SETI: A Critical History
Part III Implications of the expanded ETI discourse for SETI
Chapter 9. The reactions to "nature"-based critiques
There does not seem to be any great difficulty
associated with the semantics problem.
– J. Billingham and B. Oliver
The "nature"-based critiques from the Soviets, evolutionists, and philosophers
of science amounted to a de facto peer review of SETI. Each raised
important questions about SETI's assumptions and methods. The questions
were academic, in the sense that SETI as yet had no institutional home and
no funding to support a search. John Billingham's efforts as SETI's "inside
man" at NASA finally began to find more traction after 1976. The two Viking
landers met with spectacular success in one sense, landing on Mars during
America's bicentennial celebrations and deploying as planned. On the other
hand, they found no conclusive signs of life, and NASA prepared to revitalize
its SETL mission by turning its focus to new programs, including SETI.
In the final push to secure SETI's institutional home in NASA its architects
adopted a number of strategies to neutralize the three "nature"-based critiques.
They mis-represented a number of SETI-Science's assumptions as established
scientific principles, they tolerated the "spinning" of significant facts
and events, and they gave their project a new name that deflected attention
away from the flaws uncovered at its core.
Just months before the Byurakan-II conference, during the tenth anniversary
of the Green Bank conference, Billingham and Oliver organized a "summer
faculty fellowship in engineering systems design" under NASA's auspices
that considered what the dream SETI program might look like. This became
known as Project Cyclops, after the fact that it envisioned a gigantic circular
orchard of radio telescopes.
At its first SETI conference the previous year, NASA curiously invited artificial
intelligence experts to address the two topics raised by evolutionists like
Eiseley and Simpson, viz. the likelihood that intelligent life evolved elsewhere
and the form it might take. Unlike the evolutionists, the AI researchers
supported Sagan's principle of mediocrity by arguing that humanoid ETIs
are inevitable. By the time Billingham and Oliver published the Project
Cyclops report, they assigned the status of established science to the assumption
of mediocrity. They then used it to reach the flagrantly circular conclusion
"that the basic processes of stellar, chemical, biological, and cultural
evolution are universal and, when carried to fruition, lead to technologies
that must have similarities to ours...."276
In the Cyclops report Billingham and Oliver made much of the fact that ETIs'
external morphology need not be similar to ours. This recalled the Green
Bank discussion. In both instances SETI's architects apparently believed
they dodged the evolutionists' critique by admitting that ETI might not
look humanoid. The evolutionists, of course, clearly referred to
more than just the surface qualities of a being when they concluded that
humanoid ETIs are unlikely. Simpson, in particular, made it clear that the
"infinitely improbable" event to which he referred was the evolution of
an "intelligence comparable to man's in quantity and quality, hence with
the possibility of rational communication with us." Billingham and Oliver
nonetheless appeared confident that they had successfully addressed the
evolutionists' critique. They concluded this section of the report by claiming
that, as a result of these universal processes of evolution, they did “not
have to worry much about exchanging information between biological forms
of separate origin."277
The Project Cyclops report acknowledged that "no optimum method of forcing
the proper initial decoding and ensuring the rapid subsequent deciphering
of the message content into understandable concepts has been developed."
Recall that these two issues persuaded the Soviet CETI team that the logic
of SETI-style searches contained serious flaws. By the time NASA published
the Cyclops report late in 1971, however, Billingham and Oliver fashioned
Morrison's breezy response to Panovkin at Byurakan-II – that the signal
itself would contain the bridge across two potentially very different natures
– into a formal-sounding assumption designed to neutralize the Soviet
critique. The American SETI team shifted the onus to resolve the Soviet
critique onto ETI; and the Cyclops report claimed that any being intelligent
enough to send us a message would be intelligent enough to make it easy
for us to understand the message. They formally christened the
assumption "anti-cryptography," a catchy neologism that reinforced SETI's
appeal as a counter-Cold War project.
