SETI: A Critical History: 9. Reactions to Nature-Based Critiques

Chapter 9 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


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.


Project Cyclops

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.


John Billingham
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 "Morrison Workshops."


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 superlatives.


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 search.292


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 search.


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 information.


Name change

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.


SETI graphic


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 them.



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 2009.
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 analyzed there.
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), 169.
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.


Part III. Implications of the expanded ETI discourse for SETI: Introduction | NEXT (10. Inflection) | CONTENTS