Sunday, July 13, 2008

Seeing is Believing Redux

Last week I compared religion and UFO enthusiasms in Seeing is Believing. In response Peter asked this quite reasonable question:
And BTW, what is spiritual or transcendent about UFO's and extra-terrestrial visitations? Aren't they perfectly rational and logical possibilities for those who believe there is nothing unique about the Earth and human life?

They may be perfectly rational and logical possibilities, but where I think they part company with rationality is not in the possibility, but in the calculation of probabilities. I've yet to hear or read an analysis based on reliable science that puts the probability that there are advanced alien civilizations within radio contact range with Earth at anything more than infinitesimally tiny.

To put it another way, it is perfectly rational to acknowledge that winning the Powerball lottery is possible. However, it is quite irrational for someone who understands the odds to play the lottery with an expectation of winning. Buying a lottery ticket is a faith-based act.

So I find this discussion by David Brin about the dangers posed to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) movement, and possibly global civilization, by a dangerous, heretical offshoot called the Messages to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or METI, to be far more of the realm of faith than science. The METI heretics, frustrated by the inability of the SETI effort to detect signs of ET transmissions through passive listening, intend to break the ice by actively transmitting signals to our intergalactic neighbors.
Let there be no mistake. METI is a very different thing than passively sifting for signals from the outer space. Carl Sagan, one of the greatest SETI supporters and a deep believer in the notion of altruistic alien civilizations, called such a move deeply unwise and immature. (Even Frank Drake, who famously sent the "Arecibo Message" toward the Andromeda Galaxy in 1974, considered "Active SETI" to be, at best, a stunt and generally a waste of time.)

Sagan — along with early SETI pioneer Philip Morrison — recommended that the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.

Alas. To date, groups that plan to engage in METI have done the opposite, keeping a low profile and avoiding discussion with experts in near-related fields like exobiology, bioastronomy, or evolutionary biology... or even historians who are knowledgeable about human "first-contact". Especially biologists and historians. (For reasons that will become clear.)

(In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond offers an essay on the risks of attempting to contact ETIs, based on the history of what happened on Earth whenever more advanced civilizations encountered less advanced ones... or indeed, when the same thing happens during contact between species that evolved in differing ecosystems. The results are often not good: in inter-human relations slavery, colonialism, etc. Among contacting species: extinction.)

Perhaps driven by frustration over the lack of SETI-gleaned signals, so far, the few dozen radio astronomers in this international community-of-interest now aim to poke at the experiment in hope of provoking a response from the stars. Moreover, those few who have objected — asking for a conference to discuss the matter — are dismissed as paranoid worrywarts.

Gee, you think so?

Though Brin is not an example of belief through perceptual error, like the Welshman I discussed in Seeing is Believing, he does demonstrate another path that leads to quasi-religious belief systems, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his book The Black Swan as the narrative fallacy:
We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify, i.e., to reduce the dimension of matters. The first of the problems of human nature .. is what I call the narrative fallacy. (It is actually a fraud, but to be more polite, I will call it a fallacy.) The fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to overinterpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths. It severely distorts our mental representation of the world; it is particularly acute when it comes to the rare event.
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at a sequence of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

I think the fallacy is in full view in this passage from Brin's article (bolding is mine):
In Russia, the pro-METI consensus is apparently founded upon a quaint doctrine from the 1930s maintaining that all advanced civilizations must naturally and automatically be both altruistic and socialist. This Soviet Era dogma — now stripped of socialist or Lysenkoist imagery — still insists that technologically adept aliens can only be motivated by Universal Altruism (UA). The Russian METI group, among the most eager to broadcast into space, dismisses any other concept as childishly apprehensive "science fiction".

(Ironically Dr. Alexander Zaitsev has modified this doctrine to suggest that advanced aliens are not only altruistic but also cowardly — thus explaining their failure (so far) to create beacons or beam messages at Earth. He reasons that the youngest and most ignorant technological race (humanity) is behooved to overcome this universal cowardice by boldly announcing ourselves.)

(This is not the place to analyze the logical faults of this assumption. I have a whack at it in a different article: Let me just offer one thought here. If aliens are so advanced and altruistic... and yet are choosing to remain silent... should we not consider following their example and doing likewise? At least for a little while? Is it possible that they are silent because they know something we don't know?)

Notice how the fact of no discernible communication from an ET civilization is narratized into cowardice or superior knowledge on the part of said civilization. Why is the most logical explanation, that they just aren't out there, at least within shouting distance, not entertained by these scientists?

Friar Ockham must be sorely disappointed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have this fantasy that we finally make contact with a distant civilization. It is in rapid decline and on the verge of extinction because it tries to solve all its conflicts through mediation, international law and multilateral authority. It never invented war. We save them by teaching them how to fight and they go on to prosper and flourish.

July 14, 2008 8:39 AM  
Blogger erp said...

A new TV sitcom perhaps?

July 14, 2008 4:27 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter, from the original post:

Aren't they perfectly rational and logical possibilities for those who believe there is nothing unique about the Earth and human life?

Yes, absolutely.

However, positing intelligent life, within radio range of Earth, is neither perfectly rational, nor logical.

Fermi's paradox is not all it is cracked up to be.

July 15, 2008 9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are you saying, Skipper, that they are no doubt out there but are unknowable and inaccessible?

July 15, 2008 1:10 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Fermi's paradox says that if there is even one more example of intelligent life in the galaxy than ours, then (excluding the extremely unlikely event both -- or more -- examples attained intelligence at the same time) the other(s) would by now have colonized the entire galaxy.

For various reasons, I'm calling shenanigans.

In other words, even assuming other intelligent species are out there, we will all be irretrievably alone.

Worrying about aliens makes buying steel umbrellas as protection against flying pigs a wonderful idea in comparison.

July 15, 2008 11:06 PM  

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