The Scientific Search For Extraterrestrials

Over at the Huffington Post I came across a series of articles related to aliens and thought it would be fun to keep up with the latest trending and see how much success there’s been. Now, as much of a sci-fi fan as I am, and as much as I love the concept of space exploration and cool technologies, I can’t help but notice how lost science has become in this particular arena. The scientific community seems to have lost its sense of priorities, and is focusing on the trivial.

One article proclaims, Mars: It’s All About the Life. Another tells us Why We Need To Be Prepared to Leave Planet Earth. And the third explains Why the Aliens Want Earth.

Why so much buzz about aliens? And why do scientists take it so seriously, especially when those who claim to have seen aliens (or have been abducted) aren’t taken seriously? I think there are plenty of reasons, but how many of them are compelling?

It used to be that those who believed in aliens and alien encounters were thought of as being on the fringe- crackpots, kooks, lunatics. But now, especially within the scientific community, the opposite is the case… those who don’t believe in extraterrestrial life are considered the oddballs, and there’s a lot of animosity towards unbelievers who refuse to wear tinfoil hats. Case-in-point, creationist Ken Ham recently came under fire for expressing his opinion about aliens and his lack of belief in them. He was accused of wanting to defund NASA and the search for extraterrestrial life, and he supposedly said that, even if aliens existed, they would go to hell. On the contrary, Ham never said any of this. He did say that he was “shocked at the countless hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent over the years in the desperate and fruitless search for extraterrestrial life.” And he did say that aliens- if they did exist- couldn’t achieve salvation, but he stopped short of saying they would go to hell. Most atheists would probably agree that aliens can’t achieve salvation, yet they were all fired-up. Ham was also targeted because he came across as certain about his beliefs, while science, they claim, isn’t about certainty or absolutes- it’s about a constantly changing world where we’re updating what we know. Therefore, anyone who speaks in absolutes doesn’t understand science… or the concept of evolution.

But the problem with that line of thinking is that, while science may not deal with absolutes (in theory), that’s not how it works in practice. Going back to the article, Why the Aliens Want Earth, such a statement isn’t exactly scientific because it implies that aliens absolutely and certainly exist. Yet, instead of receiving criticism, the article was met with applause. There’s no question that aliens exist in their minds; it’s just a matter of figuring out what would motivate creatures from other worlds to suffer a journey of billions and trillions of miles to come to our planet. Do they want our water, resources, a new home, or just to hunt?

The next article, Mars: It’s All About the Life, tells us that “Life on Mars is inevitable.” The author, Chris Carberry, defends this statement by saying his belief is based firmly in the realm of reality. He claims that humanity will definitively determine whether indigenous life exists or ever existed on Mars, or the human missions to Mars will begin. So, in fairness, he’s not really claiming that alien life definitely exists on Mars, but that something living will exist on Mars at some point- even if that life is human. But, once again, the author is making an absolute statement, something that those who understand science should never do (or so we’re told). While it seems that our technology and determination will inevitably take us to Mars, there’s nothing certain about it. We may overcome the many challenges awaiting us, but there are no guarantees. Still, the author insists that the search for life on Mars should be an international priority- even though there’s a tremendous amount of evidence suggesting that there is no life on Mars, or anywhere else in the universe.

NASA, for example, has had numerous missions to the moon, Mars, and other planets, yet we’ve discovered nothing but barren wasteland. We’ve even failed to find methane on Mars– supposedly evidence of life. And we certainly haven’t detected any type of signals from other worlds trying to contact us.

The last article, Why We Need To Be Prepared To Leave Planet Earth, is more of a doom-and-gloom article, suggesting that we need to begin space exploration and colonize other worlds because of the many threats to human survival. Mankind has wounded nature, and many lives are being lost. There’s always the threat of nuclear war, and natural disasters threaten our extinction. We are exposed to floods, earthquakes, asteroids, viruses, disease, crime, weapons, war, famine, etc. Of course the article implies with certainty that we’re gonners, and, therefore, we must preserve our species and develop a spacefaring program to colonize space and other planets, moons and asteroids. And not doing so would be suicide. The article even claims that evolution is a fact.

