ICR Opposes Godless Evolutionary SETI Funding

The spirit of scientific inquiry — creationist style — is alive and well at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) — the fountainhead of young-earth creationist wisdom. Their intrepid creation scientists have just posted SETI Funding Linked to Belief in Evolution. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, or SETI, was founded in 1984 to detect signals from faraway alien beings. The National Science Foundation and the State of California are among SETI’s major supporters, but in the current economic climate monies are becoming increasingly scarce. That raises the question: Is SETI’s mission important enough to keep it going?

Is SETI funding important? We are reminded of the immortal words of Henny Youngman. When asked “How’s your wife?” he’d invariably respond: “Compared to what?” We humbly suggest comparing SETI to the ongoing effort of “creation science,” the arcane folklore practiced by ICR.

Then they quote SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak who wrote Search for ET Put on Hold, which appears in the Huffington Post:

In tough economic times, a lot of folks who hear this story will dismiss its importance. After all, with problems like expensive health care, a weakened education system, and pervasive joblessness, it’s unlikely that people are going to march in the streets to get the hunt for ET back on track. They’re more likely to shake their heads, and profess that this sort of exploration is superfluous.

After that quote, ICR says:

He [Seth Shostak, the SETI astronomer] then argued that a defining feature of humanity is the capacity to discover “new things.” The implication was that dropping SETI’s search for ET would halt discovery and cause mankind to settle for a less-than-human existence.

They don’t quote Shostak any more, but this is part of what he actually wrote:

The answer is that discovering new things is what distinguishes our species. That’s not glib; that’s the difference between the grinding monotony of the Middle Ages and life after the Renaissance. Are we destined to merely endure, or to flourish?

How does ICR react to SETI’s endeavor to discover new things? They say:

But SETI has not discovered new things!

[…]

Scientific endeavors that do lead to discoveries are funded because they answer core questions about how the world works. SETI has not done this, and all signs indicate that it won’t in the future. Thus, a belief in the importance of its mission has to be fueled by a belief in evolution.

We don’t need to point out that ICR’s “creation science” hasn’t discovered anything either, and unlike SETI, there’s no possibility that it ever will. But ICR won’t apply its own “reasoning” to itself. Their article continues:

But if life was created and this “evolutionary drama” never did occur, as is consistent with the best evidence [footnotes to creationist writings], then SETI’s work is pointless.

Obviously, if there ever were results from SETI research, it would be devastating to ICR. That’s why ICR thinks it should stop now, while their creationism is still “ahead.” Here’s more:

[T]he complete absence of evidence for ETs, even after decades of searching and the billions of dollars poured into SETI, corroborates the extraordinary uniqueness of life on earth.

Aha — SETI proves creationism! Here’s ICR’s smashing conclusion:

The reasons to fund SETI are firmly rooted in the belief that life evolved. If enough public interest can be generated to reignite SETI’s telescope array amidst an economic downturn, it would not reflect humanity’s pioneering spirit of discovery, but would instead involve donors duped into funding a dubious cause because of godless evolutionary ideas that have no evidence to support them.

Translation: SETI must be stopped now, before it ruins ICR.

We’ll end with one more quote from Seth Shostak, the SETI astronomer:

This hunt for alien biology in our solar system costs you a few dollars per year. What would be the surcharge to augment this exploration by adding a radio experiment that could turn up life on worlds around other stars? Life that’s not microbial, not mindless moss, but as clever as we are? A few additional cents.

[…]

You’re a member of the first generation possessing technology good enough to turn up some cosmic company, and your financial support could restart this instrument. We can never prove that we’re alone in the universe. But the Allen Telescope Array could prove that we’re not.

So there you are. Shall we quit SETI when we’re just getting started? ICR hopes that we do.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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66 responses to “ICR Opposes Godless Evolutionary SETI Funding

  1. Gabriel Hanna

    I’m pretty sure that SETI is a waste of time and money, on scientific grounds*, but as SC rightly points out it is infinitely less a waste of time and money than creationist propaganda. Creationism makes us stupider; SETI merely fails to make us smarter.

    *Because the history of communication is about trying to send messages from point to point; broadcasting everything in all directions is wasteful of energy and of course in many cases you don’t want everyone to know what you are talking about. If a civilization really is trying to reach us through EM signals, radio and optical astronomy will pick it up eventually, what’s the point of SETI specifically? I don’t think it’s likely at all that we will receive something else’s signals unless they specifically direct them to us; we may well observe some civilization building Dyson spheres or operating Bussard ramjets or something that they can’t help, but that’s something that’s going to show up for astronomers generally.

  2. ICR is right, SETI is based on the assumption that if intelligent life evolved here, it could have evolved elsewhere. So rather than risk discovering that answer, ICR would rather defund any research on that subject.

    If ICR really believed what they preach, then they should support further funding of SETI. They should be confident that each decade that passes without detecting a signal will bolster their case, so in that way, SETI will be doing them a favor. That fact that they argue against funding proves that they are not as confident as they pretend to be.

  3. Gabriel Hanna

    That fact that they argue against funding proves that they are not as confident as they pretend to be.

    Exoplanetary astronomy is putting a big dent in the “Earth is uniquely suited for life” business, they can see the writing on the wall.

    Nonetheless I don’t think we should waste money on SETI to spite creationists.

  4. If SETI should discover something, then the creationists would not be long in claiming that it proves “intelligent design”.

