The nature of science

SETI: a skeptical take

We’ve been looking for extra-terrestrial intelligence for several decades. What is that all about anyway?

Figs in Winter
10 min readMay 5, 2022

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part of the Very Large Array of radiotelescopes in New Mexico, photo by the author

I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Who isn’t? When I was a kid, I got into UFOs and such. Then the age of reason dawned and I realized that actual science is more interesting than fantasy. So I got into SETI, the (scientific) Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

I read about the pioneering work of Frank Drake (more on him in a moment), devoured everything Carl Sagan wrote about it, and even — for a long time — downloaded and used the SETI program screen saver, which doubles as data processor on behalf of the SETI Institute.

This is all good (and somewhat expensive, in terms of research program) fun, but is it science? The first doubt crossed my mind when I read about the famous Fermi paradox. The story goes that in the summer of 1950 four physicists — Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Herbert York and Emil Konopinski — were walking to lunch and conversing about the latest UFO sightings. At some point Fermi said: “But where is everybody?” Meaning, if life is so common in the galaxy as some believe, how come we haven’t encountered it yet? No matter how difficult, costly, and…

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Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.