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In Defence of SETI

Entry 1644, on 2014-04-11 at 23:19:23 (Rating 1, Science)

I was surprised recently when I looked back through my records and realised that I have participated in the SETI at Home project for about 15 years now. If you haven't heard of this project, let me explain: SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and the project uses many ordinary computers to analyse enormous amounts of radio telescope data looking for signals of intelligent life.

It becomes quite competitive and some people use large numbers of computers to try to analyse more data (or "blocks" of data) than anyone else. I have used varying numbers with varying power to process data in the past but am currently just running a few.

I have been criticised on occasions because people see this project as a waste of time, internet bandwidth, or computer power; or as a frivolous extravagance; or even as a pseudoscientific pursuit with no basis in reality.

I disagree, and this blog entry is primarily to defend the SETI project and maybe the more controversial and quirky scientific projects in general.

For a start, this is a real science project and many other real science projects are being conducted this way today. Volunteers like me make our computers available to analyse data which would normally require expensive supercomputers. The data is generated as a side-effect of other science projects and is managed by Berkeley University, so any claim that this is pseudo-scientific is definitely untrue.

What about the claim of frivolity? Is it silly to look for "little green men" or other intelligent alien life? Unfortunately the real science has been confused with the pseudo-science of UFOlogy and other claims and conspiracies in this case. But the two aren't the same. SETI projects are a genuine attempt to look for intelligence using techniques which might get negative or positive results. There is no initial assumption that aliens exist. Most pseudo-scientific UFO "researchers" already "know" that aliens exist and pick and choose their evidence accordingly.

Finally, is this a waste of time, bandwidth, or computing power? In most cases these resources weren't originally purchased to run distributed experiments like SETI but there is very little loss involved and the potential gain is significant. Would the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe not be the greatest discovery of all time? How cool would it be if it was one of my computers which discovered the signal!

I have commented in the past how puzzling the lack of signs of intelligent life is, for example in a post titled "Science and Fiction" from 2013-01-15 where I discussed the Fermi Paradox: the fact that informal estimates indicate there should be plenty of life elsewhere in the universe, yet we see none.

This is surely one of the great mysteries of the universe. If we are the only intelligent life (and maybe the only life of any type) in the whole universe that would be totally astonishing, yet the opposite idea, that life is everywhere, is equally amazing.

Surely supporting the SETI projects by doing something as simple as installing the SETI at Home software and paying for a little bit of extra electricity and internet bandwidth is worth it. This is arguably the most awesome experiment the human race has ever attempted, and a lot of it is being performed on a bunch of ordinary computers around the world, including mine. The only criticism should be of those who don't participate!


Comment 1 (3898) by richard on 2014-04-14 at 13:07:52:

Another nice article Owen, and of course as you will suspect I agree with nearly all of it. I have absolutely no problem at all with this scientific endeavour which:

1 - In spite of the fact that no solid scientific evidence confirming intelligent life 'anywhere off planet' has been found to date, uses 'indirect' evidence (Fermi Paradox for example) as a basis to infer a (reasonable expectation) that 'some form of intelligence' exists elsewhere.

2 - Takes all known scientific evidence available (in this case radio waves) and examines them for as you stated 'signals of intelligent life' which basically involves looking for evidence of 'non-random' signals with (again) purely scientifically defined characteristics to distinguish them from naturally occurring signals. So not just simple repetition, or even one example of some apparent complexity, but repeated and specified complexity - i.e. the signals actually 'mean something' or convey 'information'.

It is after all science alone that has determined that there is currently only one known source of this type of 'information signal' in the universe, that is intelligence.

I am SO glad you are keen to recognise and endorse the scientific value of such an intriguing question and enterprise Owen. :-)

I find it interesting though that you feel the need to make a distinction between SETI proponents who 'don't assume aliens exist', and the pseudo-scientific 'UFO researchers' who 'know aliens exist' and pick and choose their evidence etc. Good point to think about, and this is where I have some disagreement:

While you may be right about some Pseudoscientific alien hunters, this is a pointless distinction on two fronts. Firstly, I suspect the vast majority of SETI at Home folk, have at very least a strong suspicion that one day we will find such a signal. I would suggest a great many of them 'know' aliens exist and desperately want to find the evidence. By 'know' of course, I mean 'strongly believe in their heart' that our current 'knowledge' on this particular topic is incomplete/wrong. Aren't there a great many such admissions available on the net by very respected astronomers and scientists etc, who essentially say, just look up at the probabistic resources - of course it's gonna be the case that more intelligence exists. Why defend against that notion Owen - because it's a) an understandable inference of the current evidence, and b) not relevant at all to SETI's credibility?!

The measure of 'scientific' credibility for the endeavour itself has nothing at all to do with any pre-conclusion about the a result that the researchers may or may not have. Indeed, nearly ALL previous important scientific discoveries happened because the researcher 'knew' (as in 'knew in his heart') that the prevailing (and often powerfully defended) scientific opinion on the matter was incorrect, and cared enough to devote time and effort to proving that.

Previous assumptions are therefore totally irrelevant to whether an endeavour is scientific or not. What is important of course is the scientific nature of the method(s) used, the evidence thus collected, and the balanced and reasoned scientific interpretation of the results.

