SETI: A Critical History: 11. Evanescence

Chapter 11 of the thesis


SETI's Scope


How the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Became Disconnected from New Ideas About Extraterrestrials


SETI graphic


Mark A. Sheridan
Drew University
May 2009


SETI is a pseudo-science.
– Unidentified members of the IAU


SETI is a clearly science.
– R. Brown, President of the IAU's Commission 51


Public interest became, by a combination of circumstance and contrivance, the fuel that kept the SETI project going. When this began to fade the program lost the ultimate source of its funding. SETI's architects never aggressively sought the endorsement of the scientific community and, especially in the context of the mounting "nature"-based critiques and the admission that SETI was something other than scientific experimentation, they had little reason to expect the support of the academy. They turned to a new kind of sponsorship – private patronage – more traditionally aligned with exploration.


SETI graphic


As SETI entered its fourth decade, the Space Age excitement surrounding Sputnik, Apollo and the Viking landers that originally helped fuel and sustain interest in the project gave way to doubts inspired by the tragic Challenger explosion and the difficulties encountered in deploying Hubble. As the Soviet Union edged toward dissolution, the superpower rivalry that provided SETI with one of its liveliest subtexts came to an end. More than sixty searches conducted over thirty years found no messages.


Ironically, SETI had never been in better institutional shape. NASA was painfully slow to begin implementing its SETI project but proved staunch in its support once it did so, sticking with SETI even through the dark days when Congress withheld funding after Proxmire's "Golden Fleece" award. Historian Steven Dick provided this summary of SETI's standing inside NASA at the time.


Finally with funding in 1990, SETI took on the status of an approved NASA project beyond the 'Research and Development' phase, and began 'Final Development and Operations,' to be completed by the year 2000 at a total cost of $108,000,000. Administratively, SETI had gone from a few people within a Division at Ames in 1976 to two project offices in two centers with a combined staff and subcontractors of about 65 in 1992. Fiscally its annual budget had risen from a few hundreds of thousands of dollars in the early 1970s to over ten million in the 1990s. Conceptually, its strategy had been honed and reduced to politically realistic proportions since the visionary Cyclops days.364


Dick referred to the complementary search strategies that NASA had decided on for its SETI program known, together, as its Microwave Observing Project (MOP). The "targeted search" scanned, with very high sensitivity, specific sites thought to be particularly interesting because of their solar-type stars. The "sky survey" segment of MOP examined a broader sweep of the galaxy.


NASA commenced its SETI program on Columbus Day, 1992, an apt choice for an enterprise now thought to be exploration rather than experimentation. In the first minute of its operation it searched a greater number of channels than all previous searches combined. The search schedule lasted almost a decade.365 The vision for SETI that its original architects steadfastly maintained in the face of mounting criticism over three decades appeared to be on its way to being realized.


1993: annus horribilis

The fact that the IAU included SETI among the initiatives contemplated by its Commission 51 on bioastronomy quickly became, not a mark of SETI's acceptance in the scientific community but an albatross around its neck. Frank Drake was the only one of the five original SETI architects who attended the Commission's second conference, in 1987. He had to: he chaired the Commission at the time. Perhaps the others sensed what the meeting had in store.


SETI papers accounted for only a quarter of those presented at the conference, back down to the level that NASA allocated to SETI at the Life in the Universe conference that helped mark SETI's inflection point in 1979. Most of the 1987 conference dealt with SETL topics such as the origins of life, exobiological habitats, and extrasolar planets.


Even more striking, a number of presenters discussed SETI "heresies" with an openness not seen before. SETI's most fundamental and problematic assumption – that ETIs' cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences are humanoid – came under direct attack. Several presenters noted the fact that ETIs might, instead, have non-humanoid "natures" that could make communication or even detection difficult. For example, the biologist W. H. Calvin pointed out that "organisms that evolved under [different circumstances than humans] might have ... computing machinery which are quite different from our scenario-spinning, sentence-constructing, music-loving activities. It is difficult to imagine what their 'consciousness' would involve instead." 366


Using almost the same words Drake heard at Byurakan-II sixteen years earlier, the ethologist and theoretical biologist team of Vilmos Csanyi and Gyorgy Kampis directly questioned SETI's ability to establish contact with ETI. "Intelligence is understood as an ability of a system to perform goal-directed behaviour on the basis of internal models of its environment. Communication is defined here as an exchange of information related to these internal models. This is shown to be possible only between systems which share a common environment and construct similar environmental models. Therefore, a direct, meaningful communication with extraterrestrial intelligence is highly improbable." 367


