Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Studying Tabby’s Star, Scientists Use the Design Filter — Non-Intelligent Causes Win This Round

Tabby’s Star

Proponents of intelligent design are, of course, perfectly content to explain phenomena with reference to chance or natural law as appropriate. They do not rush to judgment to infer purpose and design, as evolutionists are compelled to do in their own reaction to every intricate design in biology, “Evolution did it.”

As we have often pointed out, SETI is one hobby of scientists, many of whom are materialist in outlook, that relies on the Design Filter. Despite their stated antipathy to ID, they know there’s a difference between natural causes and intelligent causes: thus the “I” in SETI. Some enthusiasts are so ready to find ETs, they have even laid out the welcome mat for them. This explains the excitement when Tabby’s Star, a star larger than the sun about 1,000 light-years away, started exhibiting inexplicable light variations. That was two years ago. Instinctively, astronomers began to wonder if they had discovered an alien megastructure around this star that could account for the variations. No other cause seemed plausible at the time.

Michael Egnor took notice of their reaction in a post here. “This is an implicit acknowledgement by scientists that the inference to intelligent design in nature is entirely appropriate when the evidence supports it,” he said, because “Intelligent design is science.” In other words, intelligent causes should not be ruled out from the start.

Neither, however, should they be given preference. In this case, astronomers have found a natural explanation, announcing in news from Penn State, “Alien Megastructure not the cause of dimming of the ‘Most Mysterious Star in the Universe’.” Ruling out intelligent causes was not easy, however. Some 200 astronomers worked to solve the puzzle, with help from citizens:

The mystery of Tabby’s Star is so compelling that more than 1,700 people donated over $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in support of dedicated ground-based telescope time to observe and gather more data on the star through a network of telescopes around the world. As a result, a body of data collected by [Tabetha] Boyajian and colleagues in partnership with the Las Cumbres Observatory is now available in a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. [Emphasis added.]

So hopeful were the contributors, in fact, they began personalizing the aliens:

The scientists closely observed the star through the Las Cumbres Observatory from March 2016 to December 2017. Beginning in May 2017 there were four distinct episodes when the star’s light dipped. Supporters from the crowdfunding campaign nominated and voted to name these episodes. The first two dips were named Elsie and Celeste. The last two were named after ancient lost cities — Scotland’s Scara Brae and Cambodia’s Angkor. The authors write that in many ways what is happening with the star is like these lost cities.

This shows more hope to find intelligent causes than one sees in some ID research! (Could this be called ET-of-the-Gaps?) Anyway, let no one claim that ID is a science stopper. In addition to the funding, look at the research activity this mystery stimulated:

The method in which this star is being studied — by gathering and analyzing a flood of data from a single target — signals a new era of astronomy. Citizen scientists sifting through massive amounts of data from the NASA Kepler mission were the ones to detect the star’s unusual behavior in the first place….The online citizen science group Planet Hunters was established so that volunteers could help to classify light curves from the Kepler mission and to search for such planets.

Nevertheless, the hopes for discovery of sentient aliens were dashed in the effort. What causes the light variations? Simply, dust. Tabetha Boyajian, for whom “Tabby’s Star” is named, explains:

Dust is most likely the reason why the star’s light appears to dim and brighten. The new data shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities. Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure,” Boyajian said.

As often is the case in science, it’s hard to reach definitive conclusions. The Penn State team was careful not to rule out aliens, but dust is “most likely the reason” for the variations. And that’s fine. Natural causes get preference, because they provide the second exit point in the Design Filter after chance. Only when the scientist cannot take the first two exits does intelligence get a serious evaluation.

Without that prioritization, scientists could always go to ridiculous extremes to keep the design option alive. Perhaps aliens organized the dust intentionally, or designed a Dyson Sphere that allowed some wavelengths to pass through it. No; dust satisfies the observations. We can leave it at that unless other evidence warrants further consideration of design.

All one asks is that design not be discounted from the outset. When the Design Filter is utilized in an unbiased manner, natural law or chance will win some rounds, and design will win others. Dr. Egnor reminds us:

It is perfectly good science to consider that occultation of Tabby’s star may be due to intelligent design. And it is perfectly good science to consider that the genetic code or the intricate nanotechnology in living cells may be due to intelligent design. Good scientists should consider design as an explanation for natural phenomena whenever and wherever the evidence supports it.

It’s ironic that citizens and astronomers were so motivated by this mystery that they spent a lot of money and effort to solve it, hoping it might provide the first proof of intelligent beings acting intentionally in a star system far, far away. The same hope presaged the natural explanation of the asteroid ‘Oumuamua last month. This mania reflects the culture’s obsession with finding other beings out there.

It’s also a lesson to ID advocates not to be too hasty to infer design. Good science requires setting aside hopes and biases to follow the evidence where it leads. If we require that from the SETI folk, we require it in our investigations as well.

That said, explaining digital coded information by chance or natural law appears a bit improbable. Like, for example, by 164 orders of magnitude.

Illustration: Tabby’s Star (artist’s interpretation), by TK.