Unimportant Truths

The universe is so vast, so immense, so fantastic that there must be other forms of life on one or more of the billions of planets around the billions of stars… somewhere.

You have probably heard something like this before, or just as likely, you may have said it, however this statement has driven many people in a weirdly non logical direction

Before I explain why, let me first cover myself: I have said the above statement before. I still often say it. I say it to my students, to friends, even to family. I think the idea of extraterrestrial life is a stunning concept. It seems logical, hopeful, amazingly fantastic to imagine and I do truly believe it… which is its flaw, it is a belief.

Science is an amazing way of thinking about the world. It essentially is a way of analysing observations and drawing conclusions. Here is an example of science in action:

That was one very important baby.

Gerry sees a shooting star that goes towards the next village before disappearing, the next day Gerry hears about a baby being born in that village. From the two observations he generates a hypothesis, that shooting stars direct you to new babies being born.

The next night he sets out to prove his hypothesis, he waits patiently until a shooting star appears then travels in the direction the streak disappeared towards. He discovers ababy was born two villages over, making his hypothesis confirmed. However he also hears of another baby born in a different village, one that had no shooting stars point to. He adjusts his hypothesis so that it states that shooting stars direct you to some new babies, but not all new babies.

Over the course of the year Gerry record hundreds of shooting stars and comes to a conclusion. Shooting stars do not always direct to a baby being born in the nearby vicinity. Either they are something else, or there are way more villages over the horizon and babies being born that he realises.

You may be reading that and thinking Gerry is an idiot… no, he is not. he has conducted a scientific experiment by collecting data and drawing conclusions. You might also be thinking that is superstitious and mythical. Perhaps, but lets look at the extraterrestrial idea:

Jerry observes life on a planet he calls ‘Earth’. This planet has ideal components for life there. He concludes therefore that planets must have life.

A desert of dead planets

Jerry sets out to look at other planets. he finds that other planets n the solar system do not have life. he looks in other star systems and finds the same thing. Jerry alters his hypothesis to  state that some planets have life, but not all of them.

Over the course of his life Jerry looks at lots of planets and concludes that planets often do not have life. He determines that there are way more planets he has not seen.

Jerry is not superstitious or mythical is he? Nah of course not, after all, he bases his conclusion on… well exactly the same thing as Gerry. They both conclude that their hypothesis is somewhat correct presuming that they lack a decent sample pool. Gerry requires a map of all the villages around the world with a up to date birth list and Jerry requires information on all the planets in the universe?

A reasonable person would now argue that Jerry makes more sense because he has potentially infinite opportunities, and infinite opportunities suggest it is indeed possible. However Gerry is not actually wrong. In fact statistically on a spherically shaped planet of 7 billion people, shooting stars would indeed point in the direction of a village that has a new baby birth, you just have to travel far enough over the horizon (which on a sphere is infinite distance away).

So who is more likely to be right?

Gerry is.

The reason is that Jerry lacks enough evidence to prove his point about planets. In fact he has a sample size of 1 out of infinity. As opposed to Gerry who has at least 2 out of infinity form that story, and potentially more depending on how many villages he reached.

This has important implications on how we treat science, and the answer is that in science we hold “beliefs”. I am confident that most readers (probably all) realise that Gerry is not accurate in his explanation and we can classify this as a belief. but what about Jerry? If Gerry had a greater chance of being accurate, then should not Jerry be less so?

Enter the flaw of science: Human belief.

Scientific discovery relies on our belief. I am not aware of anyone spending billions of dollars to prove Gerry correct, but we are spending billions of dollars on proving Jerry correct. The reason is that to many people “discovering an extraterrestrial being would change out perspective on the universe forever”. But would it? If statistics on this planet are anything to go by then intelligent life is highly unlikely. Earth has had human “civilisation” (using the term based upon use of fire) for about 1,800,000 years (of 3.5 billion years), about 0.051% the time of life on Earth. So most likely if we find life we have a 99.949% chance it would be at a point before becoming “civilised”. Therefore the likelyhood is that it would be as fundamental at changing our view on the universe is unlikely and as important to humanity as discovering a new fungus growing between our toes… actually I would be more interested in the fungus because it is a danger to me.

“But 0.05 or above is statistically insignificant!!!”

Oh, you are a smart little… uh, yeah. That is true. SO it is not good enough to completely write off statistically, but I said “unlikely”, not impossible. Realise that just a fraction of percent, such as determining life arose 0.3 billion years earlier (which is possible) would move the figure to the insignificant measure.

