SETI: A Fantasy Land

In his spare time, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist Paul Davies exerts his role as an author. As his Amazon page describes, he has written at least twelve published books often on some existential question about life (or the dearth of life) in the Universe as informed by science. Davies has claimed he seeks to “bring the message of science and religion to the people” and, being a physics savant, was awarded funds from the Templeton foundation to support his research on “the natures of time and consciousness and extraterrestrial life”. One of his more recent books, The Eerie Silence, overlaps with his research interests and can be described as intellectually provocative.

Figure 1. Above is a popular image of what an alien would look like. Science fiction and pop culture have spawned this image as the most likely visage of ETI. The source is The Eerie Silence.

Davie’s book discusses SETI, focusing on its implications and assumptions. He dismisses the entrenched cliché of aliens (see Figure 1), as crafted by science fiction and movies. The end of chapter six and the entirety of chapter seven, “Alien Magic”, seek to question an important premise in SETI: that we know what we are looking for and it is something we can readily distinguish. Absent exotica, SETI seems a plausible and fruitful, albeit onerous, endeavor. The epigraph at the beginning of chapter seven is borrowed from Arthur Clarke and states “any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” Davies describes the conundrum for a proponent of SETI:

If we were to encounter alien technology far superior to our own, would we even realize what it was? Think how a laser or a radio would seem to a tribe of rainforest dwellers who have never been in contact with the outside world. Now imagine a technology a million or more years in advance of ours: it might well appear miraculous to us. All of which presents new SETI with a serious problem. How can we look for signatures of alien technology when we have no idea how it would be manifested? In the previous chapter I suggested some ways in which an advanced civilization spreading across the galaxy might leave traces of its activity. But all the examples I gave were based on extrapolations of twenty-first-century human physics, and so are tainted by anthropocentrism. Suppose that alien technology is based on principles that are completely beyond the ken of our best scientists?

Figure 2. Above is a whimsical depiction of energy extraction from a rotating black hole seen in The Eerie Silence. A truck can be thrown into a black hole and ejected with more energy than it originally had thanks to the conservation of angular momentum.

At the end of chapter six, Davies presents the reader various exotic astrophysical objects that have yet to be discovered, but have been theorized by scientists. This includes magnetic monopoles, which could be recombined with the opposite monopole to produce energy that would dwarf a hydrogen bomb, and cosmic strings, which have been proposed as sources of fast radio bursts. Davies casually mentions one possible hypothesis for the apparent lack of these objects is the sequestration by a super civilization, but as he notes “the hypothesis that aliens are the correct explanation for the anomalous absence of something is only as good as the prior probability of an alien super-civilization in the first place”. His discussion of these objects brings into focus our current understanding of physics. Davies mentions an example, from John Wheeler, of what ETI could do to satisfy its energy needs (see Figure 2) while baffling humans:

Wheeler dreamed up the amusing scenario [in] which trucks containing industrial waste are dropped on a carefully calculated trajectory towards the spinning black hole. […] The trucks spill out their contents in such a way that the waste is devoured by the black hole. For certain trajectories, the empty trucks get propelled away from the ergosphere at high speed, zooming off with more mass-energy than the laden trucks originally had going in. Ultimately the additional energy has to come from somewhere, and in fact it comes from the rotational energy of the hole; every time the trick with the trucks is performed, the black hole’s angular speed drops a bit. The good times will not last for ever – eventually all the rotational energy will be extracted and the civilization will be obliged to decamp elsewhere. But at present human levels of energy consumption, a black hole could meet our energy needs for at least a trillion trillion years.

This is where Davies coins the phrase “nature-plus”. With our arguably limited understanding of the Universe, it becomes necessary to look past familiar proxies, such as energy or resource usage, to limit the bias from human understanding. Davies asks the reader to consider technology that:

  • is not made of matter,
  • has no fixed size or shape,
  • has no well-defined boundaries or topology,
  • is dynamical on all scales of space and time or, conversely, does not appear to do anything at all that we can discern, and
  • does not consist of discrete, separate things; rather it is a system, or a subtle higher-level correlation of things.

