SETI and CSICOP - Strange Bedfellows

Over recent months, it has become plain that an odd alliance has been created between the ultra-skeptical organisation CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) - since renamed CSI - and the leaders in SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The SETI Institute's weekly radio program "Are We Alone" is now heavily flavoured toward skeptical subjects and guests (even to the point of having a 'Skeptical Sunday' feature), and their website proclaims outright that the show is produced in partnership with CSICOP and other skeptical organisations such as CFI (the Center For Inquiry). This has even led to some of the subject matter discussed not even being related to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (such as investigation of psychics).

Conversely, regular CSICOP commentators such as James Randi (no longer affiliated with the organisation, for reasons too detailed to explain here) have long advocated SETI and participation in the distributed computing effort SETI@home. 'Bad Astronomy' critic Phil Plait has a regular spot with SETI radio. Skeptical Inquirer has recently featured a critical article by Peter Schenkel regarding the search, which allowed no less than three responses to the critique by individuals such as SETI luminary Jill Tarter and astrobiologist David Darling. While the balance of articles suggests that there is some tension within CSICOP as to the validity of SETI, it also is astounding in comparison to the one-sided attacks (with no responses) on other topics that are usually seen in the magazine.

Why does James Randi not offer a million dollar prize for SETI to prove that there is truly an alien intelligence out there, with criticism of the funding that has been provided to them? Simply because he thinks it likely that there is 'someone' out there. Parapsychology research has provided far more positive results than SETI (see the Dean Radin interview in this issue), with as huge implications for our paradigm, but he regularly savages anyone who dares to ask the question of whether psi effects exist, and finds the idea of funding such studies outrageous.

CSICOP's collaboration with SETI, and accompanying lack of criticism (apart from Schenkel's article), stands in contrast to other critical views gaining momentum. Historian George Basalla, in his book Civilized Life in the Universe, takes SETI to task for fifty years of failure. In his view, SETI is popular because of its quasi-religious features; perhaps there are benevolent 'beings' out there, more advanced than us, who have wondrous things to show us (it's interesting to note the lack of concern in SETI circles about the dangers posed by contacting an alien civilisation). He also notes the cultural assumptions we have made at various points throughout history about possible alien races, and uses this as a mirror to point out the ethnocentric blindness through which today's SETI scientists "believe that extraterrestrial civilizations construct radio telescopes."

Basalla's point has been well made previously by Terence McKenna, who noted that "to search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant." SETI's Seth Shostak has made the highly positive analogy that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we are like Columbus sailing into uncharted waters. Perhaps, considering current search strategies, we are more akin to Columbus standing on the coast of Europe throwing pebbles into the ocean, waiting for Native Americans to see the ripples and answer back via the same method.

In ABC's 2005 feature "Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs - Seeing is Believing", both Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak provided a skeptical counterpoint to ufology (Tarter is a CSICOP fellow). "If we claim something, there will be data to back it up," Tarter says in the program. Ironically, Tarter –- the current director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, and one of the pioneers of research in the area - was the 'model' for the character of astronomer Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact (and played in the movie version by Jodie Foster). Those familiar with the story will remember that it ends with a twist, in which the rationalist atheist character of Arroway is placed in the position of believing in something for which she has no empirical evidence – alien contact – based solely on her own totally convincing experience.

This is a worthwhile sidenote to keep in mind. Turning once again to Terence McKenna, we should remember to avoid anthropocentric thinking, and keep our minds open (while obviously thinking critically) to other methods of contact from ‘intelligences’. SETI, says McKenna, has been “chosen as the avenue by which it is assumed contact is likely to occur. Meanwhile, there are people all over the world - psychics, shamans, mystics, schizophrenics - whose heads are filled with information, but it has been ruled a priori irrelevant, incoherent, or mad. Only that which is validated through consensus via certain sanctioned instrumentalities will be accepted as a signal.”

So should we abolish SETI? I don’t think so; actually I’m actually a fan. It’s ideal is a worthwhile one, reaching out beyond our isolation to communicate with anyone else who might be out there. Remembering what the acronym actually stands for, my only suggestion would be that SETI stop lying down with close-minded inquisitors, and start broadening their horizons by entering into a dialogue with scientists out there who share SETI’s ethos, but are willing to look outside the paradigm for answers.

This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of Sub Rosa magazine (free PDF download).