[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]
The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) is the U.S. government agency responsible for the government’s civilian space program and for research on aeronautics (the science and art of flying machines) and aerospace (earth’s atmosphere and outer space in the context of flight).
Forty-five years ago, during the Apollo 11 mission, every American, including every schoolchild, knew that NASA was the agency that got us into space. Nowadays, I feel obliged to explain what NASA is, because the agency itself doesn’t seem to know.
It seems to have re-imagined its mission to include conducting outreach to the Muslim world by emphasizing the contributions of 10th Century Muslim scientists <http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2010/0714/NASA-chief-says-agency-s-goal-is-Muslim-outreach-forgets-to-mention-space>, outsourcing its work to companies owned by people with political connections <http://washingtonexaminer.com/obama-funder-gets-insider-deal-at-nasa/article/2510466>, and promoting a belief in Global Warming theory <http://reason.com/blog/2012/04/11/are-49-former-nasa-astronauts-scientists>. It’s a re-imagining – and abandonment for the near-future of manned spaceflight – that has left the U.S. dependent on, of all countries, Russia < http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2014/0717/What-would-happen-if-Russia-stopped-selling-rocket-engines-to-the-US>. This dependence is something that has been recognized even by some on the Left < http://www.vox.com/2014/5/5/5674744/how-nasa-became-utterly-dependent-on-russia-for-space-travel>.
Not to worry. NASA is going to find complex life outside the earth. In the next 20 years. Like Babe Ruth’s home run in that legend about the “called shot”: It’s guaranteed.
NASA predicts that 100 million worlds in our own Milky Way galaxy may host alien life, and space program scientists estimate that humans will be able to find life within two decades.
Speaking at NASA’s Washington headquarters on Monday, the space agency outlined a plan to search for alien life using current telescope technology, and announced the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite in 2017. The NASA administrators and scientists estimate that humans will be able to locate alien life within the next 20 years.
“Just imagine the moment, when we find potential signatures of life. Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over — the possibility we’re no longer alone in the universe,” said Matt Mountain, director and Webb telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.
“What we didn’t know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 per cent of stars around us have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone,” added Mountain. “It’s within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever.”
. . . “I think in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe,” said NASA astronomer Kevin Hand, who suggested that alien life may exist on Jupiter’s Europa moon.
“Do we believe there is life beyond Earth?” asked former astronaut and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “I would venture to say that most of my colleagues here today say it is improbable that in the limitless vastness of the universe we humans stand alone.” . . .
“Sometime in the near future, people will be able to point to a star and say, ‘that star has a planet like Earth’,” said Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. “Astronomers think it is very likely that every single star in our Milky Way galaxy has at least one planet.”
Here we go again.
Does anyone happen to remember that day in 1996 when NASA claimed to have found life on Mars? Well, no, not really <http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/it-came-outer-space/page/0/5>, but it made for a great story for the Clinton re-election campaign (theme: “The Bridge to the 21st Century”). The fake news of life on Mars served a valuable purpose; it knocked off the front pages much of the coverage of the Republican convention and the nomination of the Bob Dole/Jack Kemp ticket. We don’t know if, like much fake news during the Clinton administration, it was generated for political effect, but we do know this: When President Clinton’s top political consultant, Dick Morris, leaked the information to a $200-an-hour hooker, he told her he was one of seven people in the world who were aware of the news. Why he was on the list, we can only guess.
(That’s $303.25-an-hour in today’s dollars, by the way. Thanks for protecting the value of our currency, Federal Reserve!)
The fact is that the claim by NASA experts that we’ll discover complex life outside the earth is one for which (I will now shout) THERE IS NOT A SINGLE SHRED OF EVIDENCE. Even if such life did exist, how could we possibly know before we discovered it that we would discover it? Imagine that an American Indian 1,500 years ago somehow surmised that Italians and Spaniards (well, proto-Italians and proto-Spaniards) existed. What could he predict about when there would be contact between the people on the opposite sides of the Atlantic?
Now, imagine that that American Indian believed that people lived inside the earth, in a location accessible by a hole at the North Pole. (There was a time when some people did believe that.) How long would it be before his prediction would come true? The answer: Forever.
You may have heard of a Black Swan, a concept popularized by the author Nicholas Taleb. Via Wikipedia:
The phrase “black swan” derives from a Latin expression; its oldest known occurrence is the poet Juvenal‘s characterization of something being “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”). In English, when the phrase was coined, the black swan was presumed not to exist. The importance of the metaphor lies in its analogy to the fragility of any system of thought. A set of conclusions is potentially undone once any of its fundamental postulates is disproved. In this case, the observation of a single black swan would be the undoing of the logic of any system of thought, as well as any reasoning that followed from that underlying logic.