This emphasizes there may exist incomprehensible technology that operates on levels indiscernible to a human. Davies surmises that:

Technology is, in the broadest sense, mind or intelligence or purpose blending with nature. Importantly, technological devices don’t subjugate nature; the devices still obey the laws of physics. Technology harnesses the laws; it does not override them. […] Truly advanced alien technology might manifest itself by an entirely new form of whole–part interrelationship. And just as quantum weirdness is uncovered only with very special apparatus, so alien technology might go unobserved and unsuspected, because we are not viewing it with the equivalent of… well, a Bose–Einstein condensate beam-splitting interferometer.

However, while we may not completely understand the Universe, there exist certain laws that we can be fairly sure of, notably the second law of thermodynamics and the maximum speed of light. Davies uses these laws to dismiss science fiction, such as a quantum vacuum drive (violates the second law of thermodynamics) and levitation (violates the law of gravitation). To this blogger, this chapter by Davies discusses one of the unsettling things about SETI: its apparent indifference to its existential problems. While astrobiology can rely on our understanding of the biochemistry of terrestrial life (particularly bacteria), SETI is limited to humanity’s machinations. SETI experiments have varying levels of assumptions and most palatable are the parasitic searches focusing on Dysonian SETI. Once cultural assumptions come into play, SETI quickly devolves into fantasy. While a given experiment may be a null result, if it explores a subset of an infinite-dimensional manifold then it is scientifically useless. SETI should proceed but should take caution to limit itself to experiments where a scientific result can say something informative. To this blogger, a reasonable way to search for life would be to start with unintelligent life within our own Solar System, then work together as a scientific community towards extraterrestrial intelligence.

Do we know what we do not know?

This article is based on pages 133 – 152 of Paul Davies `s book Eerie Silence. The extract builds upon the third law of Arthur C. Clarke, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It discusses the principle for SETI artifact searches.

There are various structures / particles postulated by the fundamental theories of physics which have not been observed experimentally. Few of the examples cited in the passage are magnetic monopoles, dark matter particle and cosmic string. An example given is that the paucity of these could be due to exploitation of this structures / particles by a hyper – advanced ET civilization for energy production.

Moving on from here, the author builds on the ‘nature plus’ theme for ET. Basically how ET could manifest itself as the next step after nature and thus not stand out obviously like a sore thumb, but as an extension of the abilities and phenomenon seen naturally. He gives the example of a scenario from Roger Penrose about dumping waste into a black hole to harness its rotational kinetic energy.

Another important point made is that it is quite possible, perhaps even likely that ET manifests itself in a manner unfathomable to us. The example given is of lasers. For someone from a few centuries ago, lasers would not seem like a man – made thing and would seem like a weird (then inexplicable) naturally occurring phenomenon. On a similar note, potential ET technology could be right in our face but its artificial origins undetectable to us.

The last thing he covers is how the ‘laws of Physics’, which in theory are set in stone, are not really. They are only sacrosanct as far our current measurement capabilities are concerned. For example, ether was accepted till Michelson – Morley proved it otherwise. Newtonian gravity was good enough till observations began diverging from it and could no longer be explained by simple theory. Therefore the laws of Physics which we let govern us in our search for ET, might fundamentally be incomplete.

I think the point of this article is not to cast a gloomy note over our search for ET, but just to say that we do not know what we don’t know. Our knowledge and understanding of the ‘known’ Universe is severely lacking. Therefore, 1) we should not consider our search for ET exhaustive even if we plough through a major portion of the cosmic haystack unsuccessfully; 2) always be open to and on the watch for anomalies in observational data (similar to the point made in GHat 4).

As one of the youngest fields, SETI is now old

Only in truly engaging astrobiological, AI, transhumanist, global risk, and philosophical communities in fruitful interdisciplinary worldview can SETI truly achieve the respect and dignity that pioneers like Carl Sagan justifiably aspired to.

Amen! Preaching to the choir here. During my long experience with SETI (as of writing this, it has been almost eight whole weeks), I have slowly shifted my thoughts towards those beautifully reflected in this paper. Bradbury and co. point out that SETI used to be considered imaginative and maybe even daring, the field but has not continued to develop with the times. Many searches continue to be what the authors call “orthodox SETI” which is looking for signals at a particular frequency (usually radio), and this is what many think of when they think of SETI (aside from crackpots looking for little green men). The authors suggest expanding SETI to include artifact searches, or traces of a civilization that could remain past the civilizations lifetime. These searches also remove the assumption that the ET civilization is trying to contact us or otherwise alert us of their existence, an assumption that, while required to be able to search for beacons, might not be true.

