SETI: A Critical History: Part III introduction

Introduction to Part III 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


Part III examines the responses of SETI's proponents to the "nature"-based critiques of their project. For the most part they tried to downplay, "spin," and even misrepresent the most threatening of these critiques. In some cases SETI's architects clung to the original tenets of SETI-Science, such as the inevitability of the evolution of intelligence once life arose and the soundness of analogizing from one example, as dogma. When conceding a point to their critics they did so quietly, typically by simply dropping it from the SETI party line.


Although the SETI scientists chose to ignore these "nature"-based critiques or failed to recognize their relevance, the critiques continued to mount. By the time NASA was ready and able to take up its SETI project in earnest, thirteen years after the NAS meeting at Green Bank established SETI's role in NASA's broader SETL mission, the space agency had no choice but to acknowledge the "nature"-based critique: non-humanoids are more likely than humanoids, and SETI might have trouble communicating with or even detecting them. It took NASA another fifteen years to bring SETI operational. During that time SETI's status was indefinite. Ascribing to SETI elements of both conventional institutional science and popular science, the agency positioned SETI as a kind of inexpensive lottery ticket with potentially enormous returns.


NASA's SETI project finally went "live" in 1992, after the idea entered its fourth decade. Congress abruptly cancelled the project the following year. The public's enthusiasm had cooled, largely because the dissolution of the Soviet Union calmed Cold War fears and thirty years of searching failed to find any messages. Moreover, the scientific community essentially forced SETI's organizers to admit that their project did not really scientifically test the question of whether ETIs exist, as they initially claimed.


The first generation of SETI pioneers refused to address the "nature"-based concerns of their critics by expanding SETI's scope to consider messages from non-humanoid ETIs. They abandoned their claim to be experimenting and claimed, instead, to be explorers. Before fading from the scene, SETI's pioneers secured sources of private funding more appropriate to their new status – patronage – and continued to search as they originally planned.


Today, as SETI celebrates its Golden Anniversary, a second generation of leadership manages the effort. They still search for humanoid messages.


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