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Is SETI Science?

by Steven Novella, Apr 29 2013

I recently receive the following e-mail question:

Got a question for you: do you consider the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to be science or pseudoscience? I recently got into an online debate and found myself in the minority because I maintained that the central thesis — that if intelligent life exists somewhere out there in the greater universe, we would be able to recognize it based upon patterns in radio waves — is not falsifiable.

It would seem to me that the only way to truly falsify SETI, we’d need to map quite literally every body in the universe and rule them out one by one and say that they don’t have anything there in terms of extraterrestrial intelligence.  Unlike other complex hypotheses that are limited by available technologies, I’m not convinced that the task of mapping the universe is even possible, even with a sufficiently advanced technology.

I have received some version of this question many times over the years, always by people who are trying to be skeptical and apply what they have learned about the differences between science and pseudoscience.  It therefore seems like an excellent opportunity to explore this important issue.

Continue reading…

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In Defense of Vulcan

by Brian Dunning, Feb 28 2013
Pluto and its moons, July 2012

Pluto and its moons, July 2012

The votes are in, and Vulcan won the naming contest for Pluto’s P4 moon. Pluto’s two newest moons, currently named P4 and P5, were discovered in 2011 and 2012 by a team led by SETI chief scientist Dr. Mark Showalter. Such discoverers have the right to recommend names to the International Astronomical Union, who then has final authority on the naming. Showalter and SETI thought it would be fun to solicit votes from the public from a list of 21 names, and the names Vulcan and Cerberus won. The IAU does not reuse names, and since there is already an asteroid named Cerberus, the SETI team plans to submit the Greek spelling of Kerberos instead.

This blog post is a serious pitch to the P4/P5 discovery team and the International Astronomical Union to not assign the name Vulcan to P4, but rather, to save it for the exoplanet Gliese 581 c. Continue reading…

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Report from SETIcon

by Brian Dunning, Jun 28 2012

Kepler orbiting observatory

Last weekend I had the great fortune to attend SETIcon II, probably the world’s foremost conference on space exploration. I met more astronauts than you can shake a stick at, top aerospace journalists, space entrepreneurs, astrobiologists and exobiologists doing cutting edge stuff, got all the latest news from the Kepler planet-finding satellite, slapped five with Bill Nye and Robert Picardo, and find out straight from the horse’s mouth what’s coming up next from the private sector that’s about to put people into orbit and onto Mars faster than any government space program. It was rocking. The panelists were terrific, and every single one of them had something new to share.

My overall impression of the conference? SETI has a branding problem. Continue reading…

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Gambling on ET

by Michael Shermer, Jul 19 2011

How to compute the odds that claims of extraterrestrial life discovery are real and reliable

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has to be the most interesting field of science that lacks a subject to study. Yet. Keep searching. In the meantime, is there some metric we can apply to calculating the probability and impact of claims of such a discovery? There is.

In January, 2011 the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published 17 articles addressing the matter of “The Detection of Extra-Terrestial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society,” including one by Iván Almár from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Margaret S. Race from the SETI Institute, introducing a metric “to provide a scalar assessment of the scientific importance, validity and potential risks associated with putative evidence of ET life discovered on Earth, on nearby bodies in the Solar System or in our Galaxy.” Such scaling is common in science—the Celsius scale for temperature, the Beaufort scale for wind speed, the Saffir-Simpson scale for hurricane strength, and the Richter scale for earthquake magnitude. But these scales, Almár and Race argue, fail to take into account “the relative position of the observer or recipient of information.” The effects of a 7.1 earthquake, for example, depends on the proximity of its epicenter to human habitations. Continue reading…

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What You Didn’t Know about SETI

by Brian Dunning, Jun 09 2011

130 scientists work at SETI, doing much more than you think you know.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. I had a couple hours to spare, so planetary scientist Dr. Franck Marchis invited me to swing by for a quick tour. I reluctantly (not) accepted.

There was an obvious elephant in the room. The news had been reporting that SETI had lost its funding, and since I (like most people) assumed that SETI consisted of 4 or 5 people in a crappy rented office somewhere, I was expecting to find those 4 or 5 people packing boxes and getting ready to move out, and polishing their resumes to get “real jobs” somewhere. I quickly learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Continue reading…

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How to Talk to a UFOlogist (if you must)

by Michael Shermer, Aug 25 2009

Confessions of an Alien Hunter (cover)

I’m a big fan of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intellience) and I think their search program constitutes the best chance we have of making contact. In fact, on a recent Saturday I was rained out of my normal 4-hour bike ride, so I read SETI scientist Seth Shostak’s new book, Confessions of An Alien Hunter (published by National Geographic), a brilliant and fun read. Seth has a fantastic sense of humor and in his book he presents some of great one-liners to use when dealing with UFOlogists, alien abductees, and the saucerites. For example:

Regarding the time it would take to traverse the vast distances between the stars, which would be millions of years (it will take Voyager II 300,000 years to reach a nearby star), Shostak notes: “That’s a long time to be squirming in a coach seat.”

As for the lack of tangible evidence for UFOs Continue reading…

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