Saturday, July 28, 2012

19 August 2011 – To serve man


What a marvellous cavalcade of weirdness this week, kicked off by the government’s Tuesday announcement of the reinsertion of the Royal qualifier to the titles of, inter alia, the RCN and the RCAF.  The Land Force became the “Canadian Army”, but as a lifetime member of the senior land service, the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, I don’t feel even slightly slighted.  I wonder when we’ll be getting the pips back?

The announcement did, however, entice the perennial proponents of unification to couch their lances and rush headlong against the windmills of what they perceive to be folly.  Leading the charge, as expected, was the indefatigable Paul Hellyer, erstwhile architect of that “act of mayhem in the name of administrative tidiness”.  In an op-ed piece in the TorStar (natch), Hellyer lambasted the government for “turning back the military clock”, characterizing his decision to unify the Forces as necessary to avoid the sort of wasteful duplication described in the report of the Glassco Commission, and placing all of the blame for the subsequent failure of his policy to realize its objectives on the “dreadful blunder” in 1974 of unifying the civilian and military headquarters in Ottawa.(Note A)

For reasons that escape me, longevity seems to be taken to confer seriousness, at least in the fundamentally unserious medium of the mainstream media (of which the Red Star is one of the more spectacularly unserious examples).  Hellyer’s corporeal persistence, for example, makes him the longest-serving Privy Councillor, ahead even of Prince Phillip, another chap famous for verbal eruptions that range from the hilarious to the downright perplexing.  Hellyer’s self-exculpatory expostulations will no doubt continue to provide grist for discussions among strat analysts for years to come.  Today’s topic, however, is less about the five years he spent as defence minister under Pearson, and more about the forty-plus years he has been involved in the UFO community. 

As an ardent sci-fi fan myself, I’ve always been perplexed that someone could believe that the Earth is frequently visited by aliens, while simultaneously arguing against the weaponization of space.  At the very least this strikes me as appeasement.  At least he’s not suggesting that we pre-emptively baste ourselves with a nice vinaigrette in case E.T. is looking for a low-carb snack.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the subject of this week’s message.  Earlier this year, three scientists - two from Penn State, specifically the geography and meteorology departments, and one from NASA’s planetary science division - published a paper in Acta Astronautica (AA) that, to parse their abstract, analyzes “a broad range of contact scenarios in terms of whether contact with ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] would benefit or harm humanity”.(Note B)  Now, I know that I’ve been a harsh critic of unbounded speculation in scenario-writing, but even I have to confess that the AA paper - which is allegedly peer-reviewed - goes far beyond even the most bizarrely fabricated goofball ideas that have ever been presented by any part of the official speculative fiction community.

I say this for one simple reason: evidence.  I laughed out loud when I read a spectacularly improbable story about a US CVN being sunk by an orbiting particle-beam weapon - but my laughter was based only on lack of probability rather than an utter lack of evidence.  The problem was that the scenario simply assumed too much.  For example, it assumed (a) that particle beam devices are infinitely scalable, (b) that their power input-to-output ratios can be improved from the poor ratios obtainable today, (c) that power supplies can be made small enough to place in orbit, (d) that aiming problems can be solved, (e) that atmospheric blooming and scattering can be compensated for, (f) that a charged particle beam with sufficient power to punch through armour steel can even be built, (g) that all of this could happen in the next 20 years, and most significantly (h) that the US government will have made no concomitant technological progress and would not notice a potential adversary building such weapons, building the space program to place them in orbit, launching the rockets to orbit the weapons, assembling the weapons and power supplies in orbit, and then leaving the weapons in orbit - where they could be brought down by nothing more elaborate than a 1980s-era ASAT rocket launched from a 1970s-era F-15.

Who needs anti-ship missiles and wake-following torpedoes when you’ve got one of THESE bad boys?

But to be fair, there are particle-beam generators (there’s a big one at CERN right now called the LHC, doing its best not to make black holes or otherwise exterminate humanity, as well as others around the world); there are big power supplies; there are rockets; and there are aircraft carriers.  So there were at least a few grains of evidence to support the outlandish scenario posited in the tale in question.  This is not the case in the AA piece.  The authors themselves admit that “we do not know how contact would proceed because we have no knowledge of ETI in the galaxy.”

There are, to put it simply, no data points.  None whatsoever.  The scientific method has four steps: observe, hypothesize, experiment, synthesize.  If you have no observations then you have nowhere to start.  There are no observations that suggest the existence of alien intelligence anywhere, full stop.  Not so much as a squeak on the 10.7 centimetre hydrogen band, much less crashed spaceships, technology of unambiguously extra-terrestrial origin, or miscellaneous goo samples from super-secret autopsies.  To offer an arithmetic analogy, if you have a simple Cartesian plane with a single point on it, you can infer all manner of possible things.  It could be just a point.  It could be part of a straight line, or a parabola, or a hyperbola, or a circle.  It could be the two-dimensional cross-section of a line intersecting the plane from a third dimension, or one of the corners of a cube, or a four-dimensional tessarect.

Where ETI is concerned, we don’t even have that first point.  There is simply nothing to go from.

What we do have, though, is plenty of “evidence of absence”.  We can rule a lot of things out, and we rule more things out every year.  Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Heinlein wrote his famous “juvies”, the juvenile sci-fi novels that launched his career.  Farmer in the Sky had humans living unprotected on Ganymede.  Several of them - Space Cadet and Between Planets, for example - posited quasi-terrestrial atmospheric conditions on Venus.

Women are from Venus.  So are six-legged space lizards.

