CSIRO [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We Must Trust Science or Die Like E.T.

Dec 19, 2016

In June 2016, astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote in the New York Times, “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.” His story follows the discoveries of one frontier of astronomy, exoplanet research, which seeks to find and describe planets around stars other than our sun.   

His conclusion? While we see no evidence for intelligent life anywhere, it’s virtually certain that it has been there, somewhere, in the past. But why is there no evidence? Strangely, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, as a symptom of a growing global epidemic of reactionary conservatism, puts one sobering possibility into stark relief.

Maybe intelligent life is fairly common, but kills itself before becoming spacefaring.

In the parlance of the Fermi Paradox—which asks why we see no advanced civilizations when they should be common—some combination of our own cleverness, stupidity, and hubris may be a “Great Filter.” That is, the ingredients that enable an advanced civilization to become intelligent enough to achieve space travel may form a tight bottleneck preventing its emergence. In other words, perhaps we don’t see aliens because the incremental process of evolution generates intelligent life not quite smart enough to avoid its own destruction.

Consider, for example, the staggering number of near-misses we’ve had with our nuclear arsenal. We accidentally lost nuclear warheads, had one fall into a backyard in South Carolina by mistake, and, in 1960, misread the rising of the moon as a possible incoming Soviet missile attack. Any of those events, especially the last, could have easily triggered a global calamity during the Cold War. In the last case, The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) identified the rising moon over Norway as a 99.9 percent certitude of an incoming nuclear attack, and a presumptive retaliation could have halted humanity’s adventure on Earth.

That snap decision had to be made in minutes by grossly misinformed personnel controlling the most fearsome power possessed by humanity. We were lucky.

Now, however, we’ve elected to the presidency someone who has given us repeated indications that he will treat our nuclear arsenal with nothing short of reckless, casual irresponsibility. “Why do we make them [if not to use them]?” he mused in a conversation with journalist Chris Matthews.

Climate change presents another example of our demonstrated capacity to destroy ourselves. The overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that it that climate change represents an existential threat, one that could completely ruin civilization or drive humanity to extinction.

We’re told we have only a few years to bring atmospheric carbon levels down, if it remains possible to do anything at all. Meanwhile, governments cannot reach consensus on a solution, our democratic institutions are seized by a denialist panic that categorically rejects scientific consensus, and President-Elect Trump has announced that renegade climate skeptic Myron Ebell will head the Environmental Protection Agency.

These issues represent a complete failure to prioritize our problems. We’ve privileged political and economic concerns at posterity’s expense. Trump’s election is a symptom of that failure, but it has a solution. We have thoughtful, informed experts who have marshalled our resources and cracked open the atom, doubled the average human lifespan, and built our society to the point where it could annihilate itself or prove itself resilient and intelligent enough not to.

But not everyone is an expert, and so another social force—trust—is the crucial ingredient. To survive we have exactly one option. We must trust science. We must listen to experts. Yes, there may have been aliens, but we see no evidence of their existence. We should heed the warning.


About the authors:

img_20150926_171011-2James A. Lindsay holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, has a background in physics, and is the author of four books, including Everybody Is Wrong About God and Life in Light of Death. Twitter: @GodDoesnt

 

 

 

peterb

Peter Boghossian is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. Twitter: @peterboghossian

15 comments on “We Must Trust Science or Die Like E.T.

  • His conclusion? While we see no evidence for intelligent life
    anywhere, it’s virtually certain that it has been there, somewhere, in
    the past. But why is there no evidence?

    This doesn’t sound like science, but more like personal opinion. If there is little to no evidence, then it can’t be “virtually certain” that intelligent life has been there. It’s just as reasonable to suppose that it never occurred anywhere else, simply because it was far too improbable to occur more than once in the time elapsed so far.

    On our own planet, the number of species that have achieved civilization-level intelligence is one – possibly two or three if you include our extinct hominid cousins, like the Neanderthals – whereas the number of species that haven’t can be counted in millions. Compare that with, say, the number of species that have evolved eusociality, which is in the thousands, or the number that have evolved eyes, which is in the millions.

    And that’s only the current living species: the sheer number of extinct ones reduces Homo sapiens to an anomaly. That suggests there are formidable barriers to evolving civilization-level intelligence, such as an energy-inefficient high-power brain, a difficulty and lack of incentive in managing multiple social relationships, and an excessive dependence on esoteric external resources like fire, mined metals, and unusually intensive agriculture.

