Is SETI Interdisciplinary?

Wright views SETI as an interdisciplinary field, albeit one that is fragmented and mired by inconsistent jargon. In a recent paper presented at the SETI Institute Workshop, Wright attempts to organize the terminology and subfields of SETI into a unified framework. He explicitly states:

SETI [is] an interdisciplinary study that includes the humanities and social sciences, and a subfield of astrobiology that focuses on the detection of technosignatures (as opposed to biosignatures). Two major branches of SETI are communication SETI and artifact SETI (although the line between them is not always sharp), and others include METI and the search for “nature plus”.

Above is a comparison of “orthodox” SETI and “Dysonian” SETI.  Wright argues that SETI as a whole is in between both of these extremes. The fact that each extreme focuses at difference frequencies and has different assumptions of advanced technological civilizations (ATC) suggests multi-discipline approach. The table is from Bradbury et. al. 2011.

Wright references the arguments brought by Robert Bradbury et. al. There are two primary extremes in SETI: (i) traditional SETI focusing on intentional messages primarily in the radio and (ii) Dysonian SETI focusing on artifacts and traces of advanced technological civilizations (see Table 1). Bradbury concluded that:

orthodox SETI is not only low probability in terms of success, it is also potentially risky, stunting and scientifically limiting […] We suggest that there is no real scientific reason for such situation. The regrettable condition of SETI is due to excessive conservativeness, inertia of thought, overawe of the “founding fathers,” or some combination of the three. Another, albeit extra-scientific, argument often put forward in informal situations is that the massive pseudoscientific fringe surrounding SETI (“flying saucers” enthusiasts, archaeo-astronauts, and the like) would feel encouraged by relaxing the conservative tenets of the orthodox SETI. […] The proposed and unconventional approach, with its emphasis on the search for the manifestations of ATCs would lose nothing of the advantages of conventional SETI before detection [63], but the gains could be enormous

For Bradbury, to focus on just radio SETI lacks scientific merit and appears to be done out of deference to the founders of SETI. Instead, both orthodox and Dysonian SETI should be viewed as one field requiring knowledge from various other subfields. Wright builds upon Bradbury’s conclusion by attempting to show that SETI is interdisciplinary. He notes that SETI can be performed at multiple wavelengths, such as the optical and near infrared. A lot of the examples provided; exoplanetary science, galactic and stellar astrophysics, time-domain astronomy, and multi-messenger astronomy easily make SETI part of physics and astrophysics. The case for interdisciplinarity becomes more concrete for the social sciences. Wright appears to argue for the need of xenology, using humanity as a logical stepping stone. This is a reasonable step and, while social sciences will inherently carry an anthropocentric view, it does allow for interesting dialogue with social scientists and practitioners of SETI.

Wright argues that for SETI to embrace multiple disciplines, it must standardize the jargon used by practitioners. While some of the terms he mentions are obscure (alien race), others such as “intelligence” and “beacon” have clear implications in what SETI is searching for and how to proceed. This blogger is largely in agreement with Wright. It makes no sense for SETI to be fragmented into many factions as they are all doing something to search for extraterrestrial life. Normalizing the language used is but one step. As mentioned by Bradbury, there still exists some stigma towards Dysonian SETI which hopefully disappears as more searches are performed.