Sunday, May 22, 2016

Messaging the ETs: science or (dangerous) religion?

There have been dozens of blog posts about the extraterrestrial life. I generally believe that the widespread opinion that the life is almost everywhere is unjustifiable, directly clashing with certain emerging data, and the life on our planet may very well be very rare if not unique. I've agreed with Michael Crichton's criticism of Drake's equation, among other things.

Geological data suggest that the life began shortly after the Earth was created. But this doesn't prove that it must be likely for life to emerge. Instead, one may argue that life came from outside the Earth – panspermia – and depended on the satisfaction of many conditions that required increasingly concentrated and increasingly advanced seeds of life.

Almost equivalently, the evolution of the early life forms may have depended on many deadlines. Some amino acids or other things may have been much more likely to be created when the Earth was new, hot, and chaotic, and the probability may have been dramatically decreasing ever since. The required stages of life had to be created during the early stages and they were – but they didn't have to. This picture is compatible both with a tiny concentration of life in the Universe and with its early appearance on Earth.

But that's not what I want to talk about here.

I want to mention two fresh preprints about the "communication related to the search for extraterrestrial life". One of them was written by Forgan and Scholz (via MIT Technology Review) and argues that the SETI policies what to do after a detection are heavily outdated (written down in 1989) and if a detection took place now, in the era of intense social networks on the Internet, it would be almost guaranteed to lead to chaos and omnipresent misinformation. An update is badly needed.

However, I want to spend more time with the paper
Reviewing METI: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments
by John Gertz (via Anthony Watts' blog) from a Berkeley SETI-related institution. Gertz concludes that "messaging to ET intelligence (METI) is unwise, unscientific, potentially catastrophic, and unethical". That's why I have embedded the last speech by President Jack Nicholson from "Mars Attacks".

Let me copy the whole conclusions:

Whenever one hears a “scientist” assert that ET must be altruistic, or that ET surely knows we are here, or that the closet ET civilization is at least x LY away, ask to see the data set on which they base their conclusions. As of today, no such data set exists. In the absence of any evidence whatsoever, whether one believes that the extraterrestrial civilization we might first encounter will be benign, in the fashion of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or ET, or malicious, as in Ridley Scott’s Alien, or robotic, or something else entirely is strictly a matter of one’s personal taste. SETI experiments seek to learn what actually resides or lurks out there in the universe. METI plays Russian roulette without even knowing how many bullets are in the chamber.

It would be wiser to listen for at least decades if not centuries or longer before we initiate intentional interstellar transmissions, and allow all of mankind a voice in that decision. The power of SETI has grown exponentially with Moore’s Law, better instruments, better search strategies, and now thanks to Milner’s visionary investment, Reviewing METI: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments meaningful funding. The advances are so profound that it is reasonable to say that the SETI of the next 50 years will be many orders of magnitude more powerful than the SETI of the last 50 years.

Shostak, perhaps METI’s most articulate proponent, knows this and has widely predicted that we will achieve Contact within the next two decades. So why can he and his fellow METI-ists not wait at least until then before initiating transmissions?

Sadly, Czech illustrator Adolf Born (*1930) died today. The cartoon serial on the schoolkids Mr Mach and Ms Šebestová and their magic telephone receiver is just a tiny part of his huge body of work.

A METI experiment based on an actual methodology that includes a plan to receive ET’s reply, might leave some to call that method madness, but at least it would qualify as actual science. Sending a message without a practical plan in place to receive a return message, leads to the conclusion that METI transmissions are like a Hail Mary, they have more in common with a faith based religion than with science. METI-ists implicitly believe that ET is omniscient (they know we are here even though our leakage is trivial); all good (ET must be altruistically interested in our welfare); and omnipotent (even though we have made no provision to receive their return message, they will make themselves known to us somehow). It is fair to ask that METI-ists not impose their religion on the rest of us.
I agree with that. Not only these METI-ists believe that there must be lots of intelligent civilizations around. They also believe that these civilizations behave exactly as they "should" – pretty much like some idealized citizens of a politically correct country that some progressive want to bring to Earth in 2050. So these ETs will be interested in us, love us, know how to contact us and make us happy, and our contribution to initiate these kind interactions is exactly what these wise progressive anthropomorphic ETs need.

The probability that all these conditions are obeyed is basically infinitesimal. These assumptions represent a form of religion. It is a highly anthropomorphic religion – but at the same time, it is a religion mostly trusted by left-wingers. Maybe there is a conservation law saying that this kind of irrational assumptions doesn't disappear even when some older churches and religions weaken.

First, there is the question whether the intelligent civilizations exist (in our galaxy, to simplify things) at all. They may exist but they may be non-existent, too. OK, let's assume that they exist. The second and third question is whether they may learn about us and whether we may learn about them. These two questions are inequivalent.

A signal of a sufficient strength is needed for both kinds of a detection. Now, the METI folks totally underestimate the huge interval in which the intensities and other things may exist. The ETs may be so rare and so far etc. that the signals will have no chance to reach the other side. On the other side, they may also have so advanced detection capabilities and be close enough that they know about us at thousands of sigmas, they are listening to our phone conversation, whatever.

