Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ready, SETI, Go

So MT asks how much money ought we be spending on SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This is a very interesting one.

On the one hand, should it be successful and finds real evidence of other intelligent beings in the universe it would be an incredible change in the way we view reality. It may not affect what or how we do science, but it would force a major adjustment in how we see the universe. When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, he universe became a different place to live in. The earth-centered/sun-centered debate was the tastes great/less filling argument of its time and was thought to be the exclusive property of parlor discussions. Suddenly, we have undeniable proof that not everything can be held to go around the earth. Seeing a human being on the face of the moon changed our worldview because no longer was out there, out there. We could go there and that changed how we looked at the universe. In the same way, success from SETI would radically change what out there mans to us, it would change what it means to be in the universe, and it would change what it means to be human. Never mind the theological issues, just knowing that someone up there is trying to reach out and touch someone would reorient our collective consciousness in incredible ways.

At the same time, the search takes money that could be used to make differences in real lives on earth. Resources are scarce. How many other uses that have a much better chance of making a real difference are we willing to set aside for a "boy, wouldn't it be really fucking cool if..." sort of endeavor?

These resources could go to scientific or non-scientific uses. Non-scientifically, there are a lot of problems that need dealing with. I'm coming off of a sabbatical that I hoped would be longer, but I was unable to secure a grant. Much of the grant money is geared towards finding solutions to hunger, poverty, disease, social injustice and I found myself, not exactly happy but not upset either that money wasn't going towards my philosophical project, no matter how important it seems to me or my intellectual community when real human suffering could be addressed.

But even if that money is earmarked to scientific work, there are more pressing and important scientific needs. In grad school, I took a general relativity course with Dick Henry at Hopkins. He's an astronomer, not a physicist, but he's also the grant guy there. We were talking about Francis Everett's gravity probe B, a test of a prediction of general relativity that could now be directly tested. A successful test would be a major victory for Einstein's theory, a theory that no one today doubts. The conversation was whether this money should go to something that would finally nail the case or whether it should go for something that could open the next chapter. There are a lot of scientists who struggle from grant to grant -- why should we be spending money on something that would in no way break new ground?

The move that often gets made, especially when the similar conversation about manned space flight takes place, is the utilitarian line that our efforts are rewarded with technological advances that impact life in other ways. We need to spend a boatload of cash trying to get to Mars because of unnamed technological advances that are sure to result. This line has never impressed me. If that money was used to fund basic research or education or or or how do we know that the results from these uses wouldn't produce a better world. But from SETI, we don't even have the promise of technological advance.

At the same time, there is something to PR. SETI captures the imagination of people who otherwise don't get excited about science. That sort of enchantment is necessary for securing the funds needed for the technical, inaccessible work that wouldn't generate the popular excitement, but which could contribute to real scientific progress.

So the question seems to be a straightforward sort of decision theory exercise. To determine the rational amount to spend, determine the expected utility. If we could quantify things, you would multiply the probability of success by the payoff should you be successful. To spend more than that would be irrational.

Of course, we can't actually quantify things and we can't actually make the calculation. But we can give a general sense. It is certainly worth funding, but not major funding. Now does this make it less likely that SETI efforts will be successful? Yes, but then the payoff is less than the alternatives that are not only more likely to succeed, but whose success would have greater impact on the lives of real people.