    While I concede it’s opinion rather than evidenced fact, I think it more parsimonious to conclude from this case study that civilization-level intelligence is rare not because it is self-destructive, but because it is nigh-impossible to evolve in the first place. Evolution is simply not interested in us.

  • If intelligent life snuffs itself out quickly, its still doesn’t answer the question. I believe the universe is crowded with life on its way to exterminating itself or arising. Organic matter is abundant and there is no reason why we should believe otherwise.
    I’m not sure how to define “intelligent” lately either.

  • Expertise is most certainly under threat from a global society newly and intensely crosswired for emotional consilience. The “like” button (which I just clicked above) and its little delivery of dopamine to its subject (though quite deserved in this case) may lie at the root of a catastrophic uptick in topical emotional howl-round.

    The new primacy of feelings especially in societies where wish thinking has yet to be reasonably restrained like the new proto-theocracy of the USA gets an important sequence entirely reversed.

    My feelings, therefore, my opinion, therefore, my acceptable facts and, thus, my science.

    Thought…

    Aspies, so long as they understood the wide variety of facts about other people’s feelings (which would help guard against them becoming libertarians) can help here.

  • Good grief, what has happened to this site since last I was here? The interface is clumsier than I remember. And what happened to all my old comments and posts?

  • Zeuglodon #1
    Dec 20, 2016 at 6:28 am

    Good to see you back!

    His conclusion? While we see no evidence for intelligent life
    anywhere, it’s virtually certain that it has been there, somewhere, in
    the past. But why is there no evidence?

    This doesn’t sound like science, but more like personal opinion. If there is little to no evidence, then it can’t be “virtually certain” that intelligent life has been there. It’s just as reasonable to suppose that it never occurred anywhere else, simply because it was far too improbable to occur more than once in the time elapsed so far.

    It certainly sounds like wishful thinking – which actively undermines the credibility of the argument which follows!

    On our own planet, the number of species that have achieved civilization-level intelligence is one – possibly two or three if you include our extinct hominid cousins, like the Neanderthals – whereas the number of species that haven’t can be counted in millions. Compare that with, say, the number of species that have evolved eusociality, which is in the thousands, or the number that have evolved eyes, which is in the millions.

    . . . . and that is before we even look at the rarity of the Earth-Moon System with its conditions maintained over millions of years for evolving life!
    A much more credible argument for looking after planet Earth, is the absence on any suitable back-up planets nearby!

  • Trump has promised to make the world uninhabitable with a nuclear war. For insurance, he is blocking all climate change abatement, and maximally burning fossil fuels. We are going from primitive space exploration to extinction is less than a century. Humans always do what they can do technologically whether or not it increases the risk of extinction. Why would any other intelligent species be different? To succeed, they would have to evolve intelligence much more slowly than we did.

  • Roedy #6
    Dec 22, 2016 at 6:13 am

    To succeed, they would have to evolve intelligence much more slowly than we did.

    I think anyone would struggle to find organisms which evolve intelligence slower than Trump’s team! 🙂

  • 8
    rocket888 says:

    Wasn’t it Paul Krugman (the conscience of a liberal) who said we’d be better off economically if we had an alien invasion?

    And how did this question morph into crying about Trump (yet again)? Just who is it that wants to blame Trump’s election on a country that has enough nukes to wipe out the planet? Trump might be the only way we avoid a nuclear war. Clearly Hillary could care less about peace.

    And don’t forget when her husband bombed innocent people to get his own scandal off the front page.

  • Wasn’t it Paul Krugman (the conscience of a liberal) who said we’d be better off economically if we had an alien invasion?

    Yeah, but they’d have to agree to do our gardens and clean the pool.

    Trump’s clearly missing a trick here.

    Seriously, cohering existential threats?… We gott’em.

    Recognising the enemy/threats, whilst profiting from them is possible by the rich, is our actual problem. Calm, now the parasites soothe and the emotionally panicked scream all the more and are held up to ridicule.

  • What’s truly at stake here is the universe’s chance to inquire its own nature. Humanity does not occupy any particularly special place in the cosmos, but we are special in one respect. Because of our lacking of a sagittal crest on our head, we have the most developed brain in the entire animal kingdom. With this, we can discover worlds and processes millions of light years away and billions of years ago. If we destroy ourselves, we may be destroying the most beautiful thing about a self-inquiring reality.

