SETI: A Critical History
Part III Implications of the expanded ETI discourse for SETI
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
Today, as SETI celebrates its Golden Anniversary, a second generation of
leadership manages the effort. They still search for humanoid messages.
(8. Plausible non-humanoid ETIs) | NEXT
(9. Reactions to the "nature"-based critiques)