The report went on to reference the Kaplan text, reporting that "it has
presented an extensive analysis of the problem." That was true enough. But
the Cyclops report implied that the Soviets analyzed and resolved
the problem. Of course, that was not the case. In fact, Billingham and Oliver
presented a conclusion shockingly contrary to the conclusion reached
by the Soviets: "There does not seem to be any great difficulty associated
with the semantics problem. Compared with the acquisition problem all else
is easy. Acquisition of the first signal is the big hurdle and the central
problem of interstellar communication."278 With authoritative
sounding assumptions of mediocrity and anti-cryptography, Billingham and
Oliver essentially dismissed the "very weighty objection" to a SETI-style
search that the Soviets identified and then struggled, unsuccessfully, for
years to resolve.
Oliver's observation at Byurakan-II that the issues raised by the Soviets
had "political significance" makes particular sense in the context of his
and Billingham's efforts to institutionalize SETI in NASA. As Steven Dick
explained, the Cyclops report "came to an important administrative conclusion:
that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence should be established
'as an ongoing part of the total NASA space program, with its own funding
and budget.'"279 A faithful recounting of the Soviet critique,
and the fact that the issues raised remained unresolved, would have been
obviously inconvenient as Oliver and Billingham maneuvered to secure this
important milestone for SETI.
|Fig. 15. John Billingham
NASA accepted the Cyclops recommendation. A year after publishing the report
NASA formed the Committee on Interstellar Communication under Billingham.
In 1974 NASA made available the first funding for SETI: $140,000 to enhance
the project's design. Billingham used this funding to convene the so-called
The Morrison Workshops
Project Cyclops produced a mixed reaction among scientists. On the one hand
it detailed an impressive blueprint for a project that could be deployed
in stages over decades to address the SETI opportunity as decisively as
was currently thought possible. On the other hand, the final price tag for
the full deployment, billions of dollars, was high enough to make many SETI
proponents wonder if the Cyclops report spooked the public into thinking
that if they were not prepared to ante up Apollo-like sums they should not
bother to fund a more modest effort.281
NASA convened a series of nine conferences during 1975 and 1976 to propose
a more practical project than the one envisioned in Cyclops. Morrison chaired
the effort, and a board that included Drake, Oliver, and Sagan oversaw the
working groups. Billingham served as NASA's point person. Each workshop
brought together, for the first time to discuss SETI, a large number of
representatives from both academia and various NASA entities: the Ames Research
Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Goddard Space Flight Center,
NASA headquarters, and the Johnson Space Center. SETI's senior leadership
learned one important lesson from their encounter with the Soviets at Byurakan-II;
this time there would be no trouble from “philosophers and windbags,"282
like that stirred up at Byurakan-II by the historian William McNeill. The
scores of participants were all scientists and engineers.
The workshops produced four major conclusions. They were not without irony.
One of the four conclusions was that "SETI is intrinsically an international
endeavor," and that “there may be a particular opportunity for joint Soviet
and U.S. efforts in SETI." The workshop summarily dismissed the critique
of a SETI-style search that the Soviets detailed in two published reports
and personally presented to SETI's organizers five years previously with
the simple statement that "if the signal is deliberate, decoding will be
relatively easy, we expect, because the signal will be anticryptographic:
made to reveal its own language coding."283
A session entitled "Workshop on Cultural Evolution," met in November, 1975.284
Joshua Lederberg chaired the workshop. Lederberg, who served as one of Sagan's
mentors when Sagan was a graduate student, had been fascinated by the prospect
of ETIs for some time.285 The mission of this workshop was to
assess the likelihood that intelligence would evolve elsewhere once life
arose. The workshop's report closely followed the tenets of SETI-Science.
For example, it conceived of intelligence as humanoid. The opening paragraph
posed the question around which the workshop's dialog took place: whether
life forms arising elsewhere might "develop intelligence and technology,
or is man but a fluke that arose on Earth as a result of a combination of
highly improbable circumstances?" The report also cited convergence of other
adaptations—notably the now-familiar example of the evolution of the eye
on multiple occasions – as evidence for the probability that intelligence,
too, would evolve often. Still closely following the SETI-Science script,
the report cited the evolutionary advantage conferred by intelligence as
a reason to expect it to evolve elsewhere. Lederberg's panel argued
that "intelligence [has] been demonstrated to have positive survival value;
hence evolutionary pressures will tend to produce [it]."
The report acknowledged Simpson's critique by name, as Sagan did at Byurkan-II.