This paper slightly amuses me in that it’s sort of a shaming of the field. The authors realized that the field had become stagnant, and this was apparently a good way to get it moving again? I’m not sure if this paper brought about any change, but as an idealist, I’d like to believe that it did. Since this paper, there seems to have been an emergence of artefact SETI (that the authors refer to as Dysonian SETI), but this might be a trend that I have only noticed through the diverse papers selected for this class. I will say that I have not noticed much on an increase in the interdisciplinary interactions of SETI, but I feel a lot of that is academics too embarrassed to join the field (or they think it BS). This is something that I really wish would change, as I’m sure many in the field wish also. Bringing SETI up-to-date with current technologies (oh, the irony), knowledge, and collaboration could really improve where the field is going, as well as improve its funding.

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.


In Wright (2018), the issue of SETI’s confusing taxonomy and several terms in SETI having multiple meanings is addressed.

SETI’s place in the scientific landscape is often confused. It is not clear to a majority of people where exactly SETI stands in relation to subjects like astronomy, biology, or their field of intersection, astrobiology. This paper seeks to place SETI (looking for evidence of technology) firmly in astrobiology as a separate, but equally valid approach for finding life (in comparison to looking for regular biosignatures).

Astrobiology taxonomy chart from the paper

In addition to clarifying where SETI lies as a subject, the paper focusses on asserting the importance of having an unambiguous set of definitions for commonly used jargon. As SETI is so interdisciplinary, terms are often hastily borrowed from other subjects and used in whatever sense may be useful to the current study, but this methodology is unnecessarily confusing for those who read multiple studies and are trying to understand the subject as a whole.  Sample definitions for terms like beacon and ETI are defined while some terms are suggested to be avoided like colonization and civilization.

SETI’s highly interdisciplinary nature is emphasized in this paper by bolding every mention of a subject that isn’t SETI. While I think the method is heavy-handed, I don’t think that it is a wasted effort. It is cool to see just how many fields necessarily intertwine with SETI. Although, I would like to shame the editor for not ensuring a consistent usage of said bolding (the last paragraph on the left of page one: “the social sciences” versus the third to last paragraph on the right of page one: “the Earth sciences “). Shame.

SETI Jargon

In this post I shall discuss the white paper written by Jason Wright on the need for SETI to adopt standard terminology. The paper argues about the need for such an approach. In the era of advances in astrobiology, we need to find the right synergy between the two fields, and how SETI is rightfully a subset of astrobiology since it is also looking for signatures of life (biology) around celestial bodies.

The field of exoplanets has rapidly grown since the first discovery of an exoplanet around a star in 1995 [51 Pegasi b]. With advances in engineering and instrumentation we are slowly approaching the domain where we can detect the presence of an Earth like planet around a Sun like star in its habitable zone [Kasting 1991]. In tandem with this process of discovery,  the characterization of exoplanetary atmosphere and climate has also progressed using spectroscopy techniques; attempts have been made to detect biosignatures in these spectra of exoplanets.

Closer home, we also have ‘potentially’ habitable objects, which could  have harboured life in the past, or might have life in the present as well. Solar system bodies like Europa, Enceladus and Mars, are intriguing objects which might have the right conditions to sustain (or have sustained) life.

Astrobiology is generally touted to be limited to this search for biosignatures. However, as mentioned in the introduction, it must include not only biosignatures, but also technosignatures or signs of intelligent (advanced technologically) life.

A unified jargon is important in a diverse and interdisciplinary field like SETI which involves contributions and discourse from not only astronomers, but also engineers, anthropologists, linguists,  and potentially cryptologists. The paper by cites the example of Artifact SETI, and how it should be an umbrella term for various kinds of searches.

An example of this that I have encountered (a situation nowhere as close to as significant as  in SETI, however representative nonetheless), is when I tried to understand radio astronomer jargon in order to derive the relation between transmitter bandwidth and the sensitivity of a receiver. Being involved with optical and NIR astronomy, I am completely alien to radio astronomy. Despite both the fields being subsets of astronomy and governed by the same laws of Physics, there exist a large number of differences in how they measure and quantify similar parameters.  It would have been very useful if they used the same terminology or in the least had some kind of a guide to bridge the two.

Now, if we take this situation and extrapolate it to collaborations between the sciences and humanities, this problem gets severely exacerbated.  Hence, I think the framework adopted by this paper is necessary, and one that should be worked on as the field of SETI grows and involves collaborations from other fields and subjects.

