Furthest Right

SETI and the Death-Rattle of Amerikan Science

Michael Crichton once initiated a rather pointed and brilliant critique of Amerikan Science by blaming hapless aliens for the evils of Global Warming.

My topic today sounds humorous but unfortunately I am serious. I am going to argue that extraterrestrials lie behind global warming. Or to speak more precisely, I will argue that a belief in extraterrestrials has paved the way, in a progression of steps, to a belief in global warming. Charting this progression of belief will be my task today.

He has a rhetorical point here. SETI was a hoax perpetrated against the scientifically gullible. It was Scientology aimed at scamming the scientific. Its manifold deliberately seductive fallacies begin with the foundational mathematics. The Drake Equation gives us a how-not-to guide for deriving a mathematical formula.

N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L
N = is the quantity of dynamic civilizations in the Milky Way cosmic system with perceptible electromagnetic discharges.
R* = considers the rate at which stars are shaped that are appropriate for the presence of intelligent life
fp = this variable builds up the likelihood of such stars that could have a planetary system
ne = this is the quantity of planets that have an appropriate domain to help life, per nearby planetary group
fl = is the portion of reasonable planets where life can show up
fi = is the fraction of life-bearing planets on which advanced civilizations with intelligence can exist
fc = the fraction of intelligent life and civilization that has developed technology that can be detected in space to alert on their existence
L = the period length of which such intelligent civilization can release detectable radial signals in space

A large number of these variables are impossible to logically or scientifically estimate. Fl’s definition is a classic in lawyer-speak aimed at deluding the scientifically ineluctable. Does a reasonable planet express itself in only the finest of Drawing Room manners? Of course not. This presumably implies that life could exist there in some corporeal form and not be materially obliterated by the physical and chemical conditions of the planet.

Fl consists of a functional parameter informed by a number of variables. As SETI enters its 6th decade of fruitless searching, that number of variables expands. It becomes a classic example of an undefined hypothesis chasing its own results.

Carl Sagan proposed that the materials needed to form life were so universally abundant that they only had to show up on a planet that was the correct distance from a suitable star. He once famously riffed as follows.

Sagan considered the union of space, organic matter and time as an almost infallible recipe for life. “There are a huge number of planets, a whole range of planetary systems around nearby stars. So there are many potential abodes for life.” “Then there’s organic matter – carbon-rich composite molecules that are essential to the kind of life – (which) we know are fantastically abundant in the Universe. We see them in asteroids, comets, on moons in the outer Solar System, and even in the dark cold spaces between the stars, so the substance of life is everywhere.”

Yet, as the decades of non-detection passed, the number of criterion for a planet to be reasonable went from Sagan’s initial 2 to somewhere north of 200. Fi is confounded via partially multicollinearity with Fl. This renders the equation for N* non-linear from Jump Street. Fc then depends upon Fi which causes it to become a 2nd-Order Confounding Variable to Fl. So what do?

The implicit multicollinearity lays to nines any reasonable attempt to test The Drake Equation directly. Agent Molder and Agent Scully are forced back onto empirically testing potentially relatable events which may or may not occur. They have to test something like this instead.

H-null: I will not intercept indisputable EM-based signal intelligence in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri.
H-alpha: I will intercept such EM-based signal intelligence in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri.

This, you can kinda-sorta test by burning through telescope time at a radio astronomy facility. This is what people getting paid to snoop for aliens actually do. According to iflscience, they’ve scienced much and not found anything. The Breakthrough Listen project published the following abstract.

