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Alien life is out there, but our theories are probably steering us away from it… To find intelligent alien life, humans may need to start thinking like an extraterrestrial… Erm… Psychedelics?

‘In the search for extraterrestrial life, scientists must be thoroughly open-minded.’

🤔… Yeah those of us who are brave enough to delve into the world of psychedelic compounds, are just like…

‘This one time, I did a shit load of mushrooms in my front room, I ended up on board a UFO, on an operating table with grey aliens doing all sorts of weird shit to me… The giant insectoid alien was the head surgeon, monitoring the operation”

“This one time I did Ayahausca in Peruvian Amazon, these giant angelic butterfly beings took me on the most profound journey I could have ever possibly imagined… Showed me the secrets of the cosmos and reality”

But yeah… Good luck with your telescopes and radio antennas! 😆😂🤣

Alien life is out there, but our theories are probably steering us away from it

Peter Vickers, Durham University

January 2, 2020 9.31am GMT

If we discovered evidence of alien life, would we even realise it? Life on other planets could be so different from what we’re used to that we might not recognise any biological signatures that it produces.

Recent years have seen changes to our theories about what counts as a biosignature and which planets might be habitable, and further turnarounds are inevitable. But the best we can really do is interpret the data we have with our current best theory, not with some future idea we haven’t had yet.

This is a big issue for those involved in the search for extraterrestrial life. As Scott Gaudi of Nasa’s Advisory Council has said: “One thing I am quite sure of, now having spent more than 20 years in this field of exoplanets … expect the unexpected.”

But is it really possible to “expect the unexpected”? Plenty of breakthroughs happen by accident, from the discovery of penicillin to the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang. These often reflect a degree of luck on behalf of the researchers involved. When it comes to alien life, is it enough for scientists to assume “we’ll know it when we see it”?

Many results seem to tell us that expecting the unexpected is extraordinarily difficult. “We often miss what we don’t expect to see,” according to cognitive psychologist Daniel Simons, famous for his work on inattentional blindness. His experiments have shown how people can miss a gorilla banging its chest in front of their eyes. Similar experiments also show how blind we are to non-standard playing cards such as a black four of hearts. In the former case, we miss the gorilla if our attention is sufficiently occupied. In the latter, we miss the anomaly because we have strong prior expectations.

There are also plenty of relevant examples in the history of science. Philosophers describe this sort of phenomenon as “theory-ladenness of observation”. What we notice depends, quite heavily sometimes, on our theories, concepts, background beliefs and prior expectations. Even more commonly, what we take to be significant can be biased in this way.

For example, when scientists first found evidence of low amounts of ozone in the atmosphere above Antarctica, they initially dismissed it as bad data. With no prior theoretical reason to expect a hole, the scientists ruled it out in advance. Thankfully, they were minded to double check, and the discovery was made.

More than 200,000 stars captured in one small section of the sky by Nasa’s TESS mission. Nasa

Could a similar thing happen in the search for extraterrestrial life? Scientists studying planets in other solar systems (exoplanets) are overwhelmed by the abundance of possible observation targets competing for their attention. In the last 10 years scientists have identified more than 3,650 planets – more than one a day. And with missions such as NASA’s TESS exoplanet hunter this trend will continue.

Each and every new exoplanet is rich in physical and chemical complexity. It is all too easy to imagine a case where scientists do not double check a target that is flagged as “lacking significance”, but whose great significance would be recognised on closer analysis or with a non-standard theoretical approach.

The Müller-Lyer optical illusion. Fibonacci/Wikipedia

However, we shouldn’t exaggerate the theory-ladenness of observation. In the Müller-Lyer illusion, a line ending in arrowheads pointing outwards appears shorter than an equally long line with arrowheads pointing inwards. Yet even when we know for sure that the two lines are the same length, our perception is unaffected and the illusion remains. Similarly, a sharp-eyed scientist might notice something in her data that her theory tells her she should not be seeing. And if just one scientist sees something important, pretty soon every scientist in the field will know about it.

History also shows that scientists are able to notice surprising phenomena, even biased scientists who have a pet theory that doesn’t fit the phenomena. The 19th-century physicist David Brewster incorrectly believed that light is made up of particles travelling in a straight line. But this didn’t affect his observations of numerous phenomena related to light, such as what’s known as birefringence in bodies under stress. Sometimes observation is definitely not theory-laden, at least not in a way that seriously affects scientific discovery.

We need to be open-minded

Certainly, scientists can’t proceed by just observing. Scientific observation needs to be directed somehow. But at the same time, if we are to “expect the unexpected”, we can’t allow theory to heavily influence what we observe, and what counts as significant. We need to remain open-minded, encouraging exploration of the phenomena in the style of Brewster and similar scholars of the past.

Studying the universe largely unshackled from theory is not only a legitimate scientific endeavour – it’s a crucial one. The tendency to describe exploratory science disparagingly as “fishing expeditions” is likely to harm scientific progress. Under-explored areas need exploring, and we can’t know in advance what we will find.

