SETI is Not About Getting Attention

No, this isn’t a post about METI.  This is about an interesting sociological phenomenon about one of the ways in which SETI is marginalized in astronomy.

SETI tends to get media attention, at an amount disproportionate to the amount of SETI work actually done. There are many reasons for this. One is that it is a topic of genuine interest to much of the lay public.  Another is that it is easily sensationalized and conflated with UFOlogy and science fiction by the yellow press.

I’ve had my share of both sides. Take Ross Andersen’s excellent article on Tabby’s Star (which was a scoop; we did not put out a press release or publish anything that triggered it). This story got huge amounts of global media attention, to the point that it appeared on Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show. This second wave of stories led to the perception that Tabby herself “jumped to aliens” as an explanation, when in fact her paper and press release made no mention of aliens, and the press release announced “comets” as the cause.

The Daily Mail is a sensationalist rag in the UK that seems to have decided I’m their go-to name for all things alien. Sort of like the way that they find a way to shoehorn Stephen Hawking into the headlines of any article they write about space, but to a much smaller degree, they seem to love to claim I’ve found aliens (or that I think I have) when I write the opposite in a public space.  For instance:

  1. I had a press release titled “Search for Advanced Civilizations Beyond Earth Finds Nothing Obvious“.  The Mail Online’s lede was that I had “found 50 galaxies that may contain intelligent alien races.”
  2. I wrote a paper whose premise was that the question of extraterrestrial life (of any kind) in the Solar System is an “open question”, and in particular that the Solar System apparently lacks any alien artifacts.  The Mail Online article’s subheads claimed that I believe that intelligent “aliens either lived on Earth, Venus or Mars billions of years ago.”
  3. And when I wrote a couple of blog posts about how I didn’t think ‘Oumuamua was a great SETI target (but that it should get us thinking about Solar System SETI), they again reversed my meaning and wrote that I claimed ‘Oumuamua “could be an alien spacecraft with broken engines.”

It’s pretty embarrassing to see your work so brazenly sensationalized in the media, but given the Daily Mail’s reputation I’m not sure there’s anything I could have done to prevent it except not talk about SETI at all where it might be overheard. I’ve developed a thick skin about it, but it still smarts to see my name next to pictures of bug-eyed aliens.  I know that colleagues of mine that don’t know the whole story will think less of me because of these false portrayals of me working on “fringe” science or shouting “aliens” at every astronomical anomaly.

Actual image the Daily Mail used in an article quoting me about an asteroid.

So it’s especially galling when my colleagues accuse me of sensationalizing my work or, worse, only working in SETI at all because I’m after media attention. This attitude is probably widespread, because a few fed-up people have lost their cool and announced it several times in rants online; I can only imagine how many more have kept their cool or only said it where I haven’t noticed.  Some examples (names and links omitted to protect the guilty):

  1. About a short ETI discussion in a longer paper (that did not seek or garner any headlines)
    What does the mention of alien civilizations really add to these topics other than an attempt to grab headlines?
    What’s to be gained by a casual mention in the abstract and end of the paper? … this (along with a growing list of other examples in the literature) is an attempt to grab headlines.
  2. Rebutting an argument that there is nothing wrong with seriously discussing SETI angles of astronomical anomalies on social media:
    All fine, but there is another component of this, which is cynical citation of ETI as a simple way of gaining attention. Your discussion assumes earnest and honest motivations. I’m not sure that that is always true.
  3. Starting a discussion about how SETI astronomers need to stop sensationalizing their work:
    most SETI-related news seems to be interfering with conventional scientific discoveries, stealing the limelight – without following basic rules of science
  4. Piling on to that discussion:
    It’s not just SETI you should be dumping on here, if your overall argument is to stop selling bullshit to the media because it’s fun.

At the risk of making an analogy to an infinitely more serious problem, they’re blaming the victims. Here we are getting misquoted and caricatured in the yellow press, and they’re the ones that are offended and embarrassed at what we have put them through. To them, somehow it’s our fault that the Mail misquotes us, and their attitude is that if we didn’t want to be misquoted, then why were we doing that kind of science in the first place? 