The evolutionist E. J. Coffey lectured Drake and other proponents of SETI-style searches on how easy it is to make the mistake that SETI makes, of failing to take into account how radically different ETIs' "natures" might be. "A fact too easily forgotten by the physical scientist supports [sic] of SETI is that it is our own human constitution which biases us against appreciation of how truly alien extraterrestrial creatures will be: physically, behaviourally, and cognitively. We cannot suppose they will have our concerns, or that what is important to us could be of any real significance to them." 368


Then, in August, 1993 the IAU's Commission 51 met for its fourth triennial conference. Unofficially.


Less than a year after NASA's ambitious SETI program began to search, SETI came under open attack for allegedly being a "pseudo science." The IAU officially declined to sponsor the Commission 51 conference scheduled for 1993 amidst questions raised by some of its members about whether SETI was a legitimate scientific enterprise, especially when contrasted to other, "harder," concerns of the Commission such as studying the origins and evolution of life, exobiological habitats, and searching for extrasolar planets. Frank Drake and the University of California, Santa Cruz came to the rescue, agreeing to host a "symposium initiated by members of the Organizing Committee of IAU Commission 51 but [that] is not an IAU symposium!"


The Australian President of Commission 51, Ronald Brown, put up a brave front. In his opening remarks he defended SETI as being "clearly science." 369 But the very fact of his presidency was telling. Brown was a chemist. The first President of Commission 51 was the astronomer Michael Papagiannis; he had been closely involved with SETI – if occasionally in a critical capacity – since shortly after its inception. The next President was Drake. The fact that a chemist stood before the audience defending SETI-style searches may have rung a bit hollow to an audience largely composed of SETL researchers.


The conference bore uncomfortable similarities to the 1987 conference, during which SETI suffered challenges to some of its basic premises. A number of scientists raised "nature"-based issues about SETI-style searches. Most surprisingly, two SETI astronomers joined in. Sounding surprisingly sympathetic to the positions of their Soviet counterparts more than two decades previously, they suggested that SETI should be especially alert for a certain type of signal that is "far more robust in handling the likely chasm between the cultures and mental processes of the transmitting and receiving civilizations." They advised SETI to target signals that would "transfer information without recourse to the usually suggested schemes of coding for mathematical sequences, images, logic, etc. For such schemes to succeed, it is necessary that the thought structures, ways of perceiving the world, and languages of sender and recipient include much in common despite wholly different biologies and cultures." 370


Other speakers advocated non-SETI type searches, such as looking for starship "skid-mark" signatures or the infra-red signatures of Dyson spheres, a strategy similar to looking for Karadshev's Type II civilizations. These kinds of searches avoided the problems of how we could communicate with beings that might have radically different cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences.371


SETI graphic


Seven weeks after the IAU conference Senator Richard H. Bryan, Democrat of Nevada, introduced a congressional amendment to halt all NASA funding for SETI. The amendment passed. According to the New York Times Bryan called the program a "great Martian chase," and complained that despite the expenditure of millions of dollars on the search "not a single Martian has said, 'Take me to your leader,' and not a single flying saucer has applied for F.A.A. approval." 372 After almost two decades of preparation and about $60 million of taxpayers' money, NASA cancelled its SETI program less than a year into its planned ten-year search. It examined less than 0.1% of the intended search space.373


Oliver arranged for a number of his fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – including William R. Hewlett, David Packard, Intel's Gordon Moore, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – to bail out one of NASA's two SETI programs. They reincarnated the search targeting the areas of the galaxy thought most likely to be sending us messages as the SETI Institute's Project Phoenix. Phoenix searched from 1995 until 2004. It found no messages.



The shift of interest and resources away from SETI and toward SETL continued after 1993. The scientists at NASA's first SETI conference in 1970 only felt it necessary to discuss the Drake Equation variables to the extent required "to provide the background necessary and give some assurance that the quest was a scientifically plausible one."374 They treated topics like extrasolar planets, exobiological habitats, and the origin and evolution of life in a cursory manner, and from the preconception that each would inevitably contribute to the evolution of humanoid intelligence. Once they demoted these topics to the status of "necessary background," the American SETI team observed the obligation to provide the background perfunctorily. For example, Billingham's and Oliver's Project Cyclops report spent less than two pages establishing the required "plausibility."