  5. @Gabe, I agree SETI is truly a long shot, for a number of reasons. However, it’s one of those cost-benefit tradeoffs where the impact of any discovery at all would be so huge, however improbable, that the fairly modest cost of SETI is a reasonable expenditure. Besides, the technology is continuing to improve and the completed Allen array should provide an excellent radio astronomy tool in addition to the specific SETI application, so may be side benefits.

  6. Gabriel Hanna says:

    I’m pretty sure that SETI is a waste of time and money, on scientific grounds

    It’s doubtful that alien ship-to-ship messages are going to be detected by SETI, and as for the aliens’ planetary broadcasts, if they have them, SETI’s present “all bandwidths, all directions” approach is questionable. But with the recent detection of numerous extra-solar planets, we now have specific locations to focus on. If you’re Elliot Ness and you want to catch the booze distributors, it’s absurd to watch every vehicle on every road. Instead, you watch for trucks visiting known speakeasies.

  7. Gabriel Hanna

    @Ed:However, it’s one of those cost-benefit tradeoffs where the impact of any discovery at all would be so huge, however improbable, that the fairly modest cost of SETI is a reasonable expenditure.

    If that’s the case, if it is cost-benefit analysis–well, I can see where the COST number comes from, but what’s the benefit? Please show your work.

    (benefit of detection in $)*(probability of detection) > (cost in $). That’s what you claimed. But you’ve done no work on the left-hand side of the equation, and so you can make up anything you want.

    Let me guess, you play Powerball? After all, even though the odds of winning are low, the payoff is so high it’s worth the money spent on tickets, right? You’re making the same argument.

  8. Terrific Gabriel. Let’s all just stop looking.
    Could you please tell me the odds of us finding ET life out there?
    We don’t even know what those odds really are. Who knows what the benefits could be if we do find ET life?

    Aren’t you the least bit curious?

  9. Aren’t you the least bit curious?

    I certainly am, but the use of tax money for this is a different question.

  10. @Gabe – no, I don’t play powerball. Maybe I just don’t think I’m that lucky.

    I don’t know how to exactly quantify, in dollars, the value of discovering intelligent life. It would change our view of our place in the universe, it would have far-reaching cultural changes that I think would impact almost everyone on earth eventually. How do you put a $ value to that? It’s akin to calculating the monetary benefits of having a child, in order to perform a cost-benefit analysis for pregnancy. Some benefits cannot be expressed in dollars, yet we can still judge whether those benefits are worth the cost (in fact many of the costs, for a child, are not monetary).

  11. Gabriel Hanna

    Some benefits cannot be expressed in dollars, yet we can still judge whether those benefits are worth the cost

    Humanity has a great deal of experience with children, and none of contacting alien intelligences, and no evidence that such things exist to contact.

    If all you are going to do is wave your hands when it comes to costs vs benefits, and just say that they are incalculable and self-evidently good, then what argument do you have against cutting SETI funding in half, or multiplying it by 100,000?

    @Janice:Could you please tell me the odds of us finding ET life out there?

    Well, I’m the one who asked, because some people were saying that it’s bound to pay off if we spend X dollars, or 10X, or 200X. It’s a little hard to demand this evidence from ME, when I’m not trying to pick anyone’s pocket for it.

    We don’t even know what those odds really are. Who knows what the benefits could be if we do find ET life?

    Aren’t you the least bit curious?

    Curious enough to spend my time and money on it, yes. Not curious enough to demand that others be forced to.

    There are far, far better uses of scarce research money, even in pure research–and I’m not against pure research, having made a career of it.

  12. Gabriel Hanna

    Know what else has a low probability of success, and a huge payoff if it works? Cold fusion. Even lower success, and a huger payoff, is alchemy.

    The difference between those and SETI, is that we actually know enough about those two to make educated guesses about the probability and rewards of their paying off.

    For SETI, we literally have no idea what the probability and rewards are. Alchemy and cold fusion could, for all we know, be a better use of money than trying to find an alien intelligence (as opposed to alien LIFE, of course).

    I think we would all better off if we assumed that First Contact is going to be totally a matter of luck, and spend the money on real astronomy. Like, for example, charting all the asteroids that could hit Earth. THAT at least we know HAS happened.

  13. @Gabe, you must be a lot of fun at parties.

  14. Gabriel Hanna says:

    I think we would all better off if we assumed that First Contact is going to be totally a matter of luck, and spend the money on real astronomy.

    Ideally we could build dual-purpose instruments that could happily pursue their primary objectives (looking for killer asteroids is certainly a worthy project) and at the same time, in the background and at relatively little extra cost, they could scan for peculiar signals.

  15. Gabriel Hanna

    Ideally we could build dual-purpose instruments

    Probably no need, just pay attention to what we are looking at. All astronomical instruments are built to receive EM signals from very far away ANYWAY, and the data they collect require processing and analysis ANYWAY. The data doesn’t disappear once it’s collected, old observations can be analyzed again and again with different techniques and objectives.

  16. Gabriel Hanna

    @Ed:@Gabe, you must be a lot of fun at parties.

    I’ve never been sober enough to remember.

  17. I was a Seti-at-Home processor for several years and even dedicated a Mac to it. Earned my 10,000 dataset certificate.

  18. No offense but, if the search for ET is being ridiculed…. i am only happy to kick back…

    I think it is fair to say that denying evolution is denying that you are probably shorter than your kids, that your are smarter than your ancestors, and that you are likely to live twice as long… or you could of course… you are very stupid (hence why you might not live as long and why you should not have children) and than probably that’s the reason you do believe in god!

