Monday, September 28, 2020

Clap Your Hands If You Believe in Aliens!

Today Ryan Knight, a young leftist writer and activist, posted excitedly on Twitter about a report that water -- "multiple 'water bodies'" -- has been detected on Mars: "The fact that there is water on Mars means they very well could have had or have alien life on Mars."  Uh, who's "they"?

Anyway, this (and a Twitter poll on whether we "believe in aliens") set off a long thread of terrifying prattle about the "absolute" "100%" "statistical certainty" that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, with some people arguing that we couldn't see life on other worlds because our eyes can only detect light in a narrow wavelength, the usual jokes about how there's no intelligent life on Earth anyway, and the ever-popular declarations that it would be so dumb if we were alone, and that it is "insane," "ignorant," "selfish," "egoistic" not to believe that the universe is full of potential extraterrestrial BFFs who'd like to meet us but they think they'd blow our minds.  Several people quoted a line from the movie Arrival, that if there is no life out there, the universe is a terrible waste of space.  None of this is particularly surprising; it's just terribly depressing.

There were numerous claims about the certainty that there must be gazillions of habitable and indeed inhabited planets out there.  They were presumably based on the Drake formula, invented in 1961, which postulates imaginary percentages to "stimulate scientific dialogue at the first scientific meeting on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) ... It is more properly thought of as an approximation than as a serious attempt to determine a precise number."  The people who referred to it mistook it for a serious attempt, and seemed to believe that it proved anything, which it doesn't.  Only a couple had heard of the Fermi Paradox, which argues that there probably are no civilizations out there.  The people who dogmatically asserted the huge numbers of intelligent ETs in the universe seemed to forget them when they tried to explain why we haven't detected them, though some of course declared that the ETs have already found us but the Dang Gummint has suppressed them, or they decided we were too feral to deal with, or some such.

If there is life on Mars, it won't be "alien," it will be native Martian life.  We Terrans, if we go there, will be the aliens.  If anything is egoistic, it's demanding that the universe sprout ETs so we won't feel alone.  And even if there were oodles of inhabited planets out there, the universe is so unimaginably large that you could still call it a waste of space if you're a real-estate developer.  People have seen too many sci-fi movies and TV shows in which space travelers move from galaxy to galaxy in no time, but even without them we can't visualize the distances involved -- even within the Solar system, let alone interstellar space

Since Knight is a left-wing activist -- he goes by the screenname ProudSocialist -- I presume that he and most of his followers think of themselves as pro-science, smarter than the ignorant masses who don't believe in evolution.  It was painful to see just how ignorant, misinformed, and downright tinfoil-hat wacko almost all of the comments in these threads were.  I shouldn't be surprised, and I probably am not, I just didn't care to be reminded today.  Knight probably jumped on the story to have a chance to talk about something other than the current electoral campaign.  I sympathize with him, but this was no improvement.

If you ask, I'm agnostic on the question: I neither believe in extraterrestrial life nor disbelieve in it, because we have no evidence of its existence yet.  That means we can't concoct statistics for now because we have only one datum about life, on this planet.  The media keep stirring up interest with reports of water on Mars, or fart gas on Venus, which excite many people, as they're intended to.  But none of these reports are evidence of life on those planets, let alone elsewhere.  Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and these people have a lot of faith.