Also like Sagan, the workshop group cherry-picked Simpson's argument, ignoring
his points that non-humanoid ETIs were also possible and that communicating
with or even detecting them might be impossible. The group wrote that "when
Simpson formed his opinion, in the early 1950s, much less was known about
such things as the evolution of hominids, the social structure and communicative
abilities of the chimpanzees, and the social behavior of other animals.
At that time man appeared terribly unique; today this is no longer true."
Their dismissiveness seems disingenuous. Simpson wrote his paper on ETIs
in 1963, not "in the early 1950s." Simpson was still active at the time
of the Morrison Workshops, and had not published any update to the views
he expressed in his widely discussed "Nonprevalence" essay.
Lederberg's panel even included a reference to Sagan's "quasi-ergodic theorem."
By now Sagan's rebuttal to the evolutionists' critique had become a mainstay
of SETI-Science. Just before the Morrison Workshops got underway Sagan and
Drake published an article in Scientific American that outlined
the case for SETI-Science. The pair claimed that "there might be a kind
of biological law that there are many paths to intelligence and high technology,
and that every inhabited planet, if it is given enough time and does not
destroy itself, will arrive at a similar result."286 The Lederberg
panel, too, concluded that, although any particular evolutionary path might
be unlikely, there were a large number of ways for any given outcome to
arise. "There can be a high probability of certain results, however improbable
each of the innumerable ways they may come about..."
Thus, by the time of the Morrison Workshops, SETI's proponents had downgraded
the evolutionists' critique that the recurrence of humanoid intelligence
was infinitely improbable to simply "improbable." At the same time,
they upgraded Sagan's original claim at Byurakan-II of "many other
sequences of steps" that could lead to a single outcome like humanoid intelligence
to "innumerable ways." At least as far as the formal NASA record was concerned,
the evolutionists' critique had been neutralized in this crossfire of offsetting
The only important tenet of SETI-Science missing was the claim that all
intelligences would be similar due to uniformitarianism. The philosophers
began to publish their critique of uniformitarianism in 1976. SETI's architects
had no ready response to this critique, as they answered the Soviet critique
with "anti-cryptography" and the evolutionists' critique with Sagan's "quasi-ergodic
theorem." In that same year, 1976, Drake admitted, "To be sure, there will
be many forms of intelligent life unimaginably different from ours.... Though
we can grasp some of the vast differences between our lives and [ETI's],
the totality of differences between a[n ETI] society and our own is surely
beyond our comprehension."287 The SETI scientists appeared to
concede the philosophers' critique of their assumption of uniformitarianism.
A different Morrison Workshop colloquy in 1976, on "The Science of SETI,"
included the surprising admission that "certainly, there is no reason other
than faith to believe that, just because both [ETI] and we are intelligent,
communications that may ultimately take place between us will necessarily
convey the intended meaning. To the degree cultural characteristics are
determined by biological and evolutionary factors, so may we expect cultural
differences between human and extraterrestrial societies to be greater than
those observed among human societies. Great cultural differences imply greater
potential for misunderstanding."288
Having no answer to the philosophers' critique of uniformitarianism, SETI's
architects simply dropped it from SETI-Science. In doing so, however, they
created a significant gap in their conceptual framework. Uniformitarianism
explained why all intelligences would be similar and, thus, humanoid. Without
it, answering their critics proved increasingly difficult.