Today the pendulum has swung toward the other extreme; SETI is discussed perfunctorily, while topics like extrasolar planets and exobiological habitats capture the headlines. Even the SETI Institute is something of a misnomer; "SETL Institute" might better reflect its activities. Two main entities make up the Institute. The larger is, ironically, the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. [Emphasis added.] It employs more than fifty "principal researchers" working on more than thirty externally funded projects. The Institute notes that each project relates to one or more factors in the Drake Equation. It is apparent from the project descriptions that these factors lie decidedly "to the left" on the Drake Equation, involving primarily extrasolar planets, exobiological environments, and the origins of life.375 Interestingly, the SETL effort displays significantly more willingness to think broadly about the "nature" of its inquiries than SETI. Whereas SETI has remained steadfastly anthropomorphic since its conception, its "parent" SETL gradually widened its brief to include the study of non-traditional life-forms like extremophiles and environments traditionally considered hostile to life.


The SETI Institute's second entity, the Center for SETI Research, conducts SETI-style searches. Its staff, led by Jill Tarter is small, but with better signal-processing hardware and algorithms its searching capabilities exceeds those envisioned by NASA in SETI's heyday. In closer keeping with its status as exploration, rather than experimentation, the Center for SETI Research bases its funding strategy on patronage rather than institutional support. Its new radio telescope orchard is being funded largely by a single patron, Paul Allen (see Allen Telescope Array).


The "nature"-based critiques have obviously had some impact on SETI's current leadership. Today the SETI project describes itself as "an exploratory science that seeks evidence of life in the universe [while acknowledging that] whether evolution will give rise to intelligent, technological civilizations is open to speculation." 376 [Emphases added.] SETI still, however, assumes that ETIs are humanoid. In doing so, they cling to assumptions that attract increasingly clear and public criticism. For example, an exhibit entitled "The Science of Aliens" opened at London's Science Museum in late 2005. The Astronomer Royal, Professor Martin Rees, wrote the introduction to the exhibit's companion text (a recent popular exposition of ETI science). Although Rees admits to being "enthusiastic" about SETI, he quickly qualifies his enthusiasm with a precise summary of the "nature"-based critique.377


Commission 51 entitled its 2007 conference "Molecules, Microbes and Extraterrestrial Life." SETI managed to get a two-hour slot at the end of the five-day conference.


SETI has not yet found any messages.


SETI in the popular culture

Once again the popular culture quickly reflected SETI's changing fortunes. Although the publication rate of popular expositions of ETI science surged in the 1990s – especially after the confirmation of the first extrasolar planets in 1995 – these texts confirmed the general shift in focus leftward on the Drake Equation, away from intelligent beings and SETI. More recently, these popular treatments of ETI science suggest the possibility of an even darker future for SETI. Most texts published after the cancellation of SETI's public funding in 1993 include a discussion of the Fermi Paradox; often this is as substantial as the text's discussion of SETI. In his Lonely Planets the planetary scientist David Grinspoon went so far as to downgrade SETI to a "belief" that he discusses after the "hard" science and along with other "beliefs," such as UFOs.378 A popular textbook on the subject, Goldsmith's and Owens' The Search for Life in the Universe, does not discuss SETI until its final chapters, when it deals with UFOs and closes with the Fermi Paradox. This text even discusses plausible non-humanoid ETIs before SETI.379


After 1993 films portrayed a consistently disparaging picture of SETI. When they first learned of SETI in the 1960s, filmmakers enthusiastically adopted and promoted SETI-ETI. Three decades later, SETI-ETI began to disappear from films. Silly beings of little narrative significance appeared in SETI-ETI's place, like the extraterrestrials in Mars Attacks!, Men In Black, or Galaxy Quest. Others films featuring ETIs are based on hoaxes, like the Roswell, N.M. "Area 51" extraterrestrials in Independence Day or the crop-circle aliens of Signs.


