Steven Novella is a Yale neurologist who has consistently denied that ID is a valid scientific inference. He is, however, an enthusiastic supporter of SETI research — the search for evidence of intelligent design in the universe using the methods of astronomy.
This weekend I was at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Seattle talking about science communication… One talk I didn’t get to see was by Dr. Anthony Beasley, director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. He argued that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) should “come in from the cold” and be incorporated into every aspect of astronomy. Let me go over the reasons why I completely agree.
The Science of SETI
Dr. Novella explains why he believes that SETI research is excellent science:
… SETI is totally worth the effort. In general scientific research should balance high-probability incremental research at one end with low probability or more speculative research at the other. We need to fuel scientific progress with some of the latter, but of course the balance of research should be reasonably plausible and probable. I think incorporating SETI into astronomy in general would achieve this proper balance, as well as optimizing efficiency.
Note of course that exactly the same is said of ID science: incorporating the inference to design into ordinary biology research enhances the research in very important ways.
The Mother Lode
Novella considers the information content of a signal from an intelligent designer:
The content of the signal will also be of enormous scientific value. Even if it does not contain technological or scientific information itself (let’s say it is just a friendly message) it will be an artifact of non-human intelligence. It will give us, for the first time, insight into one possible form such an intelligence can take, and will give us a peak at a non-human perspective. We will learn more about ourselves by encountering, for the first time, intelligence that is not ourselves. Of course there is also the possibility that we will encounter the mother load [sic] — the “Encyclopedia Galactica” of scientific and technological information.
One might say that we encountered the “Mother Lode” of design in biology when we discovered the “Encyclopedia Genomica” — the genetic code in DNA.
Is it the job of astronomers to search for intelligent life? I would also argue, yes. In its broadest sense, astronomy is the study of pretty much everything in the universe that is not the Earth (and even, to some degree, the Earth itself as it is one example for planetary astronomy). Astronomers ask — what is out there? Much of astronomy surveys and examines the universe in various EM spectra. If signals of intelligent origin are part of the EM radiation that fills the universe, it is absolutely the job of astronomers to find and understand them.
It is the job of astronomers to search for intelligent design, just as it is the job of biologists to search for intelligent design. It is the job of every scientist to follow the evidence where it leads.
What if Design Is Not Detected?
Novella has an even deeper insight:
What this means is that SETI projects are not really the search for ET intelligence. That is just one of the hoped-for outcomes….
As an example, when astronomers discovered the significant dimming of Tabby’s star this represented a new phenomenon they did not understand. They needed to generate hypotheses as to what might be causing this dimming, and then figure out ways of testing them. Some astronomers speculated that the dimming might be caused by technological structures around the star. If so, that would likely create a specific signature, the radiation of waste heat in the form of infrared radiation. This was not detected, however. The best current hypothesis is that Tabby’s star is surrounded by a cloud of very fine dust. What caused this cloud is itself a mystery.
So in the end, the ET hypothesis was just one of many in the investigation of Tabby’s star, incorporated into astronomical observations and thinking, that eventually lead to a non-ET hypothesis being the most likely explanation. Of course the ET hypothesis garnered the most media attention, but also a share of stigma. This is unfortunate, and unnecessary. I agree with Dr. Beasley — SETI should just be one more hypothesis considered in trying to understand what we are seeing out there in the universe. It should be part of the astronomy mainstream.
He’s right. The inference to design is of great value if design is detected, but it is also of great value even if design is not detected, because the design inference is a great starting point from which to study a complex system. The questions “Why is this system made the way it is?” and “What is its purpose?” are excellent scientific questions and are of fundamental importance, even if design is eventually discounted.
The design inference is heuristic in astronomy, in biology, and in all science. It is of great value even if design in not detected. Dr. Novella makes a clear and compelling case for intelligent design science. The shame is that he doesn’t even realize it.
Photo: Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, via Wikimedia Commons.