With that in mind, I am happy to agree with you that the SETI project is just as scientific as many other science projects looking for signs of intelligence, whether it's in space, or in the distant past or anywhere else. :-)

Finally, I have to say that your criticism of those who aren't devoting CPU cycles is maybe a little harsh. Personally, I have no problem either way. This is because even if someone does find a signal somewhere, yes - it might be exciting and very cool if it's your computer, but makes practically NO difference other than that to us in any significant way. Chance are the signals would actually be millenia old, and it would take us another millenia to send a response, and another millenia to see if there is a response to that! So what? Even the discovery of life similar to our current human standard of intelligence halfway across the galaxy is pointless - what are we gonna do about it if we find it?

The only signals that have any significant importance to me are the ones that arrive from alien intelligences powerful enough to actually turn up, (for better or worse!) and we won't need SETI to get those signals.



Comment 2 (3899) by OJB on 2014-04-14 at 17:19:05:

First of all, good to hear from you again. It's been a while!

I am always happy to apply scientific principles to try to answer any open question, even when it may not appear at first to be a "scientific question".

Regarding the distinction between the scientific and pseudo-scientific approach. I guess the key thing is that in the scientific approach we try to create a hypothesis which can be tested and might lead to the confirmation or contradiction of the hypothesis. The pseudo-scientific approach tends to start with the conclusion and cherry pick the evidence to support that.

I disagree with your contention that scientific discoveries resulted from the experimenter having strong opinions before starting the research. Many important discoveries are a result of the contradiction of previously held views: expanding universe, dark energy, etc.

Intelligence in the distant past (he asks, alarm bells ringing). What are you referring to?

My criticism of people who don't participate in SETI was really just a frivolous observation, a throw-away line to finish the post. Next time I'll use a :)


Comment 3 (3900) by richard on 2014-04-14 at 23:19:49:

Thanks for the very kind intro. :) Always a pleasure, when I get the chance to re-visit. Been way too busy for the last few months. I agree totally with your rebuttal regarding strong prior opinions - My fault - I wasn't meaning at all to suggest that scientific discoveries ONLY happen when researchers have strong opinions about the outcome. You are quite right, sometimes it is actually the reverse. I was rather trying to make the observation that sometimes they may have strong opinions about an outcome, but in fact, this is not a problem at all and certainly not a disqualifier (in of itself) for the scientific credibility of the endeavour or the research. Point being it was a defense in your post that I didn't think you needed to worry about making. It wasn't meant as a criticism. :-)

Intelligence in the distant past - no alarm bells required - anthropology of course would be just one example, which uses evidence available today, along with prior scientifically determined data about what we know are the known limits of 'natural causes' (like wind / sand erosion & chance etc), to try to make a determination of the probability that an ancient artifact was merely chiselled by the wind, or alternatively was caused by the intent of an ancient agent ( i.e. intelligence). Sounds like a perfectly reasonable description of a scientific endeavour to me - it has to be one of only those two options after all. ;)

Also - sorry I didn't detect the intended :) in the last line. If a signal is found that can be reasonably inferred to be from an intelligent source, I really do hope it's found in one of your data blocks Owen. That would indeed be VERY cool!

Here's a shocker though - I had a quick look at the SETI stats to try and find you in the list. Figured you must be right up there somewhere. Then checked the list of top computers - See: https://setiathome.berkeley.edu/top_hosts.php

What's with all these running Windows?! I genuinely am shocked at this - I sure had a strong opinion about this before doing the research - LOL! Gotta be a mistake surely?! - then I saw this page (Top GPU's) which might explain this bizarre result: https://setiathome.berkeley.edu/gpu_list.php . Any ideas?



Comment 4 (3901) by OJB on 2014-04-15 at 10:12:29:

I think having opinions about the outcome is fine because they are impossible to avoid. The key factor is that the research should genuinely allow for the possibility of those prior assumptions to be falsified instead of just being designed to just support what is already believed.

I'm still getting the (perhaps paranoid) feeling that this is leading to some sort of "intelligent design" argument, but I totally agree that the evidence for an against design based on natural processes and on intelligent intervention can be tested and that is a perfectly reasonable scientific process.

Of course with a million people participating, some of which have hundreds of computers, I am not near the top globally. But I been in the top 0.1% of users for a long time. My personal stats are here.

Regarding the Mac. Unfortunately the Mac version of BOINC doesn't use the GPU so it is at a huge disadvantage. Not sure why since the GPUs in Macs are the same as those used in PCs and Apple specifically provide an easy way to access them for computation like this.


Comment 5 (3902) by richard on 2014-04-16 at 14:16:21:

Cool Owen - Thanks for the stats. Believe it or not, I spent a few minutes scrolling thru the first 1000 or so looking for you - scanning the country column to do this quickly (knowing you often had quite a few Macs working on it in the earlier days, so might be right up there). Found a Muzza in NZ first actually, and wondered whether that was 'our' Muzza (Murray C), but probably not. Anyway, a very impressive contribution Owen! - I couldn't see why Mac stats aren't easily picked up, given OS info does seem to be collected. Anyway - nice to be in agreement about everything! ;-)


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