I thought I’d take a different tack on understanding science denialists. Are there any subjects on which I would be called a science denialist?
I can think of a couple of examples immediately. I’ve been called anti-science because I reject the bigotry of the “human biological diversity” or hbd crowd; I’ve also got quite a few fuming ranters who hate the fact that I reject evolutionary psychology as an ignorant fraud. I’ve written about those things before, though, and they also seem to draw in a lot of angry privileged assholes, so let’s not go over that again.
Instead, here’s something that maybe we can discuss dispassionately, but where I do sneer at the status quo.
I am a Search-For-Extraterrestrial-Intelligence (SETI) denier. I really am. It seems to be a popular topic among pro-science people, but I just roll my eyes whenever it comes up, and I’ve written a few things where I state my biases against it, but I’ll just make it crystal clear: I think it’s bad science driven by unrealistic fantasies, I don’t think its proponents think rationally about it, and we ought to stop throwing money at it.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not because I disbelieve in aliens — I rather suspect that life is relatively common in the universe. It’s not because I think it’s impossible for us to contact aliens — I just think the odds are prohibitively low. But every time a SETI person opens their mouth (like, for instance, Seth Shostak, who I also think is an extremely nice guy, and also very intelligent), I hear nothing but innumerate babble.
For instance, there’s a new formulation of the Drake Equation, that chain of variables of mostly unknown values that can be filled in with whatever numbers fit your prejudices and then allows you to do a calculation that give you whatever number you want. We are getting better estimates for some of those variables as we get more information on exoplanets, but others are still mostly baloney.
Based on recent exoplanet discoveries, Frank and Sullivan assume that one-fifth of all stars have habitable planets in orbit around them. This leads them to conclude that there should be other advanced technological civilization out there, unless the chance for developing such a civilization on a habitable planet in the observable universe is less than 1 in 1024 (a 1 with 24 zeros!). For our own Milky Way galaxy, the odds of being the only technologically advanced civilization are 1 in 60 billion. Thus, it’s very likely that other intelligent, technologically advanced species evolved before us. Even if only one in every million stars hosts a technologically advanced species today, that would still yield a total of about 300,000 such civilizations in the whole galaxy.
OK, that starts out fine — I can see making an estimate on a lower bound, and I’d also agree that the likelihood that we are the only technological civilization in the entire great big galaxy is low. But then we’re back to nonsense. Where does this estimate of one in a million stars having a technological species come from? Sticking an “only” in there is a rhetorical trick to make it sound like it’s such a conservative estimate, you ought to accept it. But I don’t accept any values derived from the Drake Equation!
At least this article does go on to present the argument I would make: I don’t know the total probabilities, but some of the individual probabilities are so low as to make the whole exercise pointless.
The Archilles’ heel of these statistical estimates is of course the biological uncertainties; Earth is still the only planet where we know life exists. The appearance of life may be extremely unlikely, and so might the evolution of technology. After all, there are many intelligent species on our planet, including dolphins, octopi, apes, parrots, and elephants, but only once in 4.6 billion years has a technologically advanced species evolved. And life cannot have appeared in the very early Universe until heavier elements produced by the explosions of many supernovas became abundant.
My guesses about the probabilities would be much lower than the astronomers’ guesses, I suspect. But the number is irrelevant. It’s a bad gamble.
I compare SETI to playing the lottery. If you win, it might be a huge payoff — hundreds of millions of dollars in one case, or amazing new knowledge and deeper understanding of the universe on the other. I can agree with that. But you won’t get me to buy a lottery ticket by telling me the size of the potential prize (I know, that works for a lot of people, but they’re thinking emotionally, not rationally…not that there’s anything wrong with that). I know deep down in my analytical brain that if I throw a few bucks at a remote chance of a life-changing event, I’m still almost certainly going to be living my life the same way I am today, tomorrow.
And who wants that kind of radical life-changing event anyway? Lottery winners aren’t made happier by getting a bucket of money dumped on them, and the results of a successful SETI search are even less certainly positive. If we aren’t beaming our hard-earned secrets of science and technology to random stars in the galaxy, why should we expect other species to do us that favor? If we use us as an example, aliens would be more likely to transmit their holy books to the stars, or the contents of bad sitcoms, or ultimatums demanding tribute or face total annihilation.
So the “size of the prize” defense is irrelevant. Don’t care.
But here’s a different argument I also see all the time: SETI is cheap! Only $2.5 million/year! This is not a rational argument. I agree that SETI is cheap, but one could say that astrology is even cheaper to study, and promises just as much insight and new knowledge and practical applications, so why not have the country invest, say, $2.0 million? Or $200,000? Or would it be only fair to cough up just $2? Telling me that some flavor of research requires only pocket change is not a good reason to do it.
I’m not even saying that there are other things we could spend the money on — there are always other ways to spend money. It’s that asking whether something is affordable, and whether something is worth doing, are two completely different questions, and answering yes to the first does not imply that the answer to the second is also yes. So quit thinking that announcing “it’s cheap!” is a substitute for explaining its value.
The only line I can respect is the “it’s voluntary” argument. Do you want to spend some part of your income on SETI, or astrology, or lottery tickets? You are free to do so. I’m not an advocate of banning any of those things (although I would suggest that the state should not be in the business of exploiting the gullible with lotteries).
If a million people want to each send a few dollars to SETI, I’m not going to stop them, just like I’m not going to stop millions of people from putting a few dollars in the collection plate at church on Sunday. It’s pretty much the same thing.
Just don’t try to tell me your poorly thought out fishing expedition is “science”, and therefore deserves more funding.
I expect some will now disagree with me, and that’s fine. At least we won’t be arguing over something that destroys lives.