Classical SETI 5. Quest for Negadata!

The leaders and principals of the SETI program enjoy the perception that they are scientists, actively engaged in scientific research. They employ very impressive scientific instruments (the magnificent radio telescopes used by radio astronomers) and many of them actually are radio astronomers, astrophysicists, and electrical engineers. SETI spokespersons consider and promote themselves as society's elite in the quest to learn whether this galaxy, or even universe, is inhabited by other intelligent societies. They claim to own the only legitimate charter to carry out this quest and they view with disdain, disgust, and sneering mockery any challenge to what they feel is their Exclusive Right.

In putting down those who wish to pursue non-SETI lines of search for an alien presence in the universe, far or near, SETI proponents may invoke Karl Popper's (1963) criterion for distinguishing true scientific research from metaphysics:

"Scientific methodology exists wherever theories are subjected to rigorous empirical testing, and it is absent wherever the practice is to protect a theory rather than to test it."

For example, David Brin (Planetary Society Advisory Council, astrophysicist-turned-science fiction writer/celebrity) in his Galaxy Online feature article Demand More From Your Aliens:

"There is a key word, known to all scientists. It is falsifiability. The eminent philosopher, Karl Popper, explained how it plays a crucial part in scientific method. No theory or proposition is useful unless those advocating it can honestly suggest a test or experiment that might, conceivably, prove the theory false.

"I know, it sounds contradictory at first. But this tradition is why science can be called the bravest human enterprise — because it welcomes and thrives on criticism. The quickest way for a scientist to win respect is to say: "I believe this theory of mine will prove true, and here are some experiments you can use to test my idea. If it fails any of these tests, I will cheerfully admit I was wrong, and move on."

Inspiring words. When applying this criterion to the efforts of others, SETI proponents rather strongly imply that SETI itself satifies it. Wouldn't you think that was their meaning? But just ask a SETI scientist to show where SETI proposes a test that can show its assumptions - its description of the world - to be false. I did. The answer I received was something like "Whatever made you think that SETI is a Popperian science?"33

It was a moment to be savored. The test of pseudoscience is its failure to propose falsifiable hypotheses, but true science can decide whether or not it wishes to be subjected to that test.

But let us examine SETI within the framework of the Popperian test, regardless of its wish to avoid it. We begin by asking, "Does SETI have a theory that can be tested?"

As explained by Johnson (1993), a "theory" is some conjecture about the world - the "paradigm" discussed earlier in these pages. Scientific progress is made either by 1) making a risky prediction that, if borne out, would strongly support the theory, while a failure to find what was predicted would falsify it, or by 2) posing the antithesis of the theory and searching for evidence that would falsify the anthithesis and in that way confirm the theory.

Einstein followed the first scientific method. He risked discrediting his General Theory of Relativity by predicting that light rays would bend when passing close to the sun. No one had previously thought to look for such an effect, or had any reason to do so. When the bending of light rays seemed to occur as predicted, this was taken as confirmation of Einstein's new theory.38

SETI seems to follow this method. The "theory" being tested would be its world view as described earlier in this paper. That is, SETI hypothesizes that intelligent civilizations exist throughout the universe, arising out of conducive primitive conditions, and passing their life cycles with no physical contact among one another, although employing such means as electromagnetic signaling to communicate among themselves.

To test this theory, SETI searches for supportive evidence: radio signals from distant civilizations. So far, so good; it is risky to predict that such signals will be found. But the SETI methodology has a serious flaw: if such signals are NOT found, this doesn't falsify the theory. Rather, it is taken to mean that the receiving systems need to be made more sensitive, etc. In other words, no conclusion is drawn because the SETI hypothesis is never considered to have been falsified.

SETI actually uses this flaw in its experimental design to justify perpetual repetition of their experiment and - amazingly - nobody seems to complain.

Actually there are ways in which the SETI theory COULD be falsified. For example, if physical extraterrestrials were to arrive here, or if evidence of their past presence here were to be found, this would constitute a spectacular contradiction to the hypothesis or theory. That is to say, since the SETI paradigm is based on the premise that interstellar travel is not feasible and that as a result any ETI communication must be by means of radio in a certain narrow band, evidence of past visitation in the solar system by interstellar travelers would falsify the paradigm and have radical implications for the entire concept of radio search.

As mentioned earlier, information suggestive of this type of contact has long been in the public domain. If SETI scientists were sincerely interested in practicing science, they would be intensely interested in investigating any such contradictory evidence that was carefully collected and presented. But as we have seen, SETI spokespersons energetically ridicule and condemn talk of such things.

Now if SETI had chosen method 2), they might have been spared much effort and their donors much expense. In this approach, one proposes the null hypothesis: there are no extraterrestrials. Then employ the Drake equation to calculate the probability that no extraterrestrials would be observed, even if they are there. From that, calculate the amount of observation required to be confident that finding nothing means they really are not there.

That would put a limit on the amount of observation required to draw a conclusion. I don't know if any SETI scientist has ever gone through this exercise. Perhaps they didn't because they knew their Drake equation was close to meaningless, or because they really didn't see a benefit in limiting the amount of observation they would be required to perform.

But never mind; we are now told that SETI is not an experimental program anyway. It is an observational or data collection program. That would be in accord with Thomas Kuhn's (1996) discussion of the kinds of scientific endeavor that include data gathering and instrumentation design.

So SETI escapes the criterion it applies to others because SETI is just a data collection program.

But what manner of data does SETI collect? The answer to that is that SETI has never collected a shred of data. That is, SETI is not really observing anything at all. Nothing has ever been found in SETI's defined search space other than errant man-made signals.

Yet the SETI program enjoys reporting to its public the amount of non-data it has collected to date. And the quest goes on.

I propose that SETI promoters honestly identify what they offer the public for their support: NEGADATA. The program has now collected many terabytes of negadata and promises much more with its new $12.5 million interferometer being designed for Hat Creek.

This may sound like an unfair taunt. It is always possible that one day something truly interesting will turn up in a SETI receiver. But consider: this program has gone on for many decades and found virtually nothing to support its frankly highly-speculative ideas that led to its methodology. Can you think of another "scientific" program that can match this? At what point will the SETI scientists stop and reevaluate?20

For discussion from a recent symposium on this subject, see Significance of Negative SETI Results.

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