    And maybe there is a place for both Creation and Evolution in this universe for somebody who like to build bridges between faith and facts, but if you ask me, the odds, based on knowledge are on the side of evolution….

    Believing in god is like believing in Santa at any age, without the presents, without the need for any proof… just accepting that there is a man in the sky… who created “everything.” Supporting an institute that searches for the TRUTH, whatever that may be… and educates people in facts, not in fantasies… should get every well thinking human being’s full support…. They have mine, undoubtably…

    Yours truly,
    Danielle

  19. additional…

    About tax-money… as far as i know the SETI institute is not supported by tax payers money, but if i consider how our (dutch) government is wasting away our tax-money, i gladly invest a few euros a year in SETI, instead of high bonuses / big cars for ministers and wrong governments investments…

    Correction on the text above…
    *.. or you could of course… *be* very…. etc…

  20. Its a shame the US govt doesnt apply such simplistic cost benifit analysis, on a honest objective basis, to your military’s continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its continued propping up of the Israeli economy every year.

    I wonder how many radio telescope arrays could have been built with the 1 and a half trillion your government pissed up the wall on stupid wars, sorry policing actions, that could have been better fought with targetted use of asymettrical forces such as the SEALs?

    Hmmmmmmm?????

  21. We waste quite a bit of money “defending” Europe. I’d certainly like to see that end as well.

    Nonetheless, whether or not one agrees with US foreign policy, military expenditures are a legitimate function of the government under our constitution. Funding scientific research is not. I donate to many research causes and have spent my life doing scientific research, but I am opposed to the idea of extracting research funds from the unwilling at the point of a gun, our current system.

  22. Well, Sandman, I purposely kept out the issue of tax-money that goes to wars (or political actions 😉 and war-equipment… Because, I am sure that there’s a lot of money made with warfare, and a whole industry running on it, as well as providing jobs in the US army… so, even though this world can miss war as well as it can miss Osama Bin Laden, i can see the spending of money to war, is also contributing to the US society (it is a wonder my gums aren’t bleeding while saying such things 😉

    But its just a ridiculous amount of money that is spend on it, and compared to the tiny bit SETI needs for something that not only contributes to the US, but globally…. the ATA just deserves a bit more than to be washed down memory lane because of funding problems, and because people think 50 years is a mighty long time to be searching (on the time-scales of the universe, thats not even a blip) And in my opinion, its just sad that they still are confronted with the ongoing discussion about creation vs. evolution…

    And….. “Frankly”… i like Mr. Drake, and knowing that this man has put his life’s work in this institute, providing education and information to the public (for free!) places to study for trainees, jobs to scientists … he deserves a bit more “credit”… right?

  23. Sandman says:

    Its a shame the US govt doesnt apply such simplistic cost benifit analysis, on a honest objective basis, to your military’s continued presence …

    It all began with Roosevelt’s ill-conceived lend-lease program. I told him he was wasting the taxpayers’ money by trying to prop up those feckless Brits, but did the fool listen to me? No, and now look at the mess we’re in. [*snort, grumble, growl*]

  24. Gabriel Hanna

    Now that Sandman has shown up and duckspeaked through his usual Chomskyite points–it doesn’t matter what the US is wasting money on; that still doesn’t make SETI a good idea.

    Danielle, Sandman–your countries are not poor and have the money to take over SETI if they want, or set up equivalent programs. Why don’t they?

    Because your government have decided they have they other things they want to spend the money on–and it’s interesting that both of you think that the US is somehow derelict in its duty for not doing it, but seem to have no such harsh words for your own governments.

    Why is that? The EU economy is the same size as the US, with a much smaller military budget–why aren’t your governments leading the way with SETI, not to mention all the other scientific research the US funds and your governments don’t. The US and Japan spend almost twice the percentage of their economy on scientific research than the EU does–much like we do with military spending.

    http://europa.eu/pol/rd/

    So why do you guys let yourselves off the hook this way? It’s not as though if the US doesn’t fund some research Europe can’t. When Europe doesn’t hold up its end and blames the US for not doing it, is that really fair?

  25. Gabriel Hanna

    @Danielle:so, even though this world can miss war as well as it can miss Osama Bin Laden, i can see the spending of money to war, is also contributing to the US society

    No, it isn’t. Money spent on war is a money wasted and a net cost to our society–though some people might make money from it the country as a whole is poorer. Frederic Bastiat proved this long ago.

  26. Danielle: as far as i know the SETI institute is not supported by tax payers money,

    The NSF is one funder among many, so there are some public tax dollars going to it. But we are talking small change here. A quick google search tells me that the Allen Telescope Array has operating costs of about $1.5 million per year and it costs another $1 million on top of that to do SETI searches. Again, NSF is one of several sources who contribute. So we are talking some fraction of $2.5 million. The government probably spends more than that on office toilet paper.

    In general, I think being an informed and active taxpayer is a good thing. However, at some point you just have to resist the urge to monday morning quarterback. I think NSF probably has good scientists managing their portfolio. If they opened up some funding opportunity for astronomical research, got several submissions, and decided that the SETI proposal was the strongest one they got back, I am inclined to believe them… without complaining about whether its would be my personal preference or not.

  27. I’ll throw my support behind SETI any day. Even if there is never a direct payoff of finding ET, it takes new technology to keep looking. Everything we learn about the universe has potential benefits to us.

    To Gabe: we know alchemy doesn’t work because it violates everything we know about physics. Cold fusion appears similarly impossible. We don’t know that ET doesn’t exist. By your arguments we shouldn’t fund any further physics research either because we don’t know the odds of it being successful. We might as well shut down the LHC. Forget about all the great new computer and medical applications we might get out of it.