Worse, SETI itself began to be openly ridiculed in films. In Species the SETI team received a response to the message Drake and Sagan sent from the Arecibo radio telescope in 1974. SETI scientists decoded it and naively followed its instructions. By doing so they unwittingly unleashed a savage extraterrestrial mother intent on re-populating Earth with her species. Independence Day opened with a shot of a big radio telescope dish and the caption, "S.E.T.I., New Mexico – Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute." A SETI scientist listened to loud rock music and practiced putting when a signal was detected, and a slapstick scene followed that suggested the scientists had not really expected to find a signal. In The Arrival Charlie Sheen played a SETI scientist who detected a signal. He rushed to tell a NASA bureaucrat that he needed "serious dish time" to follow up the contact, only to be told that "searching for ETs in this political environment is a tough sell on Capitol Hill.... If we don't start spending money on harder science, we're going to lose it."


Perhaps the harshest characterization came in Signs, released as SETI entered its fifth decade of searching. Instead of communicating with ETI over large, sophisticated radio telescope technology, Mel Gibson overheard a conversation between ETIs on his baby monitor. He understood none of it.381


SETI graphic


By the time SETI became a reality inside NASA, more than thirty years after Cocconi and Morrison proposed the idea, the source of its underlying support – public enthusiasm – had dissipated. Moreover, the project enjoyed little support in the scientific community, in large part because SETI's architects failed to rebut or incorporate the "nature"-based critiques that had been brought against it. In other words, SETI was neither popular nor institutional science. Once shorn of its scientific pretensions SETI's promoters acknowledged the project to be a form of exploration. They secured a new form of support for the project, one that was more appropriate to its status: private patronage.



364. Dick, NASA HRMS, 126.
365. David Lamb, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: Routledge, 2001), 24.
366. W. H. Calvin, "Fast Tracks to Intelligence (Considerations from Neurobiology and Evolutionary Biology," in G. Marx, ed., Bioastronomy – the Next Steps, Proceedings of the 99th Colloquium of the International Astronomical Union Held in Balaton, Hungary, June 22–27, 1987 (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988), 244–5.
367. Vilmos Csanyi and Gyorgy Kampis, "Can We Communicate with Aliens?" in Marx, 267.
368. E. J. Coffey, "SETI and the Physical Scientists Misconstrual of Evolutionary Biology," in Marx, 265.
369. Seth G. Shostak, ed., Progress in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life – 1993 Bioastronomy Symposium, Santa Cruz, California, 16–20 August, 1993 (San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1995), 9–10.
370. James M. Cordes and Woodruff T. Sullivan III, "Astrophysical Coding: A New Approach to SET Signals," in Shostak, 326, 337.
371. Jun Jugaku, et al., "A Search for Dyson Spheres Around Late-Type Stars in the Solar Neighborhood"; and Robert Zubrin, "Detection of Extraterrestrial Civilizations via the Spectral Signature of Advanced Interstellar Spacecraft," in Shostak, 381, 487.
372. John Noble Wilford, "Ear to the Universe is Plugged by Budget Cutters," New York Times 7 October 1993: B12.
373. Zuckerman and Hart, 18; and Shostak, 5.
374. "Preface," Ponnamperuma and Cameron, n.p.
375. seti.org/csc/index.php, accessed 10 September 07.
376. seti.org/seti/index.php, accessed 10 September 07.
377. Rees's quote can be found in the epigraph. See "Forward," The Science of Aliens (London: Prestel, 2005), 6–21.
378. David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets – The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
379. Donald Goldsmith and Tobias Owen, The Search for Life in the Universe, 3d ed. (Sausalito, CA: University Science Books, 2002).
380. http://l.yimg.com/img.movies.yahoo.com/ymv/us/img/hv/photo/movie_pix/touchstone_pictures/signs/_group_photos/joaquin_phoenix13.jpg, accessed 10 April 2009.
381. Roger Donaldson, Director, Species (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, 1995); Tim Burton, Director, Mars Attacks! (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1996); Roland Emmerich, Director, Independence Day (Centropolis Entertainment and Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1996; David Twohy, Director, The Arrival (Live Entertainment, Steelwork Films, and Mediaworks, 1996); Barry Sonnenfeld, Director, Men In Black (Amblin Entertainment, Columbia Pictures Corporation, and MacDonald/Parkes Productions1997); Dean Parisot, Director, Galaxy Quest (Dreamworks SKG,1999); and M. Night Shyamalan, Signs (Touchstone Pictures, 2002).


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