The Extraterrestrial Debate Rages On

Sigh…another day, another research paper trying to convince the world that we are alone in the universe…

I came across a post last night on The Daily Galaxy discussing a paper that was published last summer by David Spiegel with Princeton University and Edwin Turner with the University of Tokyo entitled, Bayesian analysis of the astrobiological implications of life’s early emergence on Earth.

PDF Download HERE.

Jeez, where to begin?

To be fair, Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Turner do not state that we are alone in the cosmos with 100% certainty. They do however imply via the Bayesian statistical framework used that our own existence does not automatically translate to a high probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere.

Umm, okay so what else is new?

Not to demean the statistical probability that among the multi-quintillion planets in the known universe, it is almost a mathematical certainty that life beyond our own exists, doesn’t common sense factor in here somewhere as the fine folks at the Daily Galaxy (love them by the way) indicate? Or does common sense have no place in science whatsoever when we focus on this topic?

Consider for a moment the seemingly lack of common sense we witness daily in policy-making in Washington. Do we really want this to apply to astronomy/cosmology/space research? Have we learned nothing at all during our time on this planet or will anthropocentrism continue to rear its’ ugly head until the end of our existence?

And more importantly (and the point of this post), why do some feel compelled to change the opinions of the rest of us with no irrefutable proof? Note that I’m not implying that this was the intent of Mr. Spiegel or Mr. Turner but rather, am asking this question within the context of this post.

Science is about the observable. Scientific methodology requires that we test theories based on observed or predicted facts. This leads to discovery. I get it…I really do.

What I don’t get is why there are those that try to convince the rest of us that extraterrestrials do or don’t exist with inconclusive or incomplete evidence. There are always going to be those that try to prove/disprove the Fermi Paradox, Drake equation, etc. Have at it! And perhaps the findings of Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Turner are valuable to some (although I fail to see how). If you want to debate whether extraterrestrials exist or don’t exist with someone, I’m your guy! But don’t try to convince me that I’m wrong about what I believe unless you have an actual E.T. to show me or you’ve personally traveled every inch of the known universe and can conclusively prove that no life is out there. In other words, stop wasting your time with studies that don’t prove a damn thing and certainly have no effect on my beliefs!

My view on this matter is that there are only two outcomes: either we will discover intelligent life beyond our own, or we as a species will die out (whichever comes first). We will never as humans unite in agreement on this matter until we prove conclusively that we are alone in the universe. And that will never happen because our planet will die long before we are able to ascertain this with 100% certainty. The universe is simply too vast. Therefore to continue trying to change each other’s mind is a waste of time is it not? Doesn’t it make more sense to continue with space exploration while increasing our knowledge of the universe instead? Only with greater understanding and knowledge can we progress toward a definitive answer on this matter. If there is intelligent life out there, perhaps we will discover it (or they will come to us) during the discovery process while finally putting an end to the incessant debate.

I have no illusion that my opinion (and this post is exactly that) will change a thing. No doubt there is at least one individual working on a paper somewhere that will contradict the findings of Mr. Speigel and Mr. Turner. But to what end? What’s the point?

Perhaps it’s time to stop wasting time trying to convince each other that we’re right or wrong – we will never all agree anyway until a definitive answer has been concluded – and instead focus our efforts on realistic objectives and achievable outcomes. Only by doing so will we ever have a chance of finding a definitive answer to the question of intelligent life beyond our own.

Of course there’s always the alternative. We can learn nothing from the past several hundred years, continue wasting time/effort with this pointless banter while marching toward extinction, all while missing the opportunity to actually discover the truth. What a tragedy that would be.

What is your opinion on this subject? Do scientists, politicians, or even religious leaders have an obligation to convince the rest of us that we are the only intelligent beings in the universe (or vice-versa)? I’d love to hear your thoughts, input, etc. Thanks for “hearing” me out on this.

Spiegel, D., & Turner, E. (2011). Bayesian analysis of the astrobiological implications of life’s early emergence on Earth Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (2), 395-400 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1111694108

The Daily Galaxy –Great Discoveries Channel: Sci, Space, Tech. (2012, February 23). Ignoring 500 Billion Galaxies: Mathematics vs Common Sense in the Debate About the Probability of Extraterrestrial Life. Retrieved February 24, 2012, from

Image Credit:

  • Alan Emery (@KIVUNature)

    That there is no extraterrestrial life is not a very testable hypothesis, because even if we test 10,000 planets and none have extraterrestrial life, nothing is proven or disproven — there is always another planet to look at. On the other hand, one can test the hypothesis that there is no life in the universe. That hypothesis fails because we are alive. Ergo it is possible to have life in the universe.

    As I understand it the hypothesis that is actually being tested is: a) given that life exists in the universe, if we find other situations where life could exist beyond our planet, then the probability life could exist elsewhere in the universe depends on the probability of spontaneous generation of life given the right conditions.

    It is beginning to look like it is pretty close to inevitable that situations where life could exist will be found given recent discoveries. So the real question is more likely going to centre on the probability associated with the spontaneous generation of life given the right conditions. That we can test here at home. That answer will define the number of planets we need to find with the right conditions to more-or-less guarantee spontaneous life.

  • spacecolonizer

    I have a couple of things to say.

    Firstly, I agree that this matter will never be settled by debate alone.

    But, secondly, there is a reason to argue the probability of life, and intelligence on other planets because that does have an impact on a real world situation. Think of all the money that goes into SETI and other such efforts. Trying to determine if that money is being squandered is not a needlessly futile discussion. Wouldn’t some people rather see that money spent on advancing human space efforts (either human or robotic. don’t want to be launching THAT debate here)? If you DO think there is intelligence beyond ours in this galaxy, and you thinking listening/talking to the cosmos can prove it, then you might want that money spent on SETI. If you DON’T think there is, or that listening/talking can’t prove it, you would rather see that money spent elsewhere. So having the discussion and trying to convince others of your position is not futile, since it has a real world impact on how that money is spent and what value it brings to humanity.

  • unastronomer

    Great input/thoughts @Alan and @spacecolonizer. Thanks for the dialog and I hope you’ll continue to visit the blog. Glad to have you here!

  • Ashcroft Observatory

    “Of course there’s always the alternative. We can learn nothing from the past several hundred years, continue wasting time/effort with this pointless banter while marching toward extinction, all while missing the opportunity to actually discover the truth. What a tragedy that would be.”

    Why do you think banter is pointless? And define “truth”.

    If the ‘truth’ of extraterrestrial life is unknowable (and I’m guessing it is since space is REALLY big), forming an opinion based on observation and reasoning, like the Copernican Principle or Fermi’s Paradox, isn’t pointless – it’s the next best thing. It isn’t ideal, I’ll give you that, but it isn’t pointless.

    And we’re going to be extinct someday no matter what – pointless banter or no.

  • unastronomer

    Great questions. I say “pointless banter” because we as a society have been arguing this question (whether we are alone or not) for hundreds of years and nothing has changed due to a lack of indisputable evidence. More to the point of this post, we’ve had others try to convince us that we’re wrong – again with a lack of indisputable evidence – for hundreds of years (church, science, etc.). That is what I was referring to….pointless (IMHO). I can tell you the earth is really square using faulty logic but that doesn’t make me right nor does it change anyone’s opinion. I’m so glad to have your participation on here. GREAT insights/input!

Post Navigation