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:
James 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
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