    The non-monetary payoff of potentially shutting up the creationists with a SETI discovery makes it worth the few cents a day we collectively would have to spend to keep it going. I don’t know if SETI gets any tax funding either, but I suspect if it does it’s far less than what our politicians get for their little junkets to Tahiti and the cost of the golden hammers and toilet seats Congress uses. If we took the funding for a few nuclear submarines (which are doing a lot to keep us safe these days) and spent it on any sort of scientific endeavor we’d be a lot better off, and maybe stop a few budding creationists from becoming the future Ayatollahs of Appalachia.

  28. TJW says:

    I’ll throw my support behind SETI any day. Even if there is never a direct payoff of finding ET, it takes new technology to keep looking. Everything we learn about the universe has potential benefits to us.

    I think the unforeseeable (but probably inevitable) by-products would be the real benefit, because we’re unlikely to discover ET just by listening to the universe. Any civilization sufficiently advanced to be what we’re searching for would use methods to deliberately disguise their broadcasts to look like background noise. I don’t know how they could do that, but f they could do it, they would. Why? Because it’s prudent to keep from being overheard, unless they want to be overheard. In other words, SETI won’t find ET unless he wants to be found.

  29. SC says:

    Any civilization sufficiently advanced to be what we’re searching for would use methods to deliberately disguise their broadcasts to look like background noise.

    They might disguise their signals if they think like us, but why should we assume that? It’s possible that an ET that is not warlike would have no concept of the risk. Who knows?

    My major concern is the energy required to generate a signal powerful enough to detected by us, especially if it is omnidirectional, as a beacon would be. On the other hand, a sufficiently advanced civilization with the appropriately powerful technology might seed a few beacons here and there just to see if there is anyone else out there. Sort of like sending up a cosmic flare. I think it’s worth a listen.

  30. I agree with Ed that it’s worth a look.

    I also agree with SC, though, that they would probably be hiding. I think if we find ET it will be very similar to us in its way of thinking. If evolution produced us (which it did), and the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe (which as far as we can tell they are), then biology should work in a similar way to the way it works on Earth. Evolution works by selecting for the organism with the greatest fitness. A big part of what got us where we are is our tendency to fight what we can, or hide when we don’t know what else to do. It seems likely that others would have the same attitude. Besides, imagining ourselves with the technology to travel to other stars or send a message, I’m not sure I’d want to meet us somewhere out there in the dark.

    Of course, it could be even worse, maybe ET exists but its world is so overrun with their own form of creationists that they never advanced beyond early agriculture.

  31. amendment to my first commment above. for some reason all the commentary about NSF funding didn’t come through before I posted. even seeing that SETI gets some tax payer funding, I think Eric is right. in the greater scheme of government funding this is very small. (I think that meets SC’s requirement for comparison).
    cost of SETI is low compared to overall government funding+frustrates old Hambo.

  32. daniellefw

    @Gabriel and Eric.

    At first thanks for informing me on the U.S. Government spendings. I know to little of that to indeed give a complete correct comment, and thanks for your replies. I like to add this though:

    ***No, it isn’t. Money spent on war is a money wasted…***

    Of course it is! Aside from NOT wishing to promote war, I understand it is not profitable, and not even covering the cost… I also think it was never meant to be. The military and “politic actions” are no business deals. And i also understand that in the process of being involved in wars or politic actions, wrong decisions are made over the backs of the tax-payers. So i do agree!

    I do however think that with cutbacks in government spendings on military another problem could be created… For example: In Holland six thousand soldiers are being laid off, due to cutbacks. And where do you think they will find a job in these economical times? So, many will end up in a re-intigration-plan or will get social security… Also, this means that the industry providing these units (from clothing, food, to vehicles, etc…) are now going to have less work/income and may have to lay off people too (its been a news item here already)…

    So all i meant to say is that good management in government spending is a MUST of course, but cutbacks can have unexpected (bad) results.

    (i had a similar situation in my own profession when some tax-deductable stuff was not tax-deductable for a while… a whole industry from factory to logistics suffered from this, and the government decided after a few years to reverse their decision for this…)

    Eric. thanks for enlightening me on the tax-funding. I was convinced SETI was, after it had been cut lose from NASA long ago, a complete privately funded institute….

    I wished my country was good enough to spend a little tax-money on something as interesting and potentially momentous as SETI. Instead our government is working on how to be the most shameful group of intolerant politicians in the whole world…. and Gabriel, I’m in great fear this government will bring us back to the dark ages with their fantastic leadership skills… (ever heard of Geert Wilders? he is a treat! 😉

  33. Gabriel Hanna

    @TJW:To Gabe: we know alchemy doesn’t work because it violates everything we know about physics. Cold fusion appears similarly impossible. We don’t know that ET doesn’t exist.

    You are making my argument for me!

    We know a great deal about alchemy and fusion–if they work it is by overturning physical laws we thought we knew pretty well. The payoff would be HUGE, and we have enough knowledge to guess about what the payoff would be, and we have enough knowledge to guess that the likelihood of this payoff is, as I pointed out, extremely low. For SETI we have NO INFORMATION WHATEVER, either about the benefit or about the probability of success.

    By your arguments we shouldn’t fund any further physics research either because we don’t know the odds of it being successful.

