The search for technosignatures that could flag the presence of extraterrestrial cultures has accelerated in recent times with projects like Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies at Penn State and numerous papers. Or is the better term not ‘cultures’ but ‘societies,’ or ‘civilizations’? SETI’s funding challenges, at least from government agencies, point to the need for defining its terms in ways that NASA, for example, can live with. Nick Nielsen examines the question in today’s essay, probing the issue of terminology in relation to public support, and noting the ongoing effort to evaluate and revise how SETI is described. Nielsen, a frequent Centauri Dreams contributor and a member of the board of directors for Icarus Interstellar, is a prolific writer who tracks these and other space-related issues in Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon, and Grand Strategy Annex.
by J. N. Nielsen
Recently there have been some signs that NASA may consider a rapprochement with SETI and SETI scientists, after more than twenty years of a de facto NASA ban on funding SETI (cf. NASA Renews Interest in SETI by David Grinspoon). It’s not yet clear how far this rapprochement will extend, but NASA did lend its name to the NASA Technosignatures Workshop (NTW18) last September. The event webpage names the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Universities Space Research Association, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration as having provided “institutional support”; I do not know if this involved financial support from NASA. The recent NASA Technosignatures Workshop also resulted in a 70 page paper, “NASA and the Search for Technosignatures: A Report from the NASA Technosignatures Workshop.”
I have to wonder if the term “technosignatures” is ultimately more palatable than the acronym “SETI,” with the latter’s explicit reference to ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence). “Technosignatures” sounds tech-savvy and doesn’t explicitly invoke aliens, though the idea of aliens is still there implicitly as a presupposition. This may sound like an overly-subtle gloss on the situation, but it is still a significant consideration. It is conceivable that NASA eventually will consider funding projects that mention “technosignatures” while continuing to pass over any project that mentions “SETI.”
The need to re-brand SETI was discussed in ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ Needs a New Name, SETI Pioneer Says by Calla Cofield, primarily discussing the recent work of SETI notable Jill Tarter. The author attributes to Tarter the idea that the acronym “SETI,” and what it has come to signify, “…generates an incorrect perception of what scientists in this field are actually doing.” Tarter also discusses the need for terminology reform. The question of SETI terminology has come in for a lot of discussion lately. We have seen the explicit consideration of SETI terminology in Wright’s paper “Taxonomy and Jargon in SETI as an Interdisciplinary Field of Study” and in the collective effort “Recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee on SETI Nomenclature” by Jason T. Wright, Sofia Sheikh, Iván Almár, Kathryn Denning, Steven Dick, and Jill Tarter.
I found myself rather annoyed by the second of the two papers named in the paragraph above (I will henceforth call it the “Recommendations paper”), because it failed to deal with the hard conceptual problems presented by the terminology commonly used, and the hardest problems are usually the most interesting problems once you buckle down and focus on them with a will to really understand what is going on. Usually one finds that vague and imprecise terms paper over a multitude of subtle meanings, easily conflated, and it is a lot of work—sometimes tedious work—to separate out all these threads and give a full accounting of the ideas that are the background of the natural language employed in a science before that science is fully formalized.
Early analytical philosophers had a word for this clarification that has sadly fallen out of use: explication; take a look at Chapter 1 of Carnap’s Logical Foundations of Probability, “On Explication,” for a detailed exposition of explication. Carnap’s conception of explication could provide a framework for thinking about the explication of concepts employed in SETI. It was disappointing to me that the Recommendations paper is a laundry list of terms to use and terms to avoid, but, in fairness to the authors, the remit of the ad hoc committee was, “…to recommend standardized definitions for terms,” and not a root-and-branch re-thinking of the conceptual foundations of the discipline (which is what I would have liked to have seen).
Of particular interest to me in the Recommendations paper was its treatment of “civilization”:
In a SETI context, e.g. (extraterrestrial or alien civilization) usually synonymous with technological species. Use with care.
Notes: The term civilization has imprecise popular meanings, but also particular scholarly meanings in relation to human history that are not generally what is meant by the term in a SETI context. Because of its ambiguity and anthropocentrism, the term is a suboptimal synonym for technological species, but it is nonetheless widely used in the literature. Society is a good alternative but not yet in common use.
It could be pointed out that “society” also has both imprecise popular meanings and particular scholarly meanings, so it is difficult to say how “society” is any better in this respect than “civilization.” I also question the idea that “technological species” is in any sense more precise or any less ambiguous than “civilization.”
The authors of the paper note that the use of “civilization” in SETI differs from its use in other scholarly contexts, but they don’t seem to be at all interested in why this is the case, or in finding some conception of civilization that is non-anthropocentric and is equally suitable for use in SETI and other sciences. This would be like someone saying that “BTU” is used to indicate energy in heating and “watt” is used to indicate energy in electricity, but that there is no need for any common conception of energy that might be an umbrella conception for BTU and watt (or calorie, or joule, etc.).
