Given that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been given a $100 million shot in the arm, I am motivated to explain why I think it is a colossal waste of money.
Reason #1: It’s not going to work. It hasn’t worked so far — no signs of intelligent life out there at all — and while a negative result isn’t necessarily a sign of failure, it does mean the likeliest explanation is that intelligent life is very, very rare. Or that it’s not interested in talking to us. Or that they’re using a communications technology we haven’t discovered yet. Oh, there are so many excuses from the SETI community!
Worden is also circumspect. “We might not find anything,” he says. “But that begins to tell us something significant about the universe. A null result is still a good one.”
All right, I say, you’ve got a great big null result so far. A grand goose egg. What does it tell you? The significant answer so far seems to be that now you’ve got an excuse to ask for even more money, so you can search harder.
Reason #2: It seems to turn smart scientists into insipid, facile dimwits. I am constantly appalled at the goofy rationales they give for SETI.
“SETI is very much a shot in the dark,” says associate director of Jodrell Bank Observatory Tim O’Brien at the University of Manchester, UK, who is not involved in the project. But he agrees that devoting telescope time to the search is worth it. “Imagine if there was a message and we simply hadn’t been listening.”
Right. Imagine if fairies actually existed, but we hadn’t been clapping hard enough to keep them alive? Clap! Clap your hands! Clap harder! See any fairies yet? Well then, you clearly need to give me $100 million to clap a lot more. If I don’t find any, though, you can’t complain, because the null result tells us something significant about the universe: that fairies are really, really hard to resuscitate, apparently.
Reason #3: Taking a shot in the dark is dangerous. Do you have any idea what you’re trying to contact out there, or who is hunting for you? Even if these hypothetical, undetected aliens are not hostile, or prevented by the physics of vast differences from physically harming us, has anyone considered the effect of a significant signal on Earth? SETI investigators already exhibit an almost religious fervor, a faith in things unseen, a hint of confirmation might unbalance them completely. And do we really want to talk with an alien civilization so dedicated to piping out their one-way message? I have no reason to have a conversation with the proselytizer who is broadcasting their propaganda here on Earth, why should I want to talk to one a thousand light years away?
But yes, the SETI fans will say, you can’t assume the messages will be bad or pointless, and we won’t know unless we tune in. See Reason #2.
Reason #4: Are we really ready to communicate with a galactic civilization? The house is a mess, the rain forests are being chopped down, we’re slaughtering all the other species, and our own species is slaughtering itself over the proper skin color or holy book. Is this really the best time to go looking for company? Imagine if their first question is, “How’s your meteor defense system holding up?” or “Are your greenhouse gases under control?”, and their reaction to our answer is to drop the line and suggest communication might be more productive if there is some hope that our species will exist long enough for more than a few exchanges. Or worse, that they’ll be sending along some salvage ships to pick up the pieces in a few centuries, when we’re gone.
I suppose we could flip that, and what we’re really looking for is a nearby SOS, with a civilization in meltdown. Wouldn’t that be a prime target for scavenging?
Reason #5: It’s simply terrible science. It’s nothing but an expensive fishing expedition driven by wishful thinking. I’m all for basic research without a practical goal, but science should at least have the goal of increasing our understanding. What does SETI help us understand? Human psychology, maybe, but there are cheaper, more effective ways of doing that. Before you go poking into some mysterious hole with a specific instrument, you have to have some justification for doing it, and the SETI researchers have failed to do that.
At best, they provide TED talks that appeal to science fiction fans. Not good enough.
Reason #6: There are better ways to spend that much money. How about making our house an attractive place to visit? Making our conversations desirable? Learning new things on our own rather than hoping some galactic sugar daddy will send us cool information? It just makes me think of the smart student scouring the web for hours looking for answers to an exam, rather than spending those hours studying and becoming more capable in the subject.
If you simply care about good scientific research, then giving that $100 million to NSF and asking them to distribute the money to promising, productive research would be a step forward.
Unfortunately, this money comes straight out of the pockets of a Russian billionaire who thinks making money qualifies him to understand how science works, and makes him think his fantasies are valid. So he flushes that cash right down the drain, into the waiting arms of the SETI brigade. Bleh.