    You got no such thing from my argument–your saying that proves you don’t understand the argument. We know A GREAT DEAL about physics. This knowledge tells us WHAT EXPERIMENTS ARE LIKELY TO BE A GOOD USE OF TIME AND MONEY. We have NO SUCH INFORMATION about SETI.

    We might as well shut down the LHC. Forget about all the great new computer and medical applications we might get out of it.

    In order to buld the LHC, we needed to know a great deal about what we wanted it to accomplish and what its capabilities could be, and because we know that we can guess at what the benefits are.

    Not one of the pro-SETI comments here has been based on anything but sentiment. None of you has ANY evidence for what the benefits of finding alien intelligence will be–let’s hope they are not Kzinti–or ANY evidence for the likelihood of success. We’re all so gimlet-eyed about the claims of creationists though…

    Every dollar that goes to SETI is a dollar NOT going to other research. This is a time when governments everywhere are looking for things to cut. To preserve SETI, what science will you give up?

    And saying “it’s a small amount of money” is not an argument. That’s an argument for wasting on anything anyone can dream up.

    I challenge you, find an evidence-based argument for why money should be spent by taxpayers on SETI instead of other scientific research. An evidence-based argument for saying we should give up research in another field to pay for something that no one even knows the chances that it exists, or the chances that it will produce nay kind of benefit.

  34. Gabriel Hanna

    @TJW:If evolution produced us (which it did), and the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe (which as far as we can tell they are), then biology should work in a similar way to the way it works on Earth. Evolution works by selecting for the organism with the greatest fitness. A big part of what got us where we are is our tendency to fight what we can, or hide when we don’t know what else to do. It seems likely that others would have the same attitude.

    Generalizing from a sample of one is REAL SCIENTIFIC.

    As we should all know who post here, “fitness” is a different thing for every organism. A human is a very poor shark, but sharks are extremely fit for what they do, as are humans.

    Shark fitness has to do with being streamlined and having lots of teeth; human fitness has to do with being smart and curious and good with our hands. We have no way to know what qualities would make an alien intelligence fit for its environment. We don’t know what qualities BESIDES intelligence would make an alien intelligence unable to be contacted–for example, like koalas, they might be be in such a specialized niche as to have no use for technology; or like dolphins and orcas, they might live underwater.

    Science fiction writers have dealt with these issues at length.

  35. Gabriel Hanna: Not one of the pro-SETI comments here has been based on anything but sentiment.

    You don’t know the details of the grant opportunity that NSF put out. You don’t know what sort of research they were looking to support. You don’t know who replied. You don’t know the quality of those applications. You don’t know the metrics on which NSF assesssed them. You don’t know how much money they gave to SETI, either in absolute terms of dollars or in % of the total grant money available.

    Based on this ignorance, you proclaim that this winner didn’t deserve the money because you don’t like their odds of success.

    What I tried very politely and somewhat indirectly to say is that you might not want to armchair quarterback NSF’s decision given that you know so little about why they made it. Doing so makes you look foolish.

    Every dollar that goes to SETI is a dollar NOT going to other research.

    I take it, then, you know who else applied for the NSF grant(s) that SETI won, that you read their proposals, that you understand the criteria on which the award(s) were given out, and you have a solid argument for why some other application deserved to win more than SETI? Because if not, you are just a couch-rider yelling at the coaches on TV to pass more and run less.

    C’mon Gabriel, you’re a scientist. You know that these process details matter. Right process is what we want government scientific grant agencies
    to have. If it occasionally leads to a result we don’t like, so be it. Resist whatever urge you’re getting to demand we change the award merely becausse the research is something you don’t personally like. If not out of reason, then do it out of self-interest: when you demand we short-circuit the grant approval process merely because some outsider doesn’t like the research being done, you open your own research to being cut in the same manner.

  36. Gabriel Hanna

    @eric: Wow, way to make up stuff and attribute it to me.

    I never said or implied ANYTHING like what you attribute to me here:

    “you demand we short-circuit the grant approval process merely because some outsider doesn’t like the research being done, ”

    Utter hogwash. I’m not saying that anyone should illegally revoke grants! What the HELL.

    These grants SHOULD NOT AWARDED IN THE FIRST PLACE. Whoever at NSF decided to award them decided, in my opinion, WRONGLY. And I am seeking to presuade people that such grants should not be awarded in the future.

    I take it, then, you know who else applied for the NSF grant(s) that SETI won, that you read their proposals, that you understand the criteria on which the award(s) were given out, and you have a solid argument for why some other application deserved to win more than SETI?

    Ah, the Courtier’s Reply. Why don’t YOU provide this information for all of us to examine then? I don’t worship the authority of lab coats, for good reason–you claim there is evidence, do be so good as to present it.

  37. Gabriel Hanna

    The Courtier’s Reply, for those who don’t know it:

    I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

    Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

    Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

    Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

  38. Gabriel Hanna

    @eric: You are aware, of course, that the US government funds clinical trials of homoepathy and other bogus “alternative” treatements–they have a grant approval process for that too. Are you going to give me the Courtier’s Reply for that?

    If NSF funds creation research, is it automatically a good use of research funds? Is the NSF the infallible arbiter of what is and what is not a good use of research funds?

  39. I’m curious, Gabe. What research projects do you work on?

  40. I challenge you, find an evidence-based argument for why money should be spent by taxpayers on SETI instead of other scientific research.

    Why should taxpayer money be spent on ANY scientific research? Where in the constitution is the government explicitly empowered to do such a thing?