The Virtues of Concreteness: An Argument for “Settlement”

Sofia’s Official SETI Definitions v0.1

Settlement: “a process by which an intelligent species spreads to new areas”*

I have a pet peeve about concreteness. I have been to a few conferences now, and an overarching theme I’ve noticed is that someone will have a fascinating concept, but be kind of dodgy when asked about how to directly apply their concept to real methodology.

As an example, the idea of “ecoscenography” was proposed at an art + science + education conference I attended a few years back. The thesis is that theatrical performances can be extremely wasteful – sets are constructed, used once, and then discarded, and the entire process is disproportionately and unnecessarily harmful to the environment. I was involved in theatre for a long time, and was really interested, so I talked to the speaker about implementation (Reusing simple set elements by repainting? Using more recycled materials? A sharing program between schools for costumes/props/set pieces?), and they kept insisting that we should keep it broad, it’s more of a philosophy, and not define any specific techniques. Well, to be frank, that sounds like a great way for your idea never to be of any use to anyone.

A more “concrete” illustration of the power of ecoscenography

I bring this up because I wanted to clarify a point brought up in Taxonomy and Jargon in SETI as an Interdisciplinary Field of Study (the white paper that I presented at DAI 2018). Some of my peers, in telling them about my presentation, argued that one of the less useful-sounding and more pedantic arguments in that talk was the distinction between “colonization” and “settlement”. Here are three arguments I ran into:

  1. We shouldn’t worry about offending / being politically correct to a species we haven’t met yet, that we may never discover the existence of!
  2. Putting a nice skin on the idea of “colonization” by calling it “settlement” is a little bit offensive in a way – it delegitimizes and hides the ugly parts of the analogous historical situations
  3. It doesn’t matter at all to the actual science of SETI and seems like a quibble over synonyms

Here’s my response to those arguments, after a few weeks of on and off pondering. This is not a paper about political correctness, either in its favour or against it. This is a paper that argues that the lack of precise and accurate terminology hinders the logistical workings of and the intellectual vibrancy/creativity of SETI more than in other fields, and we should recognize and take steps to fix that.

If I were as general as the talks that I berated for lack of concreteness in the earlier part of this post, I would leave it at that. But because I’m not, I want to take on this particular example.

The word “colonize”, according to Wikipedia, has some of the following connotations:

  • “a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components”
  • Comes from the Latin colere meaning “to inhabit”
  • Britain would consider new land as terra nullius (empty land) due to the absence of European farming techniques (regardless of the presence of other populations)
  • conflict between colonizers and local/native peoples
  • motivations being trade or “shorter-term exploitation of economic opportunities”
  • “absorbing and assimilating foreign people into the culture of the imperial country”
  • In science fiction, “sometimes more benign” – word is used very often

Here are some questions that this article brings up, for me (and, in parentheses, some search implications of each broken assumption):

(have I mentioned that I love Spore?)
Habitable worlds ripe for the picking… or not?
  • Why should we assume that an alien race would want to colonize in the first place? (searching for clusters of systems that have similar signatures becomes a poor search strategy)
  • What if ETI is NOT spreading for the purpose of resource acquisition and energy demand? (maybe black hole energy-farming is a bad thing to look for, shouldn’t look in places that humans would think are valuable (ex. asteroid belts), could be some underlying pattern in the spread based on religious/cultural/societal reasons behind it))
  • What if the ETI is conscious of their environment and co-exists with the surrounding land? (no technosignatures would appear during the spread)
  • What if the ETI is peaceful and co-exists with the inhabitants? (multiple different kinds of biosignatures or technosignatures could co-exist in a single area / N could be higher than one would calculate assuming “domination”)
  • What if the ETI puts von Neumann probes in systems for scientific or other purposes, but does not actually biologically inhabit it? (we shouldn’t just look at biologically-friendly environments like FGK stars)
  • What if a certain ETI has a very different idea of terra nullius? What if the presence of microbial life will limit the spread of an ETI because, to them, those environments are “already taken”? (we should look for technosignatures where there are no simple biosignatures already)
  • What if an ETI is a perfect, Sagan-esque archetype and lifts lesser species out of poverty/technological-infancy instead of causing conflict? (look for geographically-grouped, expanding technosignatures, rates of technological development become geographically dependent)
  • Is our acceptance of the more general, less problematic interpretation of “colonization” in SETI derived from our science fiction instead of our science? (we stick to a term that doesn’t make lexical sense based on stubbornness and end up making some of the other assumptions in this list)

