Is SETI Science?

SETI isn’t science imo. So I’m always puzzled why ID folks use that as an example

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Is it science when a technician uses a metal detector (to find evidence of an American Revolutionary Battle)?

Could you explain why you think that?

I would describe it as almost science. It meets the minimum criteria to be called a science in my view. The ability to conduct systematic observations. There really is no reasonable way to disprove the hypothesis. Negative results are what are expected. No one seems to know how many of these negative results are needed before we can rule out the existence of technological civilizations. It also assumes these intelligent beings have the same psychology as us and would create civilizations. Why think this? Then we are listening for radio waves. Why expect this? We have only sent out radio waves like once in 1974. Seems more likely people are listening instead of broadcasting. So it’s framework is based on a lot of unwarranted assumptions and there is really no way to disprove there are other civilizations out there. Massimo Pigliucci has a good discussion of this in “Nonsense on Stilts”.

They have a question whose answer is disputed. They are supposing to study that question in a scientific way. That effort seems to be science, even if they never find a positive signal,

There is much debate about prior beliefs on the answer. Here, anyone engaging in SETI has some nontrivial prior belief that ETI exists. That prior can’t be fully justified from science. But I don’t think this means SETI isn’t science. All sorts of nonscientific factors weigh in on which questions individuals pursue in their scientific work, and this seems no different.


That isn’t a good criteria for determining if something is science or not…

I think that isn’t the right analysis. They certain can and have ruled out classes of ETI, as specified by particular models. For example, there isn’t a civilization of ETI on the surface of Mars. That is an example of a specific model ruled out.

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Show your work

I suggest reading up on the SETI core research on their website. There are different branches. You are talking about a totally different one than the one I’m talking about

In the colloquial sense, that is science. In the strictest sense, that is just data collection. If we are talking about full on science then we have to move through all the steps of the scientific method (e.g. forming a hypothesis).

Searching the night sky for narrowband radio signals is data collection. It’s really hard to test a hypothesis when you have searched so little of the possible data space and have yet to have a positive hit. Perhaps a good analogy is the current search for dark matter where no one has yet to detect a dark matter particle (i.e. WIMPs). It’s impossible to know if WIMPs simply don’t exist, if we just need to wait longer using the detectors we have, or if we need different detectors.

So I guess you wouldn’t consider the Human Genome Project to be science, either.

If so, I disagree with your definition of science.

I think there is a good case to be made for mere exploration and discovery in science. One can do scientific observational and exploratory work, without having an explicit hypothesis about what one is expecting to find. Naive exploratory astronomy(look at the sky through a telescope, catalogue what you see, note down putative patterns) is a science in my opinion. The connections and parallels to SETI here are noteworthy.

It’s goals are discovery, not so much explanation, or (at least initially), understanding. What is out there?


If it doesn’t involve hypothesis testing then I wouldn’t consider it science in the strictest sense. I also accept the colloquial definition of science which is gathering data, usually through technology or non-standard means. It just depends on the context of the conversation.

Observing the motion of the planets through sky is not science (in the strictest sense). Testing theories of gravity using the movement of the planets is science.

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To be sure, the HGP did in fact test hypotheses. Why would anyone think different?

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Once they had the genome assembled they did test hypotheses. I completely agree. However, I wouldn’t consider the physical sequencing and assembling of the genome to be science in the strictest sense. Perhaps you could say that there are hypotheses embedded in the genome assembly process itself if you want to nit pick.

The only point I am really making is that science is more than just observing. I’m not all that concerned about word usage as long as we agree to that one point.

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Except for all the hypothesis testing that went into this? Perhaps you are unaware of all the scientific work that went into this?

The HG was just one prominent deliverable of a large scientific HGP. The project itself was driven and refined by hypothesis testing from start to finish.

I think I hinted at this in the previous post:

“Perhaps you could say that there are hypotheses embedded in the genome assembly process itself if you want to nit pick.”

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