    Now, the question may be hypocritical because my research is supported by tax money- but hey, if they start handing out $100 bills on the steps of the Capitol, I’ll happily take them even if I think that the giveaway is a stupid and unconstitutional idea and ought to be stopped.

  41. SY asks:

    Where in the constitution is the government explicitly empowered to do such a thing [spending money on scientific research]?

    A fair question. It’s nowhere, literally. But almost from the beginning, Navy ships have been used for exploration and research. Arguably, the ships have to sail anyway in order to have experienced personnel, so any research they conduct is a pure bonus. No one doubts that NASA has national defense spinoffs. I’ve always suspected that even “pure” research projects, like the Hubble, have an unmentioned (yet significant) reconnaissance function. I previously mentioned that SETI could be a by-product of some otherwise useful project, and if so that’s fine with me. Even if processing the data for SETI purposes increases the cost a wee bit, that doesn’t bother me.

    But lots of NSA-funded projects can’t be justified that way. I like the idea of scientific research; but that doesn’t mean my neighbors should be forced to pay for it.

  42. I have in front of me a list…

    Some NSF-funded projects for this year: automated fish production, protein synthesis process monitoring, cartilage replacements, gene therapy, biofuel fermentation, controlled release gene therapy, spectroscopic imaging, active mirrors, food antioxidants, production of biopigments, immunoassay detectors, multifunctional cardiac catheters, gadgets to reduce incontinence, software for colonoscopies… all worthy projects (one of them partially supports me), all deserving of private donors (like you and me), none of which seem to have any relationship to constitutional authority.

  43. My tax money is being spent on “software for colonoscopies”?

  44. The jokes write themselves.

  45. If it has potential to slow or stop creationists, even if very small potential, and if the cost to me and my neighbors isn’t that high, then I’m ok with it. Perhaps that is an emotional rather than a scientific response, but I think that the intangible benefit of further discrediting the enemies of science is worth the price here, even if it very slightly reduces funding for other endeavors.

    Besides as SC says, there are some potential and more practical spinoffs to both NASA and SETI. Whether it’s new computer programming, or improved understanding and utilization of the EM spectrum, it does have some potential to be useful in defense or in other areas that matter more to us at home.

  46. Gabriel Hanna

    @Ed:I’m curious, Gabe. What research projects do you work on?

    Condensed matter mostly. One of my projects was finding a way to measure fluid volumes at high pressure in diamond anvil cells. DACs have tiny volumes and it is very difficult to measure their volumes. For solids, not a problem because X-ray diffraction gives the lattice parameters to high accuracy, but that approach won’t work on fluids. The purpose is to measure the equation of state and refractive index, both of which reveal fundamental properties of substances as well as their molecular interactions.

    I’ve also worked on some projects involving zinc oxide, a semiconductor with potentially huge applications which people have been chasing for some time.

    I’ve done some theoretical work on clusters of atoms at zero temperature, which only requires a desktop computer. I used to think there wasn’t any application for that, but it turns out that some of what we worked on can be used to predict properties of bulk fluids.

  47. Gabriel Hanna

    @TJW:Whether it’s new computer programming, or improved understanding and utilization of the EM spectrum, it does have some potential to be useful in defense or in other areas that matter more to us at home.

    Almost every research project can say the same.

    I thought experiment, for everyone but myself: what if SETI was looking for communications from God instead of alien intelligences? How would it be different?

    We don’t know God exists, but we don’t know ETI exists either.

    We don’t know how God might try to communicate with us, but we don’t know that about ETI either; presumably some sort of light signals COULd work in either case.

    We don’t know what God would say to us or how He would say it, and we don’t know that about ETI either.

    We don’t know what benefit we would gain from unambiguous evidence of God’s existence, and we don’t know that about ETI either.

    We might improve our computer programming and EM detection capability by searching for God, and we might for ETI as well.

    Etc.

    Seriously, can any of you explain what the actual difference in the research program would be, if SETI were searching for signals from God instead of ETI?

  48. Seriously, can any of you explain what the actual difference in the research program would be, if SETI were searching for signals from God instead of ETI?

    We’d be looking at gene sequences and digit sequences in far removed decimal places in transcendental numbers. More likely than God communicating via electromagnetic waves.

  49. We’d be looking at gene sequences and digit sequences in far removed decimal places in transcendental numbers.

    Only creationists would. We don’t know, as I said, where or in what form God or ETI intends us to find its messages.

    More likely than God communicating via electromagnetic waves.

    Based on? Like with ETI, we have absolutely no idea.

  50. He’s God, for God’ sake! He doesn’t need a radio. Any fool can get on the radio and say, “Yo, God here!” And they do, quite often.

    It takes an actual god to jigger the constants of the universe or embed in the gene sequences of wild-types the encoded, “Yo, God here!” message.

  51. I assume the many of you have heard of the drake equation? That, together with the findings of the Kepler Telescope give reason to “believe” there must be many habitable planets. The universe could be filled with life… not based on a hunch but based on facts and figures.

    And of course the SETI institute is counting on the fact that “life” might have evolved somewhere else in a similar way as it has done here, and might have been -or are- sending signals (as we do). Which could be completely wrong, but, considering that the building blocks throughout the universe are all the same… one can imagine some might just be “like us”…. And what is the other option: Sit on your hands and do nothing?

