Let’s Call it the Hart Argument

The Fermi Paradox is the term often used to describe the argument that since an alien species is not currently on earth (or since we have no evidence for ETI), they do no exist. This argument is often paired with the question “where are they?”, a question asked by Fermi in 1950.

Gray (2015) lays out the timeline surrounding the so-called ‘Fermi Paradox,’ arguing that the name is misleading and should not be used. The name first appeared in literature in a paper by Stephenson (1977). Given that this was years after Fermi first asked his (now) famous question “where are they?”/”where is everyone?”, it seems odd that it would be over twenty years before it was used. In fact, Stephenson (who coined the term, it seems) says that he merely put the two words together because both were used frequently in SETI conferences.

As Gray lays out, this term is quite misleading.  First, the argument that since we see no ETI, there must be none is by no means a paradox. There exists no contradiction in the statement, merely a conclusion based on a paucity of evidence and a variety of assumptions (e.g. space travel is feasible and colonization is the natural course of intelligence). Since there is no paradox present, this word should not be used at all.

Fermi’s initial question was not about the existence of ETI at all, but merely questioning the feasibility of space travel. Gray contacted all surviving members from the 1950 meeting where Fermi asked his question, and all three stated that the question was about space travel. In discussing the existence of ETI, Fermi’s name should not be attached. Instead, Gray argues that Hart (or Tipler) should be accredited with this argument. Both have written numerous papers following this logic, with Hart being the first in 1975, two years before Stephenson’s paper.

Unfortunately, the ‘Fermi paradox’ (by name and meaning) has been used multiple times in calls to stop SETI. Because of this, and the general misleading nature of the term, Gray argues that the argument should be renamed.

I am so happy that this article exists. Having BSs in Physics and Astronomy, I would assume (hope) that all the information I learned as fact in undergrad was true. One of the things presented to me was the Fermi Paradox; however, I now know that what I was taught was wrong. I was told that Fermi’s question was indeed about the existence of ETI and heard nothing about Tipler or Hart. I suppose that since I learned this in 2012, and this paper was published in 2015, this makes sense. Something led Gray to write this paper, and it was probably frustration involving the misleading name. However, Gray mentions numerous previous studies that call for a renaming, so I’m not sure why the curriculum remains unchanged. I do wish it would be renamed, maybe not to the public but at least in the fields of astronomy and astrobiology, so that new students can start out with the proper definition. I personally enjoy “the Hart Argument” since I enjoyed his initial paper in 1975, but any renaming the removed/replaced “Fermi” and “paradox” would suffice.