Therefore, with all the certainty expressed in these articles about evolution and alien life, it’s odd, if not hypocritical, to condemn Ken Ham and other creationists as unscientific when those doing the criticizing are just as guilty. I guess it’s just a matter of perspective; evolutionists, in practice, will violate their own rules when it suits them, but are intolerant of others who do the same. The rules are strictly enforced against creationists, but evolutionists are welcome to violate those rules at whim. But the odd thing is that most of those who are offended don’t seem to be aware of their double-standard, even when it’s pointed out.

As for myself, I don’t believe that aliens exist, and I think that’s reasonable. Various polls suggest that only one-third to fifty percent of Americans believe in UFOs or aliens, so there’s no clear consensus on the matter. I just don’t find any compelling reason to believe that aliens exist, and I think there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Further, I see no Biblical evidence for their existence, even though many would point out that the Bible doesn’t explicitly exclude aliens from existing. I do find it interesting, however, that the pope has suggested that he’s not opposed to alien baptism. Hmmm.

In the meantime, the Mars rover, Curiosity, continues to plug away on its mission, exploring the Martian landscape, sampling the soil, drilling through rock, and sending photo images back to earth… all with no evidence of life. So I think we need to ask the question: could the millions and billions of dollars being spent on the search for extraterrestrials be better spent on more fruitful endeavors, such as medicine, technological advancements, and research that would benefit all mankind? I think it’s a reasonable question to ask… don’t you?

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6 thoughts on “The Scientific Search For Extraterrestrials

  1. It’s definitely a reasonable thing to ask, and I think valid arguments could be made against these missions. But those arguments are financial, not scientific. Still, they’re valid. Of course I would say that we shouldn’t have to choose. The amount of money we collectively spend as a species on war alone could probably fund all areas of scientific research well into the next century. I’d be willing to entertain the notion that we can’t afford it now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it in the future, which is what Ham seemed to be arguing.

    With regard to some of the points you’ve made, I’d like to add my two cents, particularly with regard to the notion of absolutes. I see nothing wrong with this duality. You can’t perform any scientific experiment of any sort without taking at least SOME things as absolutes. In fact, that’s how a lot of previously held scientific notions get upturned. No decisions that we make as logical human beings could be made without taking some things as absolutes. And finally, I would dispute this statement:

    “even though there’s a tremendous amount of evidence suggesting that there is no life on Mars, or anywhere else in the universe.”

    As of last year, Curiosity had driven approximately 1.6 km since it landed. These rovers explore but a teeny tiny fraction of a planets surface, let alone its crust. I don’t think that’s enough evidence to conclude that there is no life on Mars or that there wasn’t millions of years ago.

    And that same teeny tiny principle applies even more to the rest of the universe. We’ve barely begun to explore the inner planets. There are plenty of moons within our own solar system that evidence suggests contain water. We just haven’t sent a rover to them. And that isn’t even mentioning all the exoplanets that exist in this galaxy alone of which we know absolutely nothing about. So it seems rather specious to claim that there is evidence that life doesn’t or never did exist anywhere in the entire cosmos.

    • Yes, a lot of the arguments against the search for aliens is financial, and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. But I’m not so sure that the “scientific” argument calls for a search for alien life. I think that argument is framed from the assumption that all life on earth evolved, and therefore it’s possible that life evolved elsewhere in the universe. But, if life didn’t evolve on earth, then life didn’t need to evolve or exist anywhere else in the universe. And I think that’s what Ken Ham was arguing. Why waste all that money for the sake of sustaining a particular worldview that will bear no fruit, especially when more worthwhile pursuits remain viable?

      I appreciate your comments on absolutes and tend to agree. But if you agree that there are SOME things we can talk scientifically about absolutes, then that further justifies Ken Ham’s statements.

      I completely understand your argument about the Mars rover, but my point about the tremendous amount of evidence against alien life is due to ALL the space exploration we’ve done. We’ve had many opportunities to locate alien life, and none of our efforts have turned up anything remotely positive. The best evidence for the existence of alien life is the philosophy that “if life evolved on earth, it must have evolved elsewhere.”