My main point is that the assumption that they are "right on the edge" of detection is extremely unlikely. LIGO just detected the gravitational waves when the sensitivity improved exactly well enough for the first black hole merger to be heard for the first time. But this is a very special situation. In the case of some other signals, our sensitivity fails to be enough by orders of magnitude; in the case of others, like hearing music around us, our sensitivity is by orders of magnitude (tens of decibels) sufficient to hear things.

In a vast majority of cases, our cooperation won't influence the odds of the contact at all. Our signals are almost certainly "either too hopelessly weak" or "totally reliably strong" for the ETs.

Then there is the question how the ETs are supposed to respond. We don't know but the METI-ists automatically assume that they will make themselves seen – but it will be good for us at the same moment. Again, they are betting on some very tiny interval in the middle of a wide range of possibilities where things differ by very many orders of magnitude. What do I mean?

I mean that their response is much more likely to be either so invisible that we won't learn about them even if they learn about us; or that it will be so strong that we will be sorry for a while (before we die?) that we will have wanted to mess up with them in the first place. But the assumption that they will respond so that we safely know about them but we don't see the response of the ETs as a problem – it seems like a dangerously unlikely, extremely optimistic assumption.

The METI cultists who believe that the ETs will become great friends assume that the ETs are similar enough to us; and in fact, that they are politically correct, too. They believe not just that the ETs are similar to humans in some general way. They seem to believe that the ETs must be similar to some politically correct multi-cultural leftists!

You know, this assumption about the ethical values of life forms in the Universe doesn't even apply here on Earth – although people with very different political opinions are biologically and often culturally extremely close to each other. But if we – e.g. Europeans and Americans – can't even agree whether we should defend Europe and America against Islamization, why should we assume that all the extraterrestrials will unavoidably have a similar attitude to aliens (from their viewpoint) as a particular political group on Earth?

Can't you understand that the differences between our moral attitudes and the ETs' moral attitudes are almost certainly guaranteed to be vastly greater than the moral differences between different groups of people (races, nations, religious and political groups, parties etc.) here on Earth? Our language will probably be inadequate to discuss the moral questions that the ETs care about. The diversity in these matters across the Universe is pretty much guaranteed (if there are many intelligent planetary civilizations) to be vastly greater than the diversity we find on Earth. Probably by many, many orders of magnitude – again. And even the diversity here on Earth is enough to see that their assumption that the ETs will be unavoidably emasculated left-wing sissies treating every other alien life form (or culture) as a precious gem is just bullšit.

If we discovered some extraterrestrial life and there would be reasonable arguments suggesting that this life could be threatening for our survival or even some less existential interests, of course I would support the annihilation of that life if we were capable of doing so. My care about some diversity in the Universe is clearly secondary. After all, if some additional planetary civilization occurred in the neighborhood of the Solar System, it would indicate that there are probably many civilizations in the Universe. So from the cosmic viewpoint, life is simply not as precious so it doesn't matter much if we destroy one planetary life.

Billions of people on Earth would surely agree with my view if they were willing to think about such possibilities at all. Someone would disagree. But it's obvious that in the Universe, some intelligent extraterrestrials – assuming that there are many centers – surely either share my opinion or even have a much more aggressive attitude than I have. The idea that almost all extraterrestrials are almost certain to be more pro-multi-culti than Luboš Motl is just a sign of the believer's complete idiocy. There is absolutely no reason to believe such a thing.

A potential detection of extraterrestrial intelligent life would be a huge, momentous event. But whether the humans would think that it is a good event or a bad event is absolutely unpredictable. So I mostly believe that the money paid for the communication with the extraterrestrials is money wasted for a childish game based on a secular religion. But if such a contact became possible because some advanced ETs would be discovered, all interactions with these extraterrestrial life would represent a lethally dangerous planetary experiment, an experiment that carries risk that beats the risks of emitting CO2 or any other fashionable would-be "threat" by orders of magnitude. And I agree that it would be very important to become careful what we're doing vis-a-vis the ETs.

"Mars Attacks" may have the same odds to materialize as the situation in the other movies where the ETs seem much more friendly. Someone who makes all these totally nontrivial claims about what the ETs are and how they behave is a dangerous charlatan and it is indeed unacceptable if this kind of worshiping and framing of the hypothetical ETs is presented as science. It is not science. There are no empirical data and no trustworthy derivations that would allow one to reach these conclusions. So far it is a childishly unrealistic game but if it became realistic, it would be a very dangerous and potentially suicidal planetary experiment.

Yesterday, I interacted with a person who basically wanted to ruin Thomas Jefferson's tomb because Thomas Jefferson, a great figure of the U.S. history who also banned the importation of slaves and then slavery in some 8 states, was also a slave owner. Imagine that: some people are incapable of recognizing the most important people who brought some societal progress just 240 years ago. How could they recognize the good of the civilizations whose degree of progress could differ from ours by millions of years?

It's amazing how some people in our PC society became completely ignorant about the history and the main mechanisms that make the Universe or the human society work. They live in a bubble, they are completely conquered by the most pathetic latest fads many of which will go away by the next Christmas. Is it hard to see that it's dangerous when such brainwashed superficial people are allowed to affect our policies towards events that could be history-changing?

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