Should SETI continue to exist - a skeptics perspective

Generally speaking, I don’t believe in extra-terrestrial intelligence. There’s no concrete evidence for it, anywhere in human history. We’ve spent decades looking for it, with the understanding that we can only search the smallest fragment of the smallest portion of our immediate location in the universe. I remember a compelling argument, that if you take a glass of water out of the ocean and don’t find a shark in it, that’s like searching the space available to us and not finding extra-terrestrial life. While that’s true, it also makes me think there’s no point in searching for sharks with glasses of water. You’ve essentially proved the point I was trying to make.

So, I don’t think spending tax dollars on SETI is a worthwhile expense. It’s never going to find extra-terrestrial life, mainly because, the evidence we currently have says there is none; but even researchers who do believe (without evidence, I might add) that extra-terrestrial life exists, admit that they won’t get the results they hope for. The project is too limited to ever work. I’m occasionally reminded that SETI does develop new, worthwhile technologies, so while maybe the search didn’t find what it was looking for, it finds other things that gave value to the project.

As far as belief without evidence, there are certainly enough charlatans out there, trying to prove that aliens exist, and are here, or have been here, and they are able to point to some truly interesting historical oddities. Some of them even call themselves researchers.

While I’m against SETI in general, it’s probably a good thing that there aren’t leagues of people like me, shouting down any serious work in the search. If I took up Amazing Randi’s proposition to give one million dollars to anyone who can provide proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence, I feel very secure knowing I’d never have to cough it up, because it doesn’t exist, and the people looking for it don’t think it can be found. If we had a whole sub-culture devoted to shouting down the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, hopefully we could put those Ancient Aliens bastards out of business once and for all.

ETA: For context, this was originally posted in the article about the Amazing Randi.

Before 1995, scientist surmised there must be other planets out there, without any actual evidence. Zero. None. Though it was logical to think if a solar system formed around a star, there must be other planets who also formed around stars.

Now there is evidence, as of 22 October 2020, 4,296 confirmed exoplanets. It is logical that there are thousands more planets we can’t detect, and at least some of them have similar conditions to have life.

Can we communicate or detect that life? Unknown. But we certainly never will when we stop looking.


There’s an overwhelming preponderance of evidence it probably exists, and almost no meaningful evidence it does not.

All the same, there’s perfectly valid reason to doubt the value of SETI and whether its worth the money or if that money would better be spent elsewhere is an ongoing debate. It’s one of those “low odds, high reward” scenarios - but at the very least we know the underlying theories and methodologies are sound.


The NASA contract is what? $1 million a year over the next five years?



I would appreciate any insight you can share on this.

If one searches, one may not find.

If one doesn’t search, one will CERTAINLY not find.



The way things are, I would hope we’re just some hybrid sea monkeys on some extraterrestrial windowsill.

First off, we know the universe is big. Very very big. This means even things that are exceptionally rare are likely to occur many, many times.

We know it is possible for the universe to generate intelligent life on rocks orbiting suns, because we are, ourselves, an example of it - finding extraterrestrial intelligence would not be a black swan event, because we know the universe generating intelligent life on planets is a thing that has happened.

So we have proof that there is a chance of intelligent life existing since we have a confirmed case of it. We have a universe large enough that even things with exceptionally small chances of happening at all are likely to happen multiple times.

Those two factors alone, I’d argue, make extraterrestrial intelligence more likely than not.

So the question becomes “how rare IS it”?

Well, we know some of what was required for our current extant example to have existed. You need a planet, you need a distance from the sun, you need certain chemicals. We now have a LOT of evidence these things are REALLY common, that the basic building blocks upon which a chance of alien intelligence is most likely to exist are not rare.

Literally every time we’ve expanded our ability to look out deeper into the cosmos and better examine the chance of alien life existing, we’ve actually found the universe to be more hospitable to it than we otherwise would have thought.

Considering all that, the chance of us being the only occurrence in the entire universe is incredibly small.

This is why the question you usually see asked by scientists isn’t “does alien intelligence exist” but “how likely are we to ever encounter it?” - an entirely different question that has significantly less evidence to support it every coming to pass, and quite a lot of evidence that it won’t.


Of course- if they’re like us but more advanced- we really don’t want to find them.


No, we want to find them. We might not want them to find us though.


If they’re like us the universe would be a desert thinly populated by big explosions…oh, shit. /s


Meh, I seriously doubt we’re the only tool-making entities ever to evolve anywhere in the observable universe. I even more strongly doubt any such evolutions can communicate bilaterally, let alone visit one another. At best we might stumble on their litter. Still happy to kick a few peanuts SETI’s way to look for someone else’s space junk. YMMV.


The only real rationale for a claim that humanity is unique in the entire universe would be that macroscopic animal life is physically impossible—but was miraculously created once and only once by an Intelligent Designer breaking its own rules for our benefit

I do not believe that this would traditionally be considered a “skeptical” position



I was upset that SETI@home stopped sending out new data shortly after the first lockdown earlier this year.


If we just gave up on hard problems because they were difficult or because “there was no point”, the world would be a far worse place. I mean, NASA spent hundreds of billions of dollars in today’s money going to the moon. Scientifically we gained very little from it other than proving that we could. It’s still pretty great that we did.

I also don’t consider it a fair comparison to lump together the “ancient aliens” charlatans and their racist fringe theories that do little other than marginalize the incredible contributions of long-gone civilizations with the serious scientific pursuits of SETI and similar organizations. While I may have doubts in whether or not they can be successful given the limitations of physics and technology, I’m glad there’s scientists out there mad enough to try it.


SETI works by aiming the giant radio telescope at various stars and/or galaxies, and then later analyzing the radio signals that are received.

My question would be, other then the presence (or lack thereof) of an obviously intelligent signal, is there anything else (scientifically speaking) learned by analyzing these signals? If so, then it would be a worthwhile to continue to record, analyze, and catalog those signals regardless of whether or not we “find intelligent life” from them.


That depends on whether SETI reduces already scarce instrument time.

I have difficulty finding terrestrial intelligence, let alone the ET sort. I’m reminded of Gandhi’s response when asked what he thought of Western civilization. “That would be a very good idea,” he said.


There’s no evidence that any extra-terrestrial intelligence has visited or otherwise contacted humanity. That’s not the same as saying there’s no evidence it exists.

The evidence is thus:

  • We know intelligent life can evolve from conditions found in our solar system, because it already happened here.
  • We know that the conditions found in our solar system are almost certainly not unique, because the more we’ve been able to study distant solar systems the more evidence we’ve found for planets that share characteristics with our own.
  • The universe is really, really, really big. If conditions exist that could give rise to intelligent life on other planets, then it probably already has.

We still don’t have enough data to make an informed estimate of just how common intelligent life is in our universe, but it would be crazy if it didn’t exist anywhere but here. Are the odds of intelligent life evolving in any given solar system one-in-a-million? One-in-a-quadrillion? Even if it’s one-in-one-hundred-thousand-million then we’re probably not alone in our galaxy, and there are about two-million-million galaxies in the known universe.


Wait, I can’t tell if it’s extraterrestrial life you want to stop looking for, or extraterrestrial intelligence you’re taliking about?

There is certainly some evidence of life-methane on Mars, phosphenes on Venus. They might not pan out, but we only find out by continuing to gather evidence and try to chip away at the assumptions.

One assumption I get tired of, is that “intelligence” is adequately defined for purposes of searching for it. I would argue that if humans stop looking for life off-world, we stop being interesting enough to count as intelligent.