In the search for extraterrestrial life, scientists must be thoroughly open-minded. And this means a certain amount of encouragement for non-mainstream ideas and techniques. Examples from past science (including very recent ones) show that non-mainstream ideas can sometimes be strongly held back. Space agencies such as NASA must learn from such cases if they truly believe that, in the search for alien life, we should “expect the unexpected”.

Peter VickersAssociate Professor in Philosophy of Science, Durham University

To find intelligent alien life, humans may need to start thinking like an extraterrestrial

By Adam Mann 22 January 2020

We need to make the normal strange.

If extraterrestrials are living on alien worlds, what types of signals would they send us? Our human biases might limit what we can imagine. (Image credit: NASA)

HONOLULU — Our hunt for aliens has a potentially fatal flaw — we’re the ones searching for them.

That’s a problem because we’re a unique species, and alien-seeking scientists are an even stranger and more specialized bunch. As a result, their all-too human assumptions may get in the way of their alien-listening endeavors. To get around this, the Breakthrough Listen project, a $100-million initiative scouring the cosmos for signals of otherworldly beings as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is asking anthropologists to help unmask some of these biases. 

“It’s kind of a joke at Breakthrough Listen,” Claire Webb, an anthropology and history of science student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said here on Jan. 8 at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Honolulu. “They tell me: ‘We’re studying aliens, and you’re studying us.'”

Related: 9 Strange, Scientific Excuses for We Haven’t Found Aliens Yet

Since 2017, Webb has worked with Breakthrough Listen to examine how SETI researchers think about aliens, produce knowledge, and perhaps inadvertently place anthropocentric assumptions into their work. 

She sometimes describes her efforts as “making the familiar strange.” 

For instance, your life might seem perfectly ordinary — maybe involving being hunched over at a desk and shuttling electrons around between computers — until examined through an anthropological lens, which points out that this is not exactly a universal state of affairs. At the conference, Webb presented a poster looking at how Breakthrough Listen scientists use artificial intelligence (AI) to sift through large data sets and try to uncover potential technosignatures, or indicators of technology or tool use by alien organisms. 

“Researchers who use AI tend to disavow human handicraft in the machines they build,” Webb told Live Science. “They attribute a lot of agency to those machines. I find that somewhat problematic and at the worst untrue.”

Any AI is trained by human beings, who present it with the types of signals they think an intelligent alien might produce. In doing so, they predispose their algorithms to certain biases. It can be incredibly difficult to recognize such thinking and overcome its limitations, Webb said. 

Most SETI research assumes some level of commensurability, or the idea that beings on different worlds will understand the universe in the same way and be able to communicate about it with one another, Webb said. Much of this research, for example, presumes a type of technological commensurability, in which aliens broadcast messages using the same radio telescopes we have built, and that we will be able to speak to them using a universal language of science and math. 

Related: Greetings, Earthlings! 8 Ways Aliens Might Contact Us

But how universal is our language of science, and how inevitable is our technological evolution?  Do alien scientists gather in large buildings and present their work to one another via slides and lectures and posters? And what bearing do such human rituals have on the types of scientific knowledge researchers produce?

It was almost like trying to take the perspective of a creature on another planet, who might wonder about humanity and our odd modern-day practices. “If E.T. was looking at us, what would they see?” Webb asked. 

The assumptions and anxieties of alien-hunters can creep in in other ways. Because of the vast distances involved in sending a signal through space, many SETI researchers have imagined receiving a message from an older technological society. As astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan famously said in his 1980 book and television series “Cosmos,” that might mean E.T. has lived through a “technological adolescence” and survived nuclear proliferation or an apocalyptic climate meltdown.

But those statements are based on the specific anxieties of our era, namely nuclear war and climate change, and we can’t automatically assume that the history of another species will unfold in the same way, Webb said. 

Veteran SETI scientist Jill Tarter has told Webb that, in some ways, we are looking for a better version of ourselves, speculating that a message from the heavens will include blueprints for a device that can provide cheap energy and help alleviate poverty.

The ideal of progress is embedded in such narratives, Webb said, first of scientific and technological progress, but also an implicit assumption of moral advancement. “It’s the idea that, as your technology develops, so does your sense of ethics and morality,” she said. “And I think that’s something that can be contested.”

Even our hunt for organisms like ourselves suggests “a yearning for connectivity, reflective to me of a kind of postmodern loneliness and isolation in the universe,” she said. 

Webb joked that SETI researchers don’t always understand the point of her anthropological and philosophical examinations. But, she said, they are open to being challenged in their ideas and knowing that they are not always seeing the whole picture. 

“One thing Jill [Tarter] has said many times is, ‘We reserve the right to get smarter,'” she said. “We are doing what we think makes sense now, but we might one day be doing something totally different.”

Ultimately, the point of this work is to get SETI researchers to start “noticing human behavior in ways that could push SETI to do novel kinds of searches,” Webb said. “Inhabiting other mindscapes is potentially a very powerful tool in cultivating new ways to do science.”

Perhaps beings on another planet might use gravitational waves, or neutrinos, or even some other unknown aspect of reality we have yet to come across to send messages into the heavens. 

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