    And of course there is the issue that money can be spend on other (more important) issues, but think of choosing between a trip to disneyland, or a big gasoline draining car, etc… or giving that money to charity or research instead? We’re “all” quite hypocrite when it comes to spending our money…

    I do not believe in a Gods creation. I trust in science… And putting everything on a scale, evolutions wins on existing proof… And to me, maybe the fact that we are still discussing a topic like this (creation vs. evolution) has to do with our own evolution and not yet being smart enough to grasp the essence of our own existence, and aren’t far enough evolved to understand our position in this universe, or to build the equipment needed to reach or travel far enough in space to meet our cosmic neighbors.

    Until then, my vote (and donation) goes to evolution and the SETI institute because i rather do something, than nothing at all…

  52. Unfortunately, the Drake equation is pure speculation. The values for the terms are completely unknown, hence the calculated probabilities are meaningless. It’s a fun exercise, and it’s fun to imagine things- even more fun to discover things- but the actual answer to the question of, “Is there intelligent life in other parts of the universe?” is, “We have no way of knowing at present and no means to estimate the probabilities.”

    Two equally interesting (to me) questions are, “Was there ever intelligent life in other parts of the universe?” and, “Will there ever be intelligent life in other parts of the universe that arises spontaneously?”

  53. @SY The fun thing is, that after the recent findings of the Kepler Telescope, the ATA was going to be pointed in that direction… This might have shed some light on what numbers should be filled in this drake equation… But in my opinion, considering the vastness of space, and the numerous planets in it, it would be no less than megalomania to think we are the only “smart” creatures in this universe…. and I agree that your two questions are very interesting!

    My thought: this is not the time to give up this search….

  54. Gabriel Hanna

    @Danielle: The Drake equation is just wish fulfillment dressed up science. Let us review:

    N = R * fp * ne * fl * fi *fc * L

    N = number of detectable civilizations
    R = rate of star formation, nothing wrong with this one
    fp = fraction of stars with planets, nothing wrong with this one
    ne = average number of planets that can support life per planet

    Here it’s getting shaky, but if we restrict ourselves to planets that have liquid water we can be scientific again

    fl = fraction of those planets that CAN develop life, which WILL

    No evidence whatever for this one, but let us be generous and say this number is 1.

    fi = fraction of planets that will develop INTELLIGENT life, given life
    fc = fraction of civilizations that develop technology that we could detect
    L = length of time for which they are doing things which we can detect

    Hmmm, one equation, three unknowns–and these three unknowns are UNKNOWABLE until we have ACTUALLY OBSERVED some alien civilization!

    Danielle, this merely circuluar reasoning if you base any research program on it. There is nothing PREDICTED here. You have three unknown constants, unknowable without doing the experiment you set up the equation to justify, which you can massage as you like to produce any value which you think might attract funding for the experiment.

    Until then, my vote (and donation) goes to evolution and the SETI institute because i rather do something, than nothing at all…

    But those are not the choices. The chouices are, do SETI and give up some other research, or do some other research. A dollar to SETI is a dollar taken away from other research. It’s not like SETI is the only thing that doesn;t get funded, there are any number of research proposal that don’t get funded–the majority of them do not.

  55. Gabriel Hanna

    Mind you, Danielle, I don’t say we shouldn’t look for places that might have life in the universe with tools like Kepler. That is perfectly legitimate astronomy. What I oppose is research projects dedicated specifically to looking for something that no one knows what it’s going to look like or can estimate the probability that it exists.

    Astronomers are looking at all kinds of things all the time. Let the SETI researchers go through that data if they want, looking for things that other specialists might have missed, and do it on their own time and money. This is not something we are going to know how to find until we find it by luck.

    Spending money on luck is silly–it’s what makes money for casinos.

  56. Gabriel, of course there is that choice to support SETI with private donations, and that is what i did. I have to say that i support more causes i care for. Being not from the U.S. my tax money is not going to SETI funding anyway. And i -for one- would not have minded at all.

    Here’s what i think… you are right, it is speculative, but far from unlikely, to me the odds are good enough, just because you did not find anything yet, does not mean it is not there.

    To me it is not spending money on luck… it just takes time, and maybe adjusted ways of searching. Money and technology are key factors. But again, i stand by the idea that i’d rather do something than nothing at all… Preferably with private funding so this discussion could end.

    But, even so, we all agree that governments spend “our” money carelessly, as said on expensive warfare, or even worse: to a ridiculously expensive marriage as recently in the UK, or to a useless industrial railroad tracks which is barely being used and costed the dutch 4,7 million euros… these all are many times the amount SETI needs, and did not go to anything we needed, not research, or anything that benefits contributes to our basic survival…. still it happened. But that is acceptable?

    Of course, all that useless spent money could all go to research… I say differently, but thats just me.

    In the end it’s all within matters of our own perspective how we want our money to be spend…

  57. ***sorry, benefits… i meant contributes (i write much better in dutch 😉

  58. In searching the rest of the ICR site for articles on alien life, I found posting that I believe sums up the concern ICR has for this subject. They say

    While we cannot prove biblically that God did not create life elsewhere, the strong implication of Scripture is that He did not. These very different predictions of the special creation and evolution models mean that the search for life elsewhere amounts to a powerful test between the two theories of origin.

    The article is here: http://www.icr.org/article/can-life-exist-other-planets/

    They still carry a posting by “Kenneth Ham” in 1993 deriding SETI and bemoaning that donations to SETI by organizations and individuals could have been Christian organizations instead “so that the “Back to Genesis” message could be spread effectively through society”. The concern with SETI spans decades.

    I believe there is a deep fear within the ICR / AiG community concerning the possible discovery of life beyond earth, whether intelligent or microbial. That explains their general opposition to any efforts to seek such life.

    Long live SETI !