The Breakthrough Listen program is undertaking the most sensitive and deepest targeted SETI surveys towards the GC. Here, we outline our observing strategies with Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and Parkes telescope to conduct 600 hours of deep observations across 0.7–93 GHz. We report preliminary results from our survey for ETI beacons across 1–8 GHz with 7.0 and 11.2 hours of observations with Parkes and GBT, respectively. With our narrowband drifting signal search, we were able to place meaningful constraints on ETI transmitters across 1–4 GHz and 3.9–8 GHz with EIRP limits of=4×1018 W among 60 million stars and=5×1017 W among half a million stars, respectively. For the ?rst time, we were able to constrain the existence of arti?cially dispersed transient signals across 3.9–8 GHz with EIRP =1×1014 W/Hz with a repetition period=4.3 hours. We also searched our 11.2 hours of deep observations of the GC and its surrounding region for Fast Radio Burst-like magnetars with the DM up to 5000 pccm-3 with maximum pulse widths up to 90ms at 6 GHz. We detected several hundred transient bursts from SGRJ1745-2900, but did not detect any new transient burst with the peak luminosity limit across our observed band of =1031 erg s-1 and burst-rate of =0.23 burst-hr-1.

The epistemology of hypothesis testing prevents us from completely disbelieving in aliens unless we so endeavor as a normative choice. They have failed to reject H-null. That doesn’t prove H-null. A statistician would read through the IflScience write-up and then up-chuck.

Anyone who doesn’t believe Dewey was robbed by Truman would spot the immediate methodological weakness due to sampling bias. They took the easy sample instead of the one that accurately represents the population. Deliberately aiming your remote sensing gear at a thick cluster of stars gets you a big n-value at Walmart prices. It does not get you a necessarily representative n-value that accurately reflects the population of interest. Convenient sampling is a latent form of sampling bias. It’s just as bad as only sampling the blue stars because the Red Giants are all Trump-voting Racists.

The inherent right-censoring problems don’t help here. Radio Telescope time costs more money than I currently have in the cup-holder of my vehicle. Burn through those dollars, and your experiment is done. Also, the instruments themselves have limited pencils of discernment. They only hit a cone of space, which extends to the circular area, subtended at distance L* from the instrument. L* represents the maximum distance from the remote sensing aperture at which the instrument has sufficient discernment to adjudicate signal from noise. So the sampled volume is a cylindrical space which can be roughly approximated as L*pi*r^2.

Therefore even 60 million densely packed stars probably span far too vast a volume for the astronomers to have reasonably surveyed. This may well be akin to sampling the Pacific Ocean with a bag full of Dixie Cups. They’re going to need a bigger bag. And they also will need a vastly improved methodology to test whether the truth is really out there somewhere.

A lot of people really don’t care much about the quest for aliens. It has no positive pay-off in terms of Street-Level Reality until Ixiquertyl shows up and requests that you “Take me to your leader.” If you’ve read enough bad Sci-Fi, there are normative pay-offs. It would be the ne plus ultra for settling theological bar bets. Provided, of course, Ixiquertyl doesn’t collect us and trade us with zhir friends.

Yet a certain methodological and unserious slackness looms behind the academic silliness. This isn’t legitimate data science armed with sharpened interrogatories. This is whatever keeps the telescopes funded and the geeks on the tenure track. Any one of this post’s readers could take a 3-hour Coursera Course on scientific method and attack this with a chain saw of fair and reasonable doubt.

The failed quest of SETI tracks roughly with the technological tropopause we have currently hit in Amerika. Nano-Tech, String Theory, Quantum Computing, et al. are all going about as well as SETI. That will undoubtedly continue for as long as these other disciplines remain similarly undisciplined. The goal behind science used to be knowledge. It used to be discovery. It now just checks a bunch of boxes and keeps a bureaucracy fed.

How does this matter? It shows up when corporate software is primarily debugged via the patches required to mollify complaining end-users. It matters when aviation firms can no longer successfully field major passenger jets to replenish an aging fleet. It matters when tilt-wing hybrid aviation can be conceptually solved in the 1950s but then not effectively flown until the mid-1990s.

Without a robust and effective scientific profession, knowledge no longer expands. Then, perhaps like one of Stephen Hawking’s expanding universes, it stops for a bit and then collapses athwart the pull of gravitational stupidity. When a civilization forgets, that civilization perhaps grows increasingly forgettable. Ixiquertyl may have already told Scotty to beam zhi back up. Earth may no longer fit all 200 conditions to be a reasonable planet for intelligent life these days.

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