Each NASA program requires Congressional approval; then, in a separate exercise,
Congress appropriates funds for those approved programs. As the SETI project
began its journey through this process, the Subcommittee on Space Science
and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Technology asked
the Research Division of the Library of Congress to review SETI-style searches
in 1975. The Library of Congress produced a report, which it revised and
updated in 1977, after the Morrison Workshops.289 Billingham's
NASA Ames Research Center SETI Program Office provided "assistance in obtaining
information about NASA efforts in this field."290
The report contains a number of references to the Soviet critique and related
issues. When discussing the Soviet program, the report acknowledged the
Byurakan-I meeting thirteen years previously, but inaccurately reported
that "details of the meeting are scarce in the West."291 The
published proceedings were available in English translation in 1967. The
report made no mention of the Kaplan text, although it had been available
in English translation for four years. The report did briefly mention the
Byurakan-II meeting, inaccurately giving its date as 1972. In another of
the wonderful ironies that characterize the SETI saga, William McNeill is
the only Byurakan-II participant quoted in the report, despite the fact
that he was the only American sharing the Soviets' concerns about a SETI-style
When discussing the Soviet CETI program the Library of Congress report did
take into consideration Shklovskii's disenchantment with SETI, which was
by that time public.293 The report characterized Shklovskii's
reservations as "philosophical arguments" and made no recommendation as
to whether his concerns should be shared by Congress. The report did speculate,
correctly in fact, that "such a significant change of position by a renowned
scientist in the field could serve to reduce the credibility of CETI in
the Soviet Union."294
Most interestingly, the report contained a misleading account of an episode
that dramatically illustrates the precise nature of the issues raised by
the Soviets and the philosophers of science. The report discussed a digital
message that Frank Drake composed after the Green Bank meeting and sent
around to its attendees and a number of other scientists.295
The message consisted of 551 0's and 1's that, when correctly organized
into a 29 × 19 raster (two "anti-cryptographic" prime numbers whose
product is 551), showed a crude picture of a human, the Earth, and some
other introductory information about Earth and its inhabitants.
The report told Congress that "a problem that will be of great import should
a signal ever be received is how to decode it." But it went on to make the
inaccurate and ambiguous claim that “in trying this puzzle [i.e., Drake's
digital raster] on scientists, it has been true so far that scientists have
understood the parts of the message connected with their own disciplines,
but have usually not understood the rest. This is consistent with the philosophy
behind the message."
As Drake recalled the episode, no one was able to understand his
message. Oliver understood that the 29 × 19 raster was a way to use
prime numbers to identify a non-random signal. But even Oliver did not understand
Drake's message.298 It is unclear what the report intended by
its claim that scientists "understood the parts of the message connected
to their own disciplines," or why that was "consistent with the philosophy
behind the message."
The episode of Drake's experimental message is an important event in SETI's
history that has been largely ignored. Had the details been more widely
disseminated, the implications could have been disastrous. A group of scientists
that spent several days together discussing the exciting new prospect of
communicating with ETIs by radio proved unable to understand a simple message
composed in a format it believed an ETI might use. If eleven members of
the same species, focused on the subject of receiving messages, could not
understand one of their number, what might be our prospects for successfully
identifying, let alone understanding, a message from a different species
in the vastness of the universe's radio emissions?
The section of the Congressional report detailing these matters, entitled
"Language Barriers," acknowledged that, "having discussed the possibility
of intelligent life existing on other planets in the universe and methods
to locate and communicate with it, the next question is what type of beings
we might expect to find."299 It is odd that it contained little
more than this anecdote about Drake's message, and concluded without mentioning
the Soviet critique. Buried in an appendix, however, was a reference to
the Soviet program's admission that "one of the most important problems
in need of solution for CETI purposes is to work out deciphering techniques
specifically applicable to extraterrestrial communications."300
This was true; but it was a misleading understatement of the gravity of
the problem, as the Soviets perceived it. Panovkin made their position clear
at the Byurakan II conference, whose proceedings were published four years
before this updated report. The Soviets considered the need to “work out
deciphering techniques" a condition for a successful SETI-style
The Congresspeople making the first major funding decisions about NASA's
SETI project did so, at least to the extent they relied on the Library of
Congress report they requested, on the basis of incomplete and even erroneous
As mentioned earlier, for more than a decade after Drake conducted the first
such search, the literature referred to efforts to find ETIs using radio
telescopes as "CETI." For example, Sagan entitled the proceedings of Byurakan-II,
published in 1973, Communication With Extraterrestrial Intelligence,
not the search for ETI. Immediately after Byurakan-II, however, the American
SETI team engineered a change in the name of their program. The Project
Cyclops report bears a subtitle that makes reference to detecting,
not communicating with, ETI. The 1977 revision of the Library of
Congress report identified the group overseeing the Morrison Workshops,
essentially the SETI architects, as having formally recommended changing
the name of their project from CETI to SETI.301
The name change was an adroit move that allowed SETI to sidestep the main
thrust of the Soviet critique. If SETI's mission was "simply" to detect
a signal, which it defined as coherent radiation, then it could ignore all
the issues the Soviets raised about the need to both understand and communicate
with ETI.302 The name change was explained away as part of SETI's
wish to stay out of political decisions about who would respond to any messages
that were detected and what they would say.303 Whether by contrivance
or happy coincidence, by the mid-1970s the change in SETI's name and mission
had, at least as far as NASA and Congress were concerned, rendered the Soviet
"nature"-based critique invisible.
