Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Zero is still the most likely number of ETs in the Milky Way

Last night, I received a press release with a highly provocative title,
New Calculations Hint There Could Be at Least 36 Alien Civilisations in Our Galaxy
Excellent. So science has now determined that there's not just a single ET in the Milky Way but at least 36 of them. We could call them JanuaryA... up to DecemberC. ;-) But is the statement true? And is it scientifically justified? The answer to the first question is "probably not", the answer to the latter question is "certainly not". And the precision with which these people claim to have calculated "the number of ET civilizations" (36) is truly laughable. Even children must be able to see that it's just nonsense.

These day, I find it obvious that this "discipline" – whose mandatory conclusion "we are surrounded by many ETs" – is a canonical example (and possibly the ultimate cradle) of the postmodern pseudoscience.


My opinion wasn't always this unambiguous. I remember having attended several lectures of the most influential people in the SETI movement (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). It seems to me that the most impressive ones were the several lectures that I saw in California – where they have the maximum amount of money to collect for this activity that isn't really scientific. I wasn't really irritated by those lectures. The speakers had some OK high school-level understanding of physical sciences and almost all their statements were "plausible". The problem is that science shouldn't just hype things that are "plausible". It should emphasize hypotheses that are actually positively supported by some evidence and the evidence should be real, logical, and scientific in nature.



To be fair, it was a famous Californian man, Michael Crichton, who gave a 2003 lecture at the California (!) Institute of Technology,
Aliens Cause Global Warming
where he said lots of interesting things about the pseudoscience that was growing in our society (and especially about the toxic "consensus science"). It was already bad in 2003 but it is much worse in 2020. The headline refers to the statement that the "illusion of the scientific character of their research that SETI was able to create, especially by promoting the Drake equation, was the negative event that made the current hugely dangerous examples of pseudosciences such as the global warming hysteria thrive later".

I have always verbally "agreed" with his claims but for years, my agreement wasn't "quite mine". To some extent, I saw the comparison of SETI and the global warming hysteria as a vaguely plausible analogy or a nice talking point. And I didn't really believe that a trained physician Michael "Jurassic" Crichton could identify the precise origin of some very important degeneration that has crippled numerous fields of the institutionalized science including the physical sciences.

But incredibly enough, I do think that he was exactly right. Up to 1960, science was assumed to be "real science" which is done by someone who has a "finer aproach" to the truth than the average human. Science was largely also assumed to be boring for the general public – and indeed, basically impenetrable for women and minorities. In 1960, the Drake equation was presented as a propaganda tool to argue that the search for ETs was science – and that there were good reasons to expect many ETs.

Recall that the Drake equation says something like\[ N_{CETI} = N \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_\ell \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot f_L \] where "CETI" stands for "communicating ET intellectuals" and their number is the product of the number of planets with various fractions determining how many planets have the right conditions or stories in their CV. Note that this is an equation, one that uses many examples of multiplication. Multiplication of real non-negative numbers is the cutting-edge mathematical technology according to the typical recipient of this "science" – a moron from the general public – which is why this stuff ends up being promoted as science.

The problem with this "narrative" is that so far, the number of intelligent ETs or their civilizations that have been observed or truly scientifically supported is zero, the total number of ETs in the Milky Way or the visible Universe is unknown, and childish tautologically true equations such as the Drake equation don't help us at all to reduce the uncertainty about this number. The equation is basically just some implicit definition of the "fractions" but you can't learn anything just by defining a new variable (or many of them) because the amount of "output" cannot be greater than the "input" than you needed to insert!

The press release that I was sent promotes the Westby-Concelice (Nottingham, UK) paper in the Astrophysical Journal
The Astrobiological Copernican Weak and Strong Limits for Intelligent Life
They offer two scenarios, none of them is original. Each of them makes some random assumptions about all the relevant issues and they end up with some random conclusions. I find it rather clear that they started with knowing that they wanted headlines such as "there are at least 36 groups of ET intellectuals in the Milky Way" and then they completed the paper in the missing pages – a paper that makes morons believe that the eye-catching headline is scientifically justified.

The claim is absolute nonsense. The number "36" is very precise. Numerologists could even start to ask "why 36?". It's "two squared times three squared", isn't it interesting? The fact that the number was chosen to be 36 and not e.g. 35 indicates that the relative error margin is claimed to be some 3%. However, the actual uncertainty was and remains dozens of orders of magnitude. There may be millions if not billions of planets with some intelligent life in the Milky Way; but the number of such civilizations per galaxy may also be one or \(10^{-10}\) if not \(10^{-500}\). None of these possibilities is really excluded by scientific data. The preference is pure prejudice.

