Klinghoffer Opines on SETI

Today we bring you the view from Bizarro World — an opinion about the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intellignce (SETI) from the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute‘s creationist public relations and lobbying operation, the Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids, a/k/a the cdesign proponentsists).

The Discoveroids’ opinion on SETI is in a recent article by David Klinghoffer, upon whom the Discoveroids have bestowed the exalted title of “senior fellow” — i.e., flaming, full-blown creationist. His article is titled SETI Astronomer Says Life’s “Not All That Special” Even as His Own Program Suggests Otherwise. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us and Klinghoffer’s links omitted:

A CNN.com video is making the rounds in which SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak hunches his eyebrows in a worldly-wise manner and shrugs off the possibility that there’s anything “special” about life: “Every time we learn something new about the universe, what we learn is that our situation doesn’t seem all that special. And that suggests that life is not all that special either.”

There’s a video at Klinghoffer’s post in which Seth Shostak says just that. He’s an astronomer with a physics degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology. Klinghoffer, a Discoveroid propagandist, considers himself qualified to critique Shostak’s opinions. His article continues:

Reporter John Zarrella, meanwhile, is all agog about the number of supposedly Earth-like planets being discovered and explains, “The body of evidence is growing that we are not alone.”

Well, we’re unlikely to be alone. We’ve written a few times about the increasing number of extra-solar planets that are being found. See Fifty More Extra-Solar Planets Discovered (“the team has found that about 40% of stars similar to the Sun have at least one planet lighter than Saturn.”). We also wrote about the Discoveroids’ reaction here — they’re in total rejection mode. Let’s read on in Klinghoffer’s article:

Here at ENV [the Discoveroids’ creationist think tank], we’ve touched on the premature nature of such celebratory pronouncements. Guillermo Gonzalez notes that “While these exoplanets are being discovered, astronomers are discovering additional constraints on the habitability of planetary systems.” The more planets we find, the more we realize how numerous, complicated, precarious and mutually dependent the conditions are that would be needed to support life.

Expelled! star Guillermo Gonzalez? BWAHAHAHAHAHA! He’s the Discoveroid “senior fellow” who failed to get tenure at Iowa State University and who now teaches at some bible college. He’s a co-author of the classic creationist book, The Privileged Planet, a “fine tuning” argument applied to Earth. You know how that goes — everything on our little world is so perfectly arranged that it just couldn’t have happened naturally; there had to be some guiding intelligence who set the dials so it would all work out exactly as we see it. He’s the Discoveroids’ “expert” on extra-solar planets. We continue:

But never mind. Go back to Shostak’s comment and take his premise for granted. Let’s say it’s true that the more we learn the more it seems “our situation doesn’t seem all that special.” Yet the well-known fact is that SETI Institute has yet to detect any echo of extra-terrestial intelligence. That’s a big part of the reason that this year SETI had to shut down, for lack of funding, its Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, a $50 million ear trained to the sky, its 42 dishes listening for radio transmissions from elsewhere in the Milky Way. Simply stated, no results = no money.

Yet the Discoveroids continue to receive money from their generous patrons, and as all the world knows, they have no results to show for all their huffing and puffing about their magic designer. Here’s more:

If it were true that the conditions for life are common around the galaxy, yet no intelligent life has checked in with us so far, that would seem to suggest that life itself — as opposed to the conditions that might make it hypothetically sustainable somewhere — is very special indeed.

Not necessarily. But it does suggest that alien technological civilizations are rare, or that our instruments aren’t yet adequate to find them. Don’t forget, dear reader, that human civilization on earth existed for thousands of years, with technology not much more advanced that that possessed by the Greeks and Romans. Aliens who may have been looking for radio signals couldn’t have found the Roman Empire. Here’s Klinghoffer’s conclusion:

In the total absence of evidence for actual life out there, the more common those conditions are, the more special — i.e., not readily evolved by natural means alone — life must be. Does that not follow, Dr. Shostak?

Dr. Shostak can speak for himself, but we doubt that he’ll bother responding to the Discoveroids. Our own response is this: Hey, David — no, your conclusion doesn’t follow. It appears that there may be millions of earth-like planets in this galaxy alone. We’ve just begun to develop instruments to detect what’s out there. Soon, with better instruments, we’ll be looking at the chemistry of the atmosphere of extra-solar planets, which could indicate the presence of life, and eventually we’ll be looking for evidence that they use artificial light at night. Our adventure has just begun, David, but yours ended long ago.

