat of my car.

10:14 AM  

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