The real bad actors here are the yellow journalists, and that is a problem all of us in science and science communication have to deal with all the time; SETI is just a particularly soft target for them.

So, for the record: this kind of media attention is not “fun,” it’s mortifying, and we are not asking for it when we discuss our work in public. Many of the above accusations were surrounded by claims that the writers respect SETI as science, but you don’t really respect scientists’ work if you think it’s irresponsible of them to talk about it out loud, or if you think the only reason they do it is so that they can get their names in the papers.

SETI astronomers have had to deal with conflation with UFOlogy and fringe psuedoscience for decades; I hope that more of our colleagues will recognize that we share their disdain for sensationalism and are pulling in the same direction on the issue of sober science communication about good science.

And I hope that they won’t cast scorn at every SETI paper or reference to ETIs in the literature (“astro-crap” one astronomer called it on Facebook), and not cast aspersions on the authors for working on an important problem (especially junior researchers, who are both the future lifeblood of the field and the most sensitive to these accusations).

SETI gets enough unjustified grief from Congress, the last thing we need is to have to worry about our colleagues in our flanks piling on.

4 thoughts on “SETI is Not About Getting Attention

  1. Keith Cooper

    Large chunks of science are inherently about life, even if scientists don’t always talk about it in those terms. There’s the scientific fields with an obvious link, such as exoplanet hunting, which is skewed towards finding habitable planets, or at least understanding the context in which habitable planets form, which in turn can often involve stellar physics and how the behaviour of stars impacts their orbiting planets, and to understand stars we have to understand star formation, and to understand star formation we have to understand the development of galaxies and so on. Planetary exploration in the Solar System also emphasises life, from looking for life and past habitable environments on Mars, to the oceans on Enceladus and Europa; biochemistry is important in origin of life studies; computer technology is increasingly aimed at artificial intelligence as some kind of life; cosmology and particle physics revolve around the question of why the Universe is the way it is for it to support life, to the point that we’ve invoked the Anthropic principle and multiverses and so on to try and explain why the Universe is friendly to life. The point is that with so much focus on understanding and finding life in mainstream science, there still seems to be a disconnect between the work scientists are doing and SETI, which is really just another facet of this whole scientific endeavour that revolves around life.

    To be honest, if scientists are against SETI, it might be for the best for them to come out and say that in public, so that the discussion about the value of SETI can be played out openly, rather than sniggering or cynical comments muttered at conferences or on social media. Hopefully that discussion could have a positive result and bring SETI more into the fold. I really don’t see why a SETI explanation for an astrophysical phenomena can’t be no more or less valid than a natural explanation, as long as the evidence supports it. I do think things are beginning to change though; look at all the scientists that were seriously discussing the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be a spacecraft, including lead authors of key studies of the object, and I don’t recall seeing any criticism of them for discussing that.

    As our surveys grow we’re going to find more weird things like Tabby’s star or ‘Oumuamua, I think it’s a learning process to figure out how we can distinguish natural phenomena from anything that could be artificial. The scientific community needs to start to support that process, otherwise scientists could end up sitting on data that could be evidence for an advanced civilisation, but they’re ignorant of it.

  2. Laurence Cuffe

    I think this highlights the fact that the readers of the yellow press, even if they are astronomers, lack attention to detail. I think what you have done here is a very worthy and commendable response.

  3. S. Jay Olson

    Of course you’ve been attacked and mischaracterized more than nearly anyone for this, so I’m sympathetic. However, from a purely selfish point of view, I’m grateful the subject has been taboo for the past several decades, since 1) the question of intelligent life in the universe is obviously not going to disappear and 2) making extremely incremental improvements to highly-developed fields of research is boring.

    There is no comparable “big question” we can find to be in such an under-developed state. We get to work on the *front* half of the logistical curve, for a change. That feature doesn’t come for free, of course — there is a sociological reason it’s in that state, and a certain price that must paid.

  4. Jason Melancon

    Gosh, I’d be insulted too. Hopefully as more scientists speak out, the taboo will wear thin. Eventually even Congress will be forced to give SETI its due.

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