What's so deceitful is that these press releases implicitly claim some big advance in the counting of the ETs but there is clearly no advance whatsoever. They just run a few exercises of making some random assumptions – which may be true or false – and calculating some nearly equivalent "predictions" out of these assumptions. These predictions are about as uncertain and fishy as the assumptions: Garbage In, Garbage Out. We may say that all this stuff is pure guesswork driven by prejudices. From the viewpoint of objective science, they just produce some random numbers with some random rationalizations. What is dishonest is that this guesswork is pretending to be something else, science, but it's not science.

The number 36 of the progressive ET intellectual NGOs ;-) from the headline of the press release isn't just in conflict with some proper scientific reasoning and the actual state of science when it comes to the counting of ETs. It is really in conflict with their own article, too. The abstract actually summarizes the findings as
... we find there should be at least \(36^{+175}_{-32}\) civilizations within our Galaxy; ...
Oh, great. So they actually "calculated" the interval between 4 and 208 or so; that doesn't sound as sexy as "36 ET civilizations", does it? Needless to say, even the claim that the number is probably between 4 and 208 is absolutely unjustified. There is a nonzero probability that the number of such civilizations is 36 (or between 4 and 208) but this probability hasn't been increased by the paper at all. The paper just made some random assumptions that happen to lead to these numbers or intervals; but one can make many different collections of assumptions that lead to totally different intervals.

In particular, the number "zero ET civilizations in our Galaxy" – which is so far the result of the truly observational searches – remains the single most likely number. We have observed one planet with intelligent life, the Earth, and there is nothing inconsistent about the assumption that the intelligent life may be very rare. Life apparently started early on this planet which may indicate that it's not hard for life to emerge on similar planets.

However, it may also mean that the life didn't actually start on Earth, as in the panspermia scenario. The early seeds of life may have evolved for billions of years before the birth of the Solar System and they just found the Earth to be a great place to evolve, advance, and flourish. And the seeds of life that have existed before the Earth could have evolved in a tiny portion of the Universe only (perhaps "one googolth" of it). Note that some self-replicating molecules had to be created in the first place, among other things. It's not trivial to create a self-replicating molecule. The probability that such a thing appears in some equilibrium containing the appropriate basic chemicals may very well be smaller than "one over one googol".

So in the \(1/10^{100}\) fraction of the Universe, some self-replicating molecules or early components of life could have evolved in droplets on some dust 10 billion years ago. The Solar System may belong to this tiny fraction and here the early RNA, proteins, or whatever it was found a single nice hospitable planet, the Earth, where life could do miracles.

You may offer other scenarios but it is clear that my "Earth only" scenario is more robust and less arbitrary than yours. My scenario is also more naturally compatible with the observations, at least so far. Even purely numerically, one may see that zero is the single most likely number of ET civilizations in the Milky Way. Because of the self-evident absence of precision calculations, the probabilistic distribution \(p_N\) is either dominated by \(N\) near zero or \(N\) near huge numbers (or infinity). But the latter distributions are non-normalizable (and increasingly contradicting the unsuccessful search for ETs so far) so the opposite, "rare life", distributions must contribute the majority of the probability distribution and they just quickly decrease if you increase \(N=0\) to \(N=1\) or even higher.

In other words, it will be meaningful to discuss particular "positive integers" as the number of ET civilizations when this field becomes precision science – because there will be genuine evidence that the number of ETs is nonzero (in analogy with the late 1990s when the evidence of a nonzero cosmological constant emerged). We are obviously not living in that situation yet and it is unknown whether such a situation may ever materialize. Everyone who believes that it's been proven that there are 36 ET planets or that any similar statement with a nonzero number is true is simply a brainwashed moron. The only "actually true" statement is that the nonzero number of ETs is a good method for certain people to be considered scientists by morons – and to get a higher amount of money for their "science". But they're not really rewarded for finding the truth about ETs; they're being rewarded for exciting and manipulating the morons.

What is really failing is the machinery of science. In healthy conditions, self-evidently false claims such as "we have demonstrated a lower bound on the number of ET civilizations in the Milky Way and there are at least 36 of them" would be subjected to brutal critiques by actual scientists who immediately see that the claim is scientifically unjustifiable and ludicrous. The authors of such a statement would immediately lose all their credibility as scientists and they might quickly starve to death, too. But we are living in a very different world. We are living in a world where this pseudoscientific fraud is omnipresent (and perhaps even "dominating"), much like brainwashed morons who pay billions (and now trillions) to "science" that has nothing to do with science.

Once the "system" started to tolerate this garbage, it was guaranteed that increasingly toxic and ideological versions of the garbage would flourish even more. And that's why mankind of 2020 is drowning in toxic feces of the global warming hysteria and some other similarly atrocious examples of lies and idiocy. I want the good old world back – the world where the emitters of similar garbage quickly starve to death. Thank you for your help.

So far, if you're annoyed by the omnipresent extraterrestrials who promise you wonderful things (such as 100 tablets a week), solve the problem in the same way as Chuck Norris.

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