The point of these questions isn’t that any particular suggestion I made is a good idea. A lot of them are not, or violate other fallacies (like the monocultural fallacy, for example). But it’s obvious that if we look closely at the relatively straightforward logical steps that follow from the dictionary definition of “colonization”, all sorts of SETI search strategies end up being implicitly excluded or assumed. Are we self-aware enough to say “well, I know what the word implies, but I wouldn’t let that affect my science in such obvious, drastic ways” and succeed in that quest? I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t think I’m self-aware enough for that. I’m sure there are some assumptions hidden in here that I’ve missed. I am, after all, only human!

So in your next publication, dear reader, please use the word “settlement” instead of “colonization”. Your science will thank you.

To add an additional complication at the end of this blog post: I discovered that in biology, colonisation or colonization means “a process by which a species spreads to new areas”. This definition has the perfect lack of connotations that we’re looking for in SETI, and would be a strong argument to continue using the word. My response: SETI is a subset of astrobiology, so we will be interacting with people who DO use this definition. Most practitioners, however, will still have the historical connotations in their head (because that’s what we’ve been exposed to, socially, and humans aren’t very good at putting that sort of conditioning out of our heads). To get around this confusion, in SETI, we should take “settlement” to have the definition I posit at the top of the page.

Updates to the Prime Directive, I mean the First Protocol

In 1989 then later in 2010, a group of SETI-ists agreed to a list of protocols for how a detection should be handled. The list is nicely summarized by Gertz 2017 as:

(a) SETI shall be conducted transparently; (b) a detection should be followed by rigorous confirmatory procedues and follow up observations; and (c) everyone must refrain from transmitting a response without authorization from a broadly representative body

Forgan & Schulz 2016 found this document a bit lacking, and made suggestions for updates. Their main complaint was that this document did not really take into consideration the current methods for spreading information, mainly social media. Before ~2008, news spread via word of mouth, newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. There were a few chain emails going around, but these channels were basically all there was. Then came the launching of facebook, twitter, instagram. The world now communicates in a different way and at a faster pace than it did ten years ago. Forgan & Schulz were correct to suggest updates to the document. Although the First Protocol isn’t outdated per se, it is missing information that is now critical.

The authors keep to the original protocols summarized above, but expand to include social media and microblogging. In actuality, they suggest that scientists keep the public updated via whatever medium is popular at the time. For example, they suggest that scientists maintain an online account of news and updates in the form or a blog, tweets, and video blogging. They continue with the thought of transparency by saying that these updates should be detailed and include everything about the experiment and any criteria for detections. To avoid looking like fools, scientists should develop and maintain communication and media skills and establish “competence and trustworthiness” before any detection is announced. They should also be leery of their online footprint to keep themselves safe from any backlash.

If scientists believe they have found a detection, it should be published in a peer-review journal, and their data should be hosted online somewhere easy to find. The publication should be clearly worded, transparent, as to the authors’ confidence in their signal, and “an acknowledgement that until proved otherwise, the tentative signal should be assumed to be caused by natural or human-made phenomena.” (although Tabby’s star showed us that even such statements can simply be ignored when aliens are involved). The authors should then become and remain active in a global conversation regarding this potential discovery that goes beyond their colleagues and includes multiple disciplines.

Forgan & Schulz close their paper by saying that, if the detection is confirmed, the scientists should be committed to talk about this detection for the rest of their lives. Before they discuss this, though, they mention that, if the detection cannot be confirmed, the test “must publish a statement clearly stating that the signal cannot be confirmed to be of ETI origin.” While I generally agree with all of the statements the authors make, I completely and whole-heartedly agree with this one. I feel a lot of people are scared of losing face, and some might not want to give the world this update, that the signal cannot be confirmed. But it is a very important part of science, to acknowledge any short-comings of a discovery, and should be pursued even if there is potential backlash.

Before reading this paper (and then Gertz’s paper and then the First Protocol), I had never thought about what protocol SETI scientists or scientists in general should follow, and any thoughts I might have had probably would not have included such a public online footprint. But I agree with the authors that transparency (which requires being public and clear about everything) is key to any announcement related to SETI, a field that has been disregarded as psuedo-science for the last few decades but a field in which any positive discovery would change the world.