The same paper takes on the use of the term “advanced,” and while I agree that the term “advanced” is problematic, it is not problematic for the reasons cited in the paper. “Advanced” in isolation means nothing; it is a relational term. What would make sense is a formulation such as “x is more advanced than y.” With a little refinement we get, “x is a more advanced F than y.” Now, this latter formulation could be said to be in the same spirit as the recommendation in the paper of, “…simply specifying the scale or nature of the technology referenced.” I’m on board with this, as long as it is made clear that “advanced” is a relational term that is meaningless in isolation. What we find in most cases of using “advanced” in isolation is that the comparison is implicit; one of the virtues of formalizing any usage in a schema such as, “x is a more advanced F than y,” is that it forces us to make our assumptions explicit.
Clearly, however, the authors of the Recommendations paper mean to condemn, “…deprecated theories of human history which rank human societies from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’ based on ill-defined and ethnocentric measures.” No doubt the authors have the most virtuous motives for condemning what they see as ethnocentric measures to distinguish primitive from advanced civilizations, but—Alas!—science is unconcerned with the virtue of its practitioners, or the lack thereof. We could go a long way toward improving the situation by offering a precisely defined scale by which civilizations could be rank-ordered, but I doubt that this would quell the misgivings of those whose concern is addressing the grievances claimed to follow from ethnocentric bias. I will say no more at present regarding this.
In addition to his advocacy for SETI terminology reform, Jason Wright has also argued strongly that SETI is and ought to be a part of astrobiology (cf. “SETI is Part of Astrobiology”). Wright counters the official NASA line that, “Traditional SETI is not part of astrobiology,” by arguing that some of the most obvious signs of terrestrial habitability are Earth’s technosignatures. Wright also points out that NASA arbitrarily excludes technosignatures from “traditional SETI.” Obviously, to the extent that NASA’s exclusion is arbitrary, it is dissatisfying. Given that NASA has been deeply involved with astrobiology since its inception (cf. The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, which discusses NASA’s involvement in astrobiology since the term was introduced), if SETI is part of astrobiology, and NASA was present at the foundations of astrobiology, then the case could be made that NASA’s astrobiology program should include SETI as an integral component, organically present ab initio. That is to say, SETI is not some foreign body that has become inexplicably lodged in astrobiology.
However, in a Twitter post, Jason Wright referenced two posts by Dr. Linda Billings, SETI: on the edge of astrobiology and Astrobiology and SETI: different evolutionary pathways, which argue against including SETI under the umbrella of astrobiology. These posts conclude, respectively, “The bottom line is that traditional SETI—using ground-based radio telescopes to listen for signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin—falls outside the boundaries of NASA’s astrobiology program.” And, “…the history/evolution of exo/astrobiology more closely parallels the history/evolution of planetary protection. Exo/astrobiology and SETI evolved on very different, non-parallel tracks.” Thus the argument whether SETI ought to be considered a part of astrobiology has been made both in the affirmative and in the negative. It seems pretty weak to me to argue that SETI is intrinsically about ground-based observations, as SETI observations from space-based telescopes would be a great boost for the discipline, if only these resources were made available to SETI research. Wright deals with this weakness as one of the erroneous perceptions he identifies that has led to the exclusion of SETI from NASA’s astrobiology portfolio.
Much of this discussion is taking place because SETI is poorly funded, and if government monies were made available to SETI researchers, the discipline could pursue a more ambitious scientific research program. But because SETI has been largely frozen out of government funding through NASA, which would be its natural home (unless, like Billings, we see the National Science Foundation funded ground-based telescopes as the natural home of SETI), SETI funding efforts have taken creative forms. One of these creative ways of doing SETI science on the cheap has been projects that can be described as “parasitic,” “piggyback,” and “opportunistic.” This was taken up explicitly by Jill Tarter in 1984 in “Parasitic, Piggyback and Opportunistic SETI: It’s Cheap and It Just Might Work?”
A year prior, in 1983, the idea was already floated in “The Berkeley parasitic SETI program” by S. Bowyer, G. Zeitlin, J. Tarter, M. Lampton, and W. J. Welch. And since then we have seen, “The SERENDIP piggyback SETI project” by M. Lampton, S. Bowyer, D. Werthimer, C. Donnelly, and W. Herrick (1992) and “An Opportunistic Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) with the Murchison Widefield Array” by S. J. Tingay, C. Tremblay, A. Walsh, and R. Urquhart (2016). The latter paper characterizes their “opportunistic” SETI as follows:
“In this Letter, we present a first, and opportunistic, SETI pilot experiment with the MWA, in the frequency range 103–133 MHz, placing limits on narrow band radio emission toward 38 known planetary systems. The experiment is opportunistic in the sense that the observations were undertaken for a spectral line survey of the Galactic Plane that is ongoing; utility of the data for a SETI experiment was realised post-observation.”