By the mid-1970s all the key elements of the "nature"-based critiques of
a SETI-style search crystallized. SETI searched for humanoid ETIs. There
might also be non-humanoid ETIs; indeed, non-humanoids might be more likely
than humanoid ETIs. A SETI-style search might not be able to understand
a message from a non-humanoid ETI, in which case it risked mistaking coherent
radiation for a message. A SETI-style search might be unable to even detect
a message from a non-humanoid ETI.
SETI's architects adopted a dismissive posture toward all three "nature"-based
critiques. They countered the Soviet CETI team's issues by assuming "anti-cryptography"
and the evolutionists' issues by assuming Sagan's "quasi-ergodic theorem."
They did not have a ready retort to the philosophers' critique of uniformitarianism,
so they simply dropped it from SETI-Science. In doing so they left the project
without a rationale for why it would be able to understand ETI's
message; the name change they engineered, from CETI to SETI, implied that
SETI no longer needed to understand incoming messages, merely to detect
276. John Billingham and Bernard
M. Oliver, eds., Project Cyclops – A Design Study of a System
for Detecting Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life (Moffett Field, CA:
NASA/Ames Research Center, 1973), 4.
277. Ibid., 4–5.
278. Ibid., 64.
279. Dick, NASA HRMS, 110.
280. http://www.bigear.org/CSMO/HTML/CS05/cs05p17.htm, accessed 10 April
281. Swift, 230.
282. See footnote 131.
283. Morrison, Billingham, and Wolfe, 33, 8.
284. Ibid., 49–52.
285. Poundstone, 36.
286. Sagan and Drake, Scientific American 232 (May 1975): 80.
287. Drake, On Hands and Knees, 27.
288. Morrison, Billingham, and Wolfe, 99.
289. Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress, Possibility
of Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe, rev. ed. 1977 (Honolulu:
University Press of the Pacific, 2001).
290. Ibid., v. Reports such as this one prepared by the Library of Congress
for Congress are confidential; further information about Billingham's
contribution to the report were not available.
291. Ibid., 33.
292. McNeill's comment is more relevant to a later section, and will be
293. Shklovskii's Voprosy Filosofii essay was reported in, "Soviet
Reverses Opinion," Astronomy 5 (January 1977): 56.
294. NASA prepared its own translation of the original article the following
month; see Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress, Possibility
of Life Elsewhere, fn 13, 34.
295. Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress, Possibility
of Life Elsewhere, 34.
296. Ibid., 57–61.
297. Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress, Possibility
of Life Elsewhere, 34.
298. Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress, Possibility
of Life Elsewhere, 35.
299. Frank Drake and Dava Sobel, Is Anyone Out There? The Scientific
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (New York: Delta, 1992),
300. Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress, Possibility
of Intelligent Life, 87.
301. Ibid., 108.
302. The report by the Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress,
Possibility of Life Elsewhere, xi, explains that the decision
to make the name change was made by NASA's Interstellar Communication
study Group. This group is later identified in Appendix A, fn 1, as the
group overseeing the Morrison Workshops. This group was chaired by Morrison
and includes Drake, Sagan, and Oliver; as NASA's coordinator of the workshops,
Billingham was obviously also influential.
303. Of course, this strategy begs the Soviet-critique issue of how to
know that a message was a message if it could not be understood. Historian
Steven Dick noted that "the emphasis on detection was significant; probably
for political reasons, NASA was not prepared to communicate." See Biological
Universe, 464. The Library of Congress report said the substitution
of acronyms was to emphasize the SETI team's "intention to look for signals
and decode them, not make a decision on whether or not to respond." See
Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress, Possibility
of Intelligent Life, xi.
III. Implications of the expanded ETI discourse for SETI: Introduction
| NEXT (10. Inflection)