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

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13 responses to “Klinghoffer Opines on SETI

  1. Brian Utterback

    I am not expert, but there is something to his argument. Of course the fine-tuning argument has some validity at the level of the Universe and absolutely none at the planetary level. It seems likely that there needs to be a confluence of many different factors for life to arise. I predict that as time goes on, more and more of these factors will be discovered with the result that the number of likely other planets will decrease. I further predict that a some of these factors will be determined to not actually be required. In the end, there is no way to predict how many other planets would be able to develop life because there will always be some factors that we have missed or cannot measure at a distance and some factors that we erroneously thought were necessary but are not. Until we check all other planets or find one with life, there is no way to know if we are alone or not. My bet is that we are not, but that intelligence is rarer than you might think.

  2. Notice how he moves the goalposts. It’s like saying that because you haven’t found gold in the river yet, then you can conclude you won’t find gravel either. Even on Earth intelligence at the detectable-by-instruments level has been rare compared to life of any kind. Life lives in lots of places on Earth without being civilized.

    I do think SETI is a waste of effort, and efforts like Kepler and exploring the more-likely-to-be-habitable corners of our solar system is a better use of effort.

  3. A true Discoveroid could have no objection to an unknown creator having created multiple intelligent creations. Methinks this man is a creationist in disguise – his objections can only be theological. But then we knew that already.

  4. Klinkerhopper fails to mention, possibly because of his sociopathic tendencies, to mention that the Allen array is back in operation due to $200,000 being raised over a 45-day period through private donations; enough to keep the facility operating for 5 months. I have been a Seti at Home volunteer participant for about 10 years and have processed thousands of data sets using spare computer cycles in my house, and an old computer I dedicated to that task alone. I’m sure ET’s signal is in the next data set!

    Furthermore, Klunkhumper is undoubtedly aware (I assume he can get to Wikipedia even from the Seattle echo chamber) that the Seti Institute has been in operation for about 30 years, and the first Seti experiment was performed by Drake in 1960. About 70 actual scientists (not dentists) are associated with the Seti Institute which operates dozens of programs through the Seti Institute, Carl Sagan Center and Education Outreach. The Allen Array is only one of many programs.

    So while Klingonpicker and the rest of the monkeys in Seattle throw their feces (that which they don’t eat themselves, that is) at scientists doing actual science, the scientists keep asking questions and keep searching for answers, unaware the DI or Klumfducker even exist. The rule of thumb is that anything Krudsnotter writes is a lie and the game is to discover how obvious the lies are.

  5. “Even on Earth intelligence at the detectable-by-instruments level has been rare compared to life of any kind.”

    This is so true, especially if you look at the million years life had no detectable emissions at all on Earth, compared to less than the 100 years it has. Also if an asteroid had not reset the playing field, and allowed mammals to grow in size, would have intelligence have evolved at all. What we may find is life may be fairly common, but intelligent life far rarer.

  6. SC – you mention the DI’s generous patrons – does anyone here know who these folks might be? I believe that the JTF was involved early on but are clearly not in the ID camp at this time.

  7. Douglas E asks:

    SC – you mention the DI’s generous patrons – does anyone here know who these folks might be?

    Some info here: Discovery Institute — Funding.

  8. Doc Bill must win a special prize for the most creative alternate spellings of the name Klinghoffer in a blog post. Outstanding achievement!

    As has been noted earlier, the conviction that no life exists elsewhere is completely a theological (we are the center of the universe!) argument. In our sample of one explored world with liquid water, life arose relatively early. That would suggest it might be common. The argument that the earth is fine-tuned for life is nonsense too – it’s conducive to life, certainly, but the life that is here on this planet evolved to fit the present tuning, not the other way around. Very early life existed on a world quite different from the present one, and there is no reason to believe that life elsewhere could not also originate and evolve to meet a broad spectrum of conditions on a wide variety of worlds. At this point, we just don’t know.

    We haven’t ruled out life elsewhere in our solar system yet. It will take decades, probably longer, before we can truly explore the likely niches for life nearby – Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn which contain liquid water, and Titan. If Klinghoofer wants to put a stake in the ground that ID predicts no life elsewhere, then let him. The DI can sweat it out, as we send more probes to these worlds.

    As for SETI, as Paul Davis says, the silence is eerie. However, as we become more energy efficient in our communications, we are likely to do away with large transmitters radiating megawatts of energy into space. There is no reason to believe alien technical civilizations might not do likewise. Perhaps the window for detecting civilizations actively transmitting energy is brief, and no such civilizations are currently detectible. Also, and more important, even large arrays cannot detect low power radio transmissions at modest interstellar distances. SETI’s radio frequency search is primarily dependent on a civilization intentionally beaming signals into space, announcing it’s presence. That’s admittedly a very long shot – a civilization would have little immediate gain from such a practice and potentially much to lose. It’s worth listening, but the odds of receiving a “Contact” style message is very low. This does not mean that intelligent aliens do not exist, or even whether they are common or not. Radio silence is a data point, not the answer to the question “are we alone”.