How immutable are our social media consumption habits? Very few people would argue that immutable and social media should even be in the same sentence, except perhaps in that electronic paper trail that we leave behind us (“once it’s out on the internet you can never take it back!”). Vine, YikYak, and MySpace are just a few of the corpses that litter the social media platform floor.

With all of this in mind, #FoundThem, Duncan Forgan and Alexander Scholz’s paper about having SETI announcements keep pace with modern news consumption habits, is at once necessary and illuminating and simultaneously overly optimistic and prey to its own criticisms.

The authors consider the very important problem of public outreach and media image at a depth that most SETI scientists probably don’t think about. They argue that being aware of SETI’s perception in the media and taking active steps to prevent misunderstandings, preempt leaks, combat misreporting, and discourage sensationalism are a fundamental part of doing SETI science, and that proper protocols should be established and followed in this vein. It’s hard to argue with the sense in that!

But the execution of the idea would certainly be hard to pull off. Convincing scientists to coherently and publicly write about their methods before a search is even conducted seems whimsical at best. Old habits die hard, and changing the career habits of a generation of scientists is probably impossible. There’s an overriding fear of being scooped (see the 2003 EL61 incident) that makes some scientists wary of public information. And then there’s just the natural non-linearity that comes from being scatterbrained and/or busy and/or having organically evolving projects.

The authors argue that news is changing and that social media platforms will come and go. They give examples of Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo in their final section summarizing their proposed protocols. There are so many questions that this raises for me. The authors admit that the platforms are changing, but implicitly assume that, more generally, video publishing, “microblogging”, and medium to long form blogs will maintain popularity. I don’t have a good sense for how good an assumption that is, but perhaps they should’ve kept their suggestions more general, such that their paper will be relevant for longer.

In addition, the form of the content is not well discussed. Should these platforms be utilized to leave a publicly accessible research blog, polished and written for a general audience? Or just research notes, to leave a nice trail of proof but without the humor and shine* that you might include in a piece that’s actually meant to get “likes” and “retweets” and “views” and “shares”? Or just a video of a scientist at a desk, reciting the day’s progress in a jargon-y monotone? All of them require additional time which will not be spent doing science, some far more than others.

Suggesting that the journalists clean up their act instead seems disingenuous – like shifting the burden because we SETI practitioners don’t want to deal with it. At the same time, however, I feel like the most meticulously kept blog will fall like a domino in front of a single determined journalist with a sensationalist pen. Raise your hand if you’ve seen the Rio Scale used in an article (or even heard of the Rio Scale). My point exactly. Even if we could be as careful and involved with outreach as the authors suggest, the root of the problem might be deeper than a familiarity with WordPress can cure.

*some authors are probably incapable of humor and shine – what should they do in this case?

The Dangers of Sensationalism

I am very critical of yellow journalism, especially when it comes to the topic of the burgeoning search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It seems that in order to draw more traffic to their domains, journalists are often incentivized to throw in more buzzwords or sensational misrepresentations of the primary message of their interviewees. In this department, Andersen’s article in The Atlantic fares moderately well in that he does not go headlong into sensation (though he does participate to some degree, as we shall see). The article provides decent exposition on the astronomical techniques used in the detection of exoplanets and an account of the events regarding Tabby’s star as they unfolded. My primary qualm with the presentation was that they emboldened and enlarged a paraphrase of a quote from Prof. Jason Wright, which seemed to distract from his main message (My secondary qualm is that in their last sentence they suggeste that Tabby’s star might see Earth transit, but the declination of Kepler field stars places them well beyond the range of the Earth transit zone). In the paragraph text, he says: “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider.” This is what most certainly, if any, should have been emboldened and enlarged. Instead they chose: “… it looked like [something] you might expect an alien civilization to build.” To the lay person who might only read the article in brief and without skeptically-trained eyes, they may come across this latter phrase and then go on to tell all their friends and family a false truth regarding Tabby’s Star due to this choice of emphasis. This is obviously dangerous to the representation of SETI and astronomy in general, and may tarnish the reputation of the field and the authors consulted. I would strongly admonish any deviation from a purely accurate representation of the ideas and phrases of a scientist, especially so in this area. Therefore, it is the role of the scientist to effectively explain the subtlety of their position to the journalist and the role of the journalist to reflect such a position with fidelity in the popular article.