  59. Danielle says: “i write much better in dutch”

    You’re doing fine in English, so your Dutch must be awesome.

  60. Gabriel Hanna: Whoever at NSF decided to award them decided, in my opinion, WRONGLY.

    You don’t know the grant’s requirements, you don’t know who else applied, you don’t know how many won. And yet you make this conclusion.

    Ah, the Courtier’s Reply.

    No, it’s not. The Courtier’s Reply is an attempt to distract people from a primary point by claiming lots of other trivial and academic points need to be considered before a decision can be made. But the metrics by which a grant submission is judged ARE the primary factor when determining whether the goverment was right or wrong in how they gave the money out.

    Why don’t YOU provide this information for all of us to examine then?

    Because I’m not claiming NSF did something wrong. The burden of proof must rest on the the complainers. I.e., you, otherwise the system would grind to a halt. You would not, for instance, want people to be able to register an equally vague complaint about your research and have it stopped. You would rightly insist that anyone complaining about your research should come up with their own solid evidence of misconduct before the government withheld an awarded grant from you. So, in this case, the same burden of proof rests on you.

    Regarding your speculation about creationist and pseudoscience grants – I have in fact been in the position where I had to argue with government officials about awarding such folks with a grant. And I successfully prevented it. But I did it after collecting a wealth of factual, award-specific evidence that the group was not deserving of that particular pot of money. So provide that if you want to make a convincing case. Your opinion that looking for ET is a waste of time might be perfectly reasonable, but unless you are a congresscritter, your opinion on it’s own is not worth squat as a reason to cancel a program or redirect its funds.

  61. Thanks Curmudgeon! 🙂

  62. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Spending money on luck is silly–it’s what makes money for casinos.

    These things are always judgment calls. Using valuable astronomy resources to search for the Easter Bunny is a total waste, because he doesn’t exist. But if a private philanthropist wants to waste his fortune that way, he has the right. ET may exist (or he may not) but it’s not a crazy quest like searching for the Easter Bunny. Still, it’s a very long shot that we’d ever find ET, and it’s an improper use of government funding (except, as I’ve said before, as a trivial add-on to an existing defense project). Searching for killer asteroids is a worthy project because we’re certain that asteroids exist, and we’ve been struck before. It may be luck that we’d detect one in a timely fashion, but I’d judge the effort to be worth the cost. I could personally justify that to be a matter of national defense, so taxpayers’ money could be used.

  63. Gabriel Hanna

    @eric:You would not, for instance, want people to be able to register an equally vague complaint about your research and have it stopped.

    If you cannot learn to read better than this, there is no point in arguing with you.

    SHOW ME THE SCIENCE. Show me science and not handwaving bulls**t. When you can show me all this awesome, fact-filled science that you claim exists in these grant applications, then we can talk. Until then, you are just making the Courtier’s Reply.

    Present some evidence. It’s a very simple request.

    You would not, for instance, want people to be able to register an equally vague complaint about your research and have it stopped.

    No, I wouldn’t, and I am not demanding this for anyone else.

    You would rightly insist that anyone complaining about your research should come up with their own solid evidence of misconduct before the government withheld an awarded grant from you.

    LEARN TO READ. If you can’t read what I’ve written without inventing things out of whole cloth, I don;t trust you to read grant applications, frankly.

  64. Finding a signal is a long shot, but the question of whether ET exists or not is a fundamental “big question”, and right now our tools to discover ET are rather limited. We use the tools we have. No one is suggesting we poor billions into the effort, and luckily there are a few well-heeled and curious people that are willing to fund most of the effort. So government money, if any, is minor.

    I don’t understand why this is controversial – except to creationists, who have a great deal to lose.

    If we continue to improve our search techniques and tools and fail to detect anything artificial, that would be an interesting result as well, albeit disappointing.

  65. longshadow

    Awesome thread; sorry I wasn’t around when it started.

    I’m old-school about taxpayer funding of research — unless it has a direct influence on a critical federal function sanctioned by the constitution, taxpayers shouldn’t pay for it.

    Most people are unaware that prior to WWII, very little scientific research was funded by the US government. All the great telescopes — Hale, Hooker, etc., were privately funded by rich people — that’s why the scopes are named after them. It was only after WWII that the NSF was created, and in so doing, it opened the door not only for funding arguably worthy basic science, but all manner of kooky pseudo-science. In fact, there were isolated objections raised to the creation of NSF by eminent scientists precisely for this reason — that once the taxpayer was funding basic scientific research, it would only be a matter of time before all manner of silly stuff would be vying for a share of the money.

    The utility of SETI should be in the eye of the donor, as it should be for most scientific research. Take the taxpayer out of the equation, and the argument dries up.

    Lastly, it may have already been mentioned but I did not see it — SETI does not seek coded messages — it seeks EM signals that are artificial in nature — signals the exhibit narrow band carrier wave emissions. The two known man-made varieties of this that are powerful enough to be detectable and interstellar distances are broadcast TV and radar. Any alien intelligence that is as far along in its technological development as we are would likely go through a similar stage where it would be emitting narrow band CW signals with megawatt ERP out into space, and in theory we could detect them if the source is close enough.

    If Hale could finance the 200 inch telescope at Palomar, SETi (and many other interesting scientific research projects) can be financed by a combination of rich people and ordinary folks making donations over the internet, on an even world-wide basis. The free market is the most efficient mechanism for allocation precious resources; I see no reason in principle why it should not apply in the realm of scientific research as well.

    In short, “let the donor decide.”