  • @BenLucas #10

    Never mind, there’ll be another one along somewhere else, some other time. It might get to be sufficiently smarter than us not to self-destruct.

    Not sure about the crest.

  • If the universe is going to compress itself soon, then we may have limited time. But you’re most likely right, there is probably more intelligent life out there, somewhere.

  • Ben Lucas #12
    Dec 25, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    If the universe is going to compress itself soon, then we may have limited time.

    Long before any significant changes in the the Universe take place, our Sun will move into its Red Giant Phase and cook the Earth!

    http://www.universetoday.com/12648/will-earth-survive-when-the-sun-becomes-a-red-giant/

    Approximately 1.1 billion years from now, the Sun will be 10% brighter than it is today. This increase in luminosity will also mean an increase in heat energy, one which the Earth’s atmosphere will absorb. This will trigger a runaway greenhouse effect that is similar to what turned Venus into the terrible hothouse it is today.

    In 3.5 billion years, the Sun will be 40% brighter than it is right now, which will cause the oceans to boil, the ice caps to permanently melt, and all water vapor in the atmosphere to be lost to space. Under these conditions, life as we know it will be unable to survive anywhere on the surface, and planet Earth will be fully transformed into another hot, dry world, just like Venus.

    In 5.4 billion years from now, the Sun will enter what is known as the Red Giant phase of its evolution. This will begin once all hydrogen is exhausted in the core and the inert helium ash that has built up there becomes unstable and collapses under its own weight. This will cause the core to heat up and get denser, causing the Sun to grow in size.

    It is calculated that the expanding Sun will grow large enough to encompass the orbit’s of Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth. Even if the Earth were to survive being consumed, its new proximity to the the intense heat of this red sun would scorch our planet and make it completely impossible for life to survive. However, astronomers have noted that as the Sun expands, the orbit of the planet’s is likely to change as well.

    When the Sun reaches this late stage in its stellar evolution, it will lose a tremendous amount of mass through powerful stellar winds. Basically, as it grows, it loses mass, causing the planets to spiral outwards. So the question is, will the expanding Sun overtake the planets spiraling outwards, or will Earth (and maybe even Venus) escape its grasp?

    K.-P Schroder and Robert Cannon Smith are two researchers who have addressed this very question. In a research paper entitled “Distant Future of the Sun and Earth Revisted” which appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, they ran the calculations with the most current models of stellar evolution.

    According to Schroder and Smith, when the Sun becomes a red giant star in 7.59 billion years, it will start to lose mass quickly. By the time it reaches its largest radius, 256 times its current size, it will be down to only 67% of its current mass. When the Sun does begin to expand, it will do so quickly, sweeping through the inner Solar System in just 5 million years.

    It will then enter its relatively brief (130 million year) helium-burning phase, at which point, it will expand past the orbit of Mercury, and then Venus. By the time it approaches the Earth, it will be losing 4.9 x 1020 tonnes of mass every year (8% the mass of the Earth).

    Now this is where things become a bit of a “good news/bad news” situation. The bad news, according to Schroder and Smith, is that the Earth will NOT survive the Sun’s expansion. Even though the Earth could expand to an orbit 50% more distant than where it is today (1.5 AUs), it won’t get the chance. The expanding Sun will engulf the Earth just before it reaches the tip of the red giant phase, and the Sun would still have another 0.25 AU and 500,000 years to grow.

    . . . . So if humans have not destroyed or exhausted the planet Earth before then, we really need to get going with a move for some of us to other star systems, if the human race wants to survive beyond this time!

  • If I had to pick the most evidenced, coherent and persuasive comment on this topic or any other topic on the RDF site, it would fall to Zeuglodon at #1. Great insights marvelously expressed.

  • There is too much fat to chew on in this article. As a thought experiment, I wonder how people would rank their individual concern for human survival on on a future time scale. Most of us sympathize with concern for the welfare of “my children and grandchildren,” but what happens to the intensity of that concern for children born 500 years, 5,000 years, 50,000 years from now. How is it rational to worry about the survival or extinction of “my” species or any other species at such a removal in cosmic time from our current life expectancy and that of our immediate successors.

    By way of pet Peeve, I wish people would stop talking about Trump starting a nuclear war. As unbalanced as he is, talking about his pushing the button is plain crazy.

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