There is a kind of subtle irony in SETI science having to operate parasitically on other projects deemed more fundable, or, at least, projects that would not draw the ire of politicians looking for a soft budgetary target to attack. Arguably, whatever public support that there is for space exploration (and however correct or mistaken it may be to connect space exploration with SETI), derives from the hope, perhaps even the titillating hope, of finding something “out there” that would mean that we are not alone.
I have often said that any excitement over things like exoplanet searches always turns on whether the planets are habitable, any excitement over whether the planet is habitable largely turns on whether we can ever determine whether or not these planets actually have life, any excitement over whether or not we can determine if these planets have life largely turns on whether that life could be intelligent, and any excitement over whether or not this life could be intelligent largely turns on whether we might possibly communicate with or travel to these intelligent beings. Space science, then, is to a large extent an artifact of our cosmic loneliness, and our desire to mitigate that cosmic loneliness.
I’ve read a few candid comments to this effect (I can’t remember the source), and I have no doubt that this is the case. In the same way that conservation biology has an easier time raising money to fight for charismatic megafauna, but has a much more difficult time raising money based on conservation efforts for unattractive animals or very small animals, so too space science efforts do better when they are related to some “sexy” space science topic like aliens — but this has to be done sotto voce, with a wink and a nudge, because NASA, to be taken seriously, must keep up the appearance of high seriousness. NASA’s budgetary choices are held hostage by the “giggle factor.”
In a sense, then, it is space science that is parasitic upon SETI and human spaceflight (which appeals as a source of national pride in accomplishment), which, when the latter dominated NASA and NASA’s budget, took the lion’s share of the money and left little for space science. In recent decades, the focus has been more on space science, and so it is SETI (rather than prestige) which is the unspoken background to what is going on explicitly in the foreground. While I care deeply about space science, and I know how much NASA’s space science programs have transformed our knowledge of the universe, few in the wider public share my sentiments, and they cannot be expected to so share these sentiments. But they can share an interest in the “charismatic megafauna” of astrobiology, which are the intelligent aliens that SETI is seeking.
If NASA can embrace technosignatures as a part of astrobiology, it may find a way to excite the interest of the public while maintaining its scientific respectability. And if that requires a shift in terminology, I suspect that SETI researchers will be ready to make that shift. An article by Lisa Grossman, It’s time to start taking the search for E.T. seriously, astronomers say: Some scientists are pushing for NASA to make looking for alien technology an official goal, notes that Jason Wright is part of a group of scientists who are actively seeking to have the search for technosignatures incorporated into NASA’s next Decadal Survey, which, if successful, would mean federal funding for SETI projects. Everyone is well aware that such funding would transform the discipline, and SETI advocates are now actively campaigning for the funding.
We can already see this transition to the language of technosignatures taking place. For example, if we take as a recent example the paper, “A search for technosignatures from TRAPPIST-1, LHS 1140, and 10 planetary systems in the Kepler field with the Green Bank Telescope at 1.15-1.73 GHz” by Pavlo Pinchuk, et al., we find that “technosignatures” are mentioned repeatedly throughout the text, “extraterrestrial” is mentioned ten times, “SETI” is mentioned a couple of times (as well as in the bibliography, in an internet address, and in a title), “civilization” is mentioned once, and “alien” appears nowhere in the document.
Any scientific discipline, as it evolves, eventually revises its terminology, as it usually begins with imprecise terms taken from ordinary language and eventually settles upon more formalized usages that are defined with scientific precision, and which become the accepted jargon of the discipline. There is scientific precision in spades to be found in SETI research papers. What is wanting in SETI (and in discussions of technosignatures, for that matter) is the conceptual framework within which these terms are formulated. SETI science is strong, but its concepts are often weak and ambiguous, as is evidenced by the recent concern with terminology. I have had this conceptual weakness on my mind for some time, and I hope to be able to write more about this as I clarify my own thoughts on the matter. Others seem to have noted this weakness as well. In a paper that has just come out by Jim Pass of the Astrosociology Research Institute, Exo-Astrosociology and the Search for Technosignatures, Pass notes:
“Unlike with the regard to discoveries associated with the search for biosignatures mostly in our Solar System, which have produced discoveries and insights of tangible value, the research associated with the search for technosignatures is less impressive.”
The charismatic megafauna of SETI—little green men, space aliens, Martians, and their kin—are emblematic of this conceptual weakness, and they could be made more respectable with a prolonged inquiry into and clarification of the conceptual framework within which we discuss the possibility of the emergent complexities we know on Earth—life, sentience, consciousness, intelligence, mind, technology, and civilization, inter alia — also existing elsewhere. If we have gotten the sequence of emergent complexities right, this sequence begins with biology, and so is initially an astrobiological inquiry. However, at some point it becomes an inquiry larger than astrobiology (or, if you prefer, an inquiry no longer narrowly contained within the boundaries of biological thought), and our conceptual framework must expand in order to accommodate this larger domain of inquiry. Explication, then, could play a crucial role in exorcising space aliens and replacing them with a theoretical construction more consonant with NASA’s demand for high seriousness.