SETI: A Critical History: Part I introduction

Part I introduction 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 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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