A Black Swan is an event, such as the finding of a black swan, that was essentially un-predictable (i.e., impossible to predict) prior to the event itself. Throughout history, experts correctly proclaimed that there was no such thing as a black swan… up until the day when black swans were discovered. (Taleb makes the point that Black Swan events such as the 9/11 attacks play a great, unappreciated role in the course of history.)
Finding complex life outside earth is the opposite of a Black Swan. Rather than an unpredictable event that occurs, it is an event predicted over and over again that never takes place. Like communism that works, or Keynesianism that works, it is something we’ll never see, but the fact that it will never happen won’t stop people from predicting it.
(I jokingly call such events Plaid Swans. I hereby predict that we will discover Plaid Swans. Give me lot of money, and lots of time, and then some more money, and I’ll show you!)
Here’s the reality: Other than one’s religious beliefs, there is no basis for believing that complex life exists outside the earth. Indeed, the best analysis suggests that the chance of our finding complex life outside the earth is too small to calculate.
Indeed, there is only one situation in which the existence of complex life outside of earth becomes likely: if life on earth is seeded from somewhere else. Now, that could be from Mars (we know that meteors made up of debris from Mars have traveled to earth, and it’s barely possible that something living made the trip). But, most likely, such seeding would be the result of … are you ready for this? … Intelligent Design.
Yes, the same concept that Leftists, federal judges, and groups like the National Center for Science Education call anti-science and unworthy of discussion in the nation’s classrooms alongside the Theory of Evolution (never mind that the top advocate of teaching Evolution Only, Richard Dawkins, has admitted a one percent chance that Intelligent Design is true, meaning that, in a scientific context, it’s worth of debate).
I should note that Intelligent Design, banned from classrooms as unscientific, was the subject of one of the greatest movies ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by one of the great science fiction writers who was an actual scientist (he was one of the originators of the concept of communications satellites). If Intelligent Design is, as the Leftists claim, a religious concept and utterly unscientific, it’s strange that I can’t find a single reference to 2001 as a religious movie rather than a science fiction movie (although some reviewers have called it both).
In any event, the belief by NASA scientists that they will find complex life outside the earth in the next 20 years is, in essence, a religious one. It is akin to that of early Christians who were convinced that the Second Coming would occur in their lifetimes. The religion of the NASA scientists is rooted in what’s called the Drake Equation.
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
The Drake equation is a lot of fun. It opens up the possibility that the universe really is cool like Star Trek. But it’s a philosophical exercise bordering on theology — not science
I’ve written previously <http://capitalresearch.org/2014/01/like-the-social-cost-of-carbon-youll-love-the-drake-equation>:
The equation is used to estimate the chance that we will contact aliens from outer space. (I’m simplifying things slightly.) Proposed by astronomer Frank Drake at a 1961 conference on SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence), the formula multiplies estimates of the number of stars, times the number of planets around the average star, times the portion of those planets that might support life, and so forth, to come up with an estimate of the number of civilizations with whom we might someday communicate.
Like government pseudo-statistics (the Social Cost of Carbon, the Poverty Rate, the percentage of the population in each of the fake categories called “race,” et al.), the Drake Equation is self-serving to scientists and reflects their wishful thinking. It’s important to remember that the equation was created at a conference on the search for aliens, then used to justify public interest in and funding for the search for aliens.
Another parallel to government pseudo-statistics is that each part of the formula is highly speculative. A tiny change in each factor is enough to create a huge difference in the final result, and the estimated range for some factors is so large that no reasonable guess can be made.
Some scientists believe that earthlike conditions are common in the universe. Others (correctly, in my view) believe that the earth has many characteristics necessary for intelligent life, from its dense, gravity-producing core to its binary, regulatory relationship with the moon, that are very rare among planets. But it’s the SETI-believers who dominate the public discussion and the popular imagination, because, well, the universe would be a lot cooler if everything was like in Star Trek. So the Drake Equation is often presented as if it were proof of the likelihood of intelligent aliens.
Many scientists happen to be atheists or agnostics, and see SETI as a counterweight to religion. Critics of the equation see SETI itself as a sort of religion, one that, like environmentalism and unlike many traditional religions, is socially acceptable in the academic world.
The late Michael Crichton, a physician and the creator of Jurassic Park and the TV show ER, said of the Drake Equation: “The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. . . . As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from ‘billions and billions’ to zero. An expression that can mean anything, means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless. . . ”
Today, NASA is rudderless. It’s like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has become a food stamp agency, and the Communicable Disease Centers/Centers for Disease Control, which now opposes self-defense rights and seeks to control people’s diets, and the Food and Drug Administration, which restricts people’s choices rather than protecting them from fake medicine and dirty food. It has wandered far from its original purpose and now, to retain money and power, it resorts to delusions (or cheap cons), like this latest one.