Let us presume we beat the odds and find an intelligent life. Now to talk to them with our best technology: electromagnetic waves that travel the speed of light. Presuming they can communicate in a similar way then the smallest time to get a return signal would be 9 years (if they lived around Proxima), which is reasonable when you think about the potential benefits for both us and them.  However, this also presumes we share a means of communicating and a dozen other variables… all of which together push that insignificant variable more into the insignificant zone.

So statistically therefore the chance of being able to communicate to an intelligent life is now statistically insignificant, statistically we are throwing pennies at… well… nothing. Therefore does it not make sense to push that investment to another area?
Interestingly, many fans of science say: “No”. This defies logic and goes against the evidence that is placed before them, it defies the very data that they have and flies in the face of how reality works. When such things deliberately fly in the face of data then it becomes a belief. People have believed more reasonable things in history, the idea of being able to communicate with and get anything relevant to us from extraterrestrials makes other historical beliefs look reasonable.

There are, however people who want to find unintelligent life on other planets, and dismiss the idea of finding intelligent life that is relevant to us. SO they set out to analyse exoplanets for oxygen to identify a living organism. This would seem a far more reasonable goal. So far, from observation, we identify that any planet with oxygen also has life. Ignoring the small sample size, we conclude that elemental oxygen has a 100% chance of showing presence of life. But of what use is this information?

Deserts can have life.

Presuming that we find oxygen atmosphere on a planet orbiting our next closest star then we would be facing a 30 plus year long trip for probes to get there and tell us about it… and that is just presuming life is there. For other stars it is more like a couple of centuries. Then once we find a planet occupied by a bunch of organisms then what advantage is this to us? By the time we identify such organisms we would have developed extremely well in genetics and biotechnology, making any knowledge of new organisms on another planet equivalent to finding a new spider under a rock in the Australian outback. The discovery of a new life form on another planet will spark the headlines for several years and generate millions of new pages in internet content, but will essentially do very little for the advancement of mankind. The invention of a new type of alloy or plastic (which is being done regularly) has far more impact, yet is hardly worth a mention in the news unless it breaks some record. And yet people seem to prioritise things like ‘extraterrestrials’… because they believe they are important. this is, however, the crucial element in science. belief is what pushes science forward.

In fact, the only relevant value of the existence of life on other planets has for us is whether we actually land on those planets. In which case we need to know if the flora and fauna is going to clash with our habitation, or if it is worth replacing the organisms with our own. Otherwise it is practically useless to a civilisation with extensive understanding of genetics and life.

When one believes in something strongly, whether it is belief in something or belief that there is not something, then they make a strong effort to generate a hypothesis and prove it with as much evidence as possible.

Take a religious belief for example. A Christian believes their religion is important and so makes an effort to prove it using the Bible, a collection of works from various sources. Likewise a Muslim who believes their religion is important will point to the Quran as proof. While these ‘proofs’ may not be sufficient for some, it is the evidence they have available and as such is why they spend lots of time studying their texts to try and understand it the best possible. Universities were actually set up partially to do exactly that, theology was standard study for a university student 200 years ago, along side science, philosophy and any other subject.

In the case of Gerry, the “shooting-star-leads-to-baby” guy, he believed that his hypothesis was somehow important and so pushed himself to gather evidence. Likewise Jerry does the same. This is not to say they believed that their hypothesis was correct, rather that they believed it was important. It is not really important that shooting stars direct you to babies being born, at least not to a huge significance (perhaps as a great way to determine approximate population growth). It is, likewise, as I explain above, not really important to find life on other planets (at least not until we actually get there).

Lets think about if we did not believe in things. Let us presume we just do the same thing every day with no belief in anything in particular. Without belief in anything we do not try to find out things we do not know… because we do not believe in them. Lets  look at Jerri, a third man:

Jerri observes that one of his pot plants has more foliage, are greener, and taller when near the window. Jerri makes a hypothesis that this individual plant grows better and is sitting next to a window.

He accepts this fact and goes eats dinner.

Jerri has no belief that this effect would extend to other plants, nor does he have a belief that being near the window might be doing something for the plant. He just accepts it and moves on. The scientific process is broken.

Many people do not like the idea that belief plays an important part in science. They like to accept it as absolutely true fact… and this is correct. However in order to arrive at that true fact there has to be an extension of belief. The problem comes not when we believe, but when we continue to believe in something when the data indicate otherwise.

Science thrives on belief, if we treasure that belief and hope in what could be then we discover what is.


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