      And my claim that there’s no evidence that life doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe rests in a counter-philosophy; namely that we’ll find more of the same. The same results that we’ve had on the moon and Mars will be replicated everywhere we go.

  2. Hey Jon!

    A couple thoughts:

    First, there is a great essay by C.S. Lewis called “Religion and Rocketry” that addresses questions of their existence and fallen vs. unfallen nature. You can actually find the text here: http://archive.org/stream/worldslastnighta012859mbp/worldslastnighta012859mbp_djvu.txt

    It is toward the bottom. I think you are right on in saying the Bible doesn’t preclude the existence of life elsewhere in the universe, and this essay gives tremendous food for thought.

    Second: I think categorizing NASA’s Curiosity rover mission as having a goal or purpose of looking for alien life is incorrect. NASA’s current slew of spacecraft on and around Mars (one just arrived last night!) is primarily concerned with the presence, amount, and history of water on Mars. While one possible inference from this is the likelihood of life on Mars in the past or present, these are information-gathering missions that provide us with more data about our solar system. The conclusions that people draw from that data ( and the author of the article you read certainly did this) are outside of the stated goal and day-to-day operations of these missions.

    Third: in this light, I think your concluding question in the post is still valid, but we need to draw a clear distinction between money devoted to a search for ET and that devoted to simply exploring space. The SETI institute (which is non-profit and receives most of its $2.5 million budget from private investors) is definitely all about looking for signals from other civilizations.
    NASA, with a taxpayer-funded budget of roughly $18 billion, does not actively search out alien life, and is chiefly concerned with gathering information about our universe.

    Now, can the question still be posed about the use of $18 billion? Absolutely. But let’s first consider the amount we are talking about. Americans spend more money than that on coffee every year. The numbers seem huge, but keep in mind the total amount of federal funding. The federal defense budget is over $600 billion. Now, I am certainly not calling for zero defense budget and to pour it all into NASA. But NASA’s budget is a drop in the bucket.

    It was unclear whether you were calling for NASA’s money to be spent more wisely or for their funding to be cut and other agencies to make medical and technological advancements. To the former I would argue they already are making advancements and increasing our understanding of the universe, and to the latter I would wonder why we should take that money from NASA instead of from agencies and programs that are actually over-funded instead of an agency that is woefully under-funded.

    • Thanks Nick, I’ll have to give that a read. I do have a lot of respect for C.S. Lewis, so I’m interested in what he has to say. I’ve found that I have plenty of disagreements with him, but I do love the work he’s done.

      As for whether or not NASA has a goal or purpose of looking for alien life, I wrote an article addressing just that: https://sixdaysblog.com/2012/08/10/curiosity-rover/

      According to NASA, their objective was to ““Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.” And the overarching science goal of the mission is to “assess whether the landing area has ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable to microbial life, both its habitability and its preservation.”

      And according to their fact sheet, “Within the first eight months of a planned 23-month primary mission, Curiosity met its major objective of finding evidence of a past environment well suited to supporting microbial life.” http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/fact_sheets/mars-science-laboratory.pdf

      I also compared and contrasted the mission to the Viking program and Sojourner. Viking also had a goal to search for evidence of life on Mars, while Sojourner had no such goal.

      Curiosty may primarily be concerned with the presence, amount, and history of water on Mars, and if that’s so, then that’s great! I’m all for real science being conducted on these missions, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But we can’t escape their other stated goals as well, and those are what concern me. Are we wasting money that can be better spent? Are we losing focus as a nation? I hope not.

      I may not have been clear as to what I was advocating, but I’m a big fan of NASA, space exploration, astronomy, and anything that has to do with space. I’ve even listened to some of the work you’ve done with astronomy and the planetarium, and really love what you’re doing- keep it up! I also think you did a great job of putting the money into perspective, however, I’d still like to see the money be spent wisely. I think America benefits greatly when real science is done, and that’s what I’m advocating.

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