    SETI is actually coming of age. Perhaps not the radio SETI itself, although it is certainly improving with better technology, but the idea of exoplanets and the possibility of life elsewhere is now mainstream science, with numerous teams searching for new planets and developing the technology and methodology to detect signs of life. It’s not just the dreamers in San Francisco anymore.

    The discotute, by contrast, can only dream of such acceptance.

  9. “This is so true, especially if you look at the million years life had no detectable emissions at all on Earth, compared to less than the 100 years it has. Also if an asteroid had not reset the playing field, and allowed mammals to grow in size, would have intelligence have evolved at all. What we may find is life may be fairly common, but intelligent life far rarer.”

    What’s so special about mammals? Birds are pretty darn smart too (corvids and parrots for instance). The extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs may have opened the door for mammals to take over new niches and diversify, but I don’t believe that the dinosaur extinction was necessary for intelligent life at the human level to evolve on earth; it merely made us possible, as opposed to something else.

    Humans wouldn’t exist without the dinosaur extinction, but who is to say that some branch of the dinosaur family might not have evolved high levels of intelligence over the past 65 million years? IMO what is needed for intelligence to evolve is TIME, not periodic mass extinctions.

    If, however, periodic mass extinctions are necessary or at least helpful for the evolution of intelligence, please also note that large asteroids are very common so it’s likely that periodic mass extinctions are probably common on most other earth-like planets, too. Lots of big rocks out there tumbling about in space. So again I don’t see the Earth as being all that special – rare, perhaps, but not unique.

    Insisting on the uniqueness and specialness of humans and of the Earth is IMO a religious instinct or religious impulse, which has repeatedly been frustrated by science. Seth Shostak is correct: the trend in science is to remove humans and the Earth from the center of things and take away their uniqueness. This doesn’t actually prove that intelligent life and earth-like planets are out there, of course, but it does suggests that it is very very unlikely that we are special and unique in the entire universe.

    This is why religious fundamentalists have such a big problem with science – it constantly dethrones Man and the Earth from their religiously-required special place in “God’s plan”. The religious fundamentalists constantly harp on their humility but when you get right down to it, it really is all about themselves.

    That’s why they feel that a science-based worldview, aka naturalism, makes life “meaningless and random” because they are no longer at the center of “God’s creation”. It is really a very self-centered worldview. Science in contrast really is humble – it does not assume that we are special or unique. That’s the kind of humbleness that the religious fundamentalist simply can’t abide.

  10. Thanks, Ed! It actually takes more thought coming up with a new moniker for the kontrarian kreationist than it takes to write the rest of the piece.

    The denizens of the Disco Tute are all liars, actually, it’s their job to lie and propagate propaganda. They get away with so much mendacity because in the grand scheme of things nobody cares about them. Look at how much press coverage Coppedge has gotten. Nothing. Same for the rest of their PR. No coverage. Who cares? Nobody!

    Klockflopper and the rest of the DI can only be mocked. They have earned the derision that is heaped upon them because they are deliberately dishonest and they have no place in polite society.

  11. This is the same Seth Shostak that does Big Picture Science, right? What did he ever do to Klinghoffer… except for being, you know, sane?
    The whole radio signals thing is only a small part of what SETI does anyway – it’s just the most well-known.

  12. “What’s so special about mammals?”

    Nothing really, except they were small enough to only require 2 limbs to move around on, but as you mention avians can do the same thing, but I do believe the dinosaurs needed to be gone for intelligence to develop. Dinosaurs, and related creatures, lived through several near extinction events, and always came back breeding for size, not intelligence. Would intelligence have been impossible without the asteroid? No not at all, but it would have been a lot harder to develop, and spread to dominate the globe.

  13. Intelligence and technology are also separate, to a degree. Dolphins are quite intelligent and social, yet without opposable thumbs have no ability to manipulate objects – thus they will never develop writing or tools. Also, they are a marine species, thus they have no access to fire, refining ores, etc. Perhaps intelligence and language arises often in situations where the creatures live in water, or lack the ability to finely manipulate objects or are missing some other physical attribute needed to record their knowledge and evolve technology. The galaxy could be full of planets teeming with life, and hosting very intelligent creatures, but with no outward indications of technology (artificial lighting, atmospheric pollutants, radio signals, etc.).