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SETI or not SETI

Entry 1035, on 2009-06-17 at 22:30:16 (Rating 3, Science)

Some science experiments seem so weird and impractical that many people who don't have any sort of science background or interest in science reject them as frivolous or irresponsible. Commonly they suggest the money could be better spent on something else.

SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) is a classic case of a research project of this type. Various SETI projects have been run and are still running now and the most famous is the SETI@Home project where computer owners donate their computer's processing time to process the data being captured from radio telescopes looking for signals from aliens.

Anyone with an interest in science would look at what has been achieved in this project and pronounce it cool. Anybody who just doesn't get it though will ask a question like "why would you go to all the trouble of using your computer for this if you don't get paid", or "why are they wasting all that money and time on expensive equipment for something with no real value." By "no real value" they usually mean that it can't be exploited for commercial gain.

If you read this blog you will know I despise people who put such high value on commercial gain. If that was the only criteria for what was worth doing we wouldn't have made half the progress we have because just about every really significant gain we have made in every area of human endeavour (medicine, physics, technology) has come as a result of research with no obvious commercial purpose.

I'm not suggesting that there is a potential commercial use for discovering that there are other intelligent civilisations out there. What I am saying is that potential commercial gain should not even be a significant goal of scientific research.

Many people just can't isolate themselves from the idea that financial gain is the only thing that matters. The way I test what's really important is to imagine a situation where our society is being tested, by someone who has no commitment to our traditional social systems - usually this is a visiting alien (this is just coincidental to the SETI theme above).

Imagine describing how our society works to that alien. He might ask "why are people hungry on your planet when there could be plenty of food for everyone?" You would say "because companies make the technology to increase production too expensive". Or he could ask "why do people researching cancer cures not have enough money when a company which makes flavoured sugar water has $29 billion per year in revenue and employs 90,000 people doing essentially nothing?" Is there an answer to this?

Its pretty embarrassing isn't it? Looking at it this way you can see that our society doesn't really have very good priorities. Pursuing deeply philosophically important questions like intelligent life elsewhere in the universe should continue. The money involved is nothing compared with the uncounted billions wasted in irrelevant private corporations every year.


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