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SETI: A Critical History

Part I Constructing SETI

SETI: A Critical History is a copy of the following PhD thesis, reproduced here with permission:

SETI's Scope
How the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Became Disconnected from New Ideas About Extraterrestrials

by Mark A. Sheridan (email)
Drew University
May 2009

© 2009 by Mark A. Sheridan
All rights reserved
Opening quote
Some important events in the history of SETI

1. Introduction

>> Part I. Constructing SETI

2. SETI science
Intelligent life in the Universe
The principle of mediocrity
SETI constructed within the boundaries of the traditional ETI discourse
3. SETI as popular science
ETI portraiture as a rhetorical site
Popular expositions of ETI science
SETI and the scientific community

Part II. Expanding the ETI discourse

4. The rehabilitation of "mind"

5. The Soviet critique of SETI
Differences in attitudes toward ETIs
Differences in temperament
Differences in intellectual traditions
6. The evolutionists' critique of SETI
Dueling improbabilities
"New" evolutionists
Eiseley: the possibility of non-humanoid ETIs
Simpson: making SETI's assumptions overt
Talking the talk
Byurakan-II: deepening the evolutionists' critique and expanding SETI's response
Dobzhansky: deterministic thinking
7. The philosophers' critique of SETI

8. Plausible non-humanoid ETIs
ETIs with non-humanoid sensorial
Neutron star beings
Superconductor ETIs

Part III. Implications of the expanded ETI discourse for SETI

9. Reactions to the "nature"-based critiques
Project Cyclops
The Morrison workshops
Name change
10. Inflection
SETI's standing in the scientific community
Pascal's wager
Signs of wearying
Commission 51
The inflection point in popular culture
Giving up the ghost
11. Evanescence
1993: annus horribilis
SETI in the popular culture
12. Conclusion

Bibliographical essay

SETI: Primary and secondary sources
ETI discourse: Secondary sources
ETI discourse: Primary sources
Texts that directly discuss ETIs
Popular expositions of ETI science
Hard science fiction featuring ETIs
ETI portraiture in American film and television
Part I examines the construction of SETI, both by its founders and in the popular culture.

Because they devised a way to experimentally test the question of whether ETIs exist, SETI's architects claimed to be establishing the ETI discourse on firmly scientific grounds for the first time. By aggressively appropriating the mantle of scientific rigor in this way they perforce established the scientific community as an interested party and exposed their project to peer review. Their approach to institutionalizing SETI proved more hasty than methodical; they appeared more eager to get to their radio telescopes and begin searching than to engage in a dialog that exposed their assumptions and methods to expert critical evaluation. A tension between SETI and the scientific community resulted and grew more obvious with time. While SETI's organizers conceived of their project as institutional science, their critics in the scientific community charged that SETI fell short of that standard and was, instead, "popular" science.

Once SETI's organizers decided to seek government funding, which occurred as early as 1961, the American public became a second key constituency. This relationship was, initially, much closer and warmer than their relationship with the scientific community. A Cold War-weary public immediately embraced SETI as an appealing metaphor of engagement with the radically Other. SETI's most enduring legacy to date is its profound impact on American popular culture, especially ETI portraiture.

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