We now know that the surface temperature on Venus is more than 450 degrees Centigrade, and that its atmosphere consists mostly of carbon dioxide and is nearly a hundred times as dense as Earth’s.  Unprotected, human life cannot exist on Venus - and given what we know about terrestrial life, it is difficult to imagine any kind of intelligent life evolving or existing there at all.  Piezophiles - micro-organisms that thrive at extreme oceanic depths - can tolerate higher pressures, but even the most startling hyperthermophiles that exist around hot springs and geysers, or in sub-oceanic volcanic vents, cannot tolerate temperatures much above the boiling point of water.  We have no data suggesting that any kind of life that could exist in the conditions that exist on Venus.  Astrobiologists are holding out hope for Mars and the Jovian moon Europa, and astrophysicists continue to hunt for exoplanets that occupy the “Goldilocks Zone” - not too hot, not too cold - around their respective stars, but where evidence of life is concerned, to date we have nothing.  We don’t even have that first point.

Which makes the kind of speculation offered in the AA article at once both uplifting, and sad.  I say uplifting, because in many ways I agree with the authors. I think SETI is a noble endeavour.  I think we should do our best to see if we’re alone or not, and I think it would be odd, and not a little lonely, if we were.  I think contact with an ETI would indeed be “one of the most important events in the history of humanity”.  I just don’t think these authors are doing science.  A good example is their appeal to the Fermi Paradox - the argument by scale which suggests that, in a galaxy containing somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars (and for that matter, an observable universe containing something like 70 sextillion), the probability that other intelligent life exists approaches certainty.  The commonest expression of the argument is the infamous Drake Equation postulated in 1961 by astronomer Frank Drake, and popularized by Carl Sagan in the 1980s tele-documentary Cosmos.  The Drake Equation is usually expressed as a product of individual probabilities (Note C):


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;

R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
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
f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
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 problem with the equation is that while it gives the impression that it is scientific, it really isn’t, because too many of the variables are unknown and not subject to being known by any prospective research or technology.  We do not, for example, know with any certainty the average rate of star formation in our galaxy.  Apart from the example of our own solar system and our close neighbours, we have no idea what fraction of the stars in our galaxy have planets.  Apart from the example of our own solar system, we have no idea how likely it is that planets will evolve life, let alone intelligent life (in our solar system, the chance is either 1 in 8 or 1 in 9, depending on whether you count Pluto. Is it that high - or low - everywhere else in the galaxy?).  Apart from our own example, we don’t know what fraction of intelligent life eventually goes on to release detectable signals into space (our example suggests that the ratio is 1:1 or 100%.  But one point does not a curve make).  And finally, we have no idea how long, on average, signal-emitting civilizations last before they disappear.  Our example suggests 60+ years at least, counting from the television transmissions from the 1936 Berlin Olympics that, according to Carl Sagan’s book and movie Contact, were picked up at Vega.  But again...we’re only one point on the curve.  There could be civilizations that last for millennia or even millions of years; there could be civilizations that exterminate themselves before they invent radio.

Is it “billiyuns and billiyuns”, or is it just us?

Are we representative?  Do we fall on the midpoint of the bell curve of galactic intelligent life?  As species go, are we about average, are we prodigies, or are we morons?

We. Don’t. Know.  There is no evidence beyond ourselves.

Without that evidence, all that is left is speculation.  To borrow a phrase from a philosopher of note, “the shelves are groaning” with speculation about how contact with an ETI might turn out.  Heinlein, the dean of sci-fi, gives all sorts of examples.  In Starship Troopers (the outstanding book, not the egregious film), humanity finds itself at war with the expansionist, hive-minded “bugs” and their humanoid lackies, the “skinnies”.  In Star Beast, Venus gives us intelligent sauropods.  In Podkayne of Mars and Stranger in a Strange Land, Mars gives us ancient, withered, cerebral and even telepathic beings; and in The Puppet Masters, Titan serves as a base for shoulder-riding parasites that control our minds.  Larry Niven’s “Expanded Universe” novels give us the predatory Kzinti, the unbelievably advanced and pathologically cowardly Pupeteers, the extinct, telepathic Slavers, the mutant Pak Protectors, the non-breathing, deep-space Outsiders, and a whole host of other ETIs.  And according to Carl Sagan’s Contact, any alien civilization we make contact with is statistically likely to be so far in advance of us that there will simply be no basis for mutual communication.  We would be the drooling new-born infants of any Federation of Planets. 

There is, in short, no lack of unfettered speculation about what human contact with an ETI might be like.  There are just no facts.

In the AA paper, the authors go into great detail discussing the potential intentions of ETI vis-à-vis humanity, more or less dismissing predation as a concern on grounds of protein incompatibility, but positing possible interest on the grounds of evangelism (oh, the horror of an extraterrestrial Tammy Faye Bakker!), or perhaps as a consequence of some ability or trait humans possess that aliens may find entertaining or amusing.  In such circumstances, one hopes that our new alien overlords would find “Shakespeare in Love” or chainsaw juggling more appealing than, say, “300”, ”Deathrace”, or, heaven forfend, “Jersey Shore”.

The authors, perhaps unsurprisingly, spend a great deal of time addressing ecological arguments.  An aggressively expansive species, they argue, could outstrip its resource base and thus find itself preying on unspoiled planets - the sort of argument driving the “locust-like” and unambiguously nasty aliens thwarted by Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, a film in which the aliens had interstellar travel and city-obliterating particle-beam weapons (sound familiar?) but apparently forgot to download the free version of Norton Antivirus.  According to the authors, “This type of ETI civilization would likely consume all the resources of Earth and destroy humanity if we got in its way” - a particularly illogical argument, as an aggressively consumptive species would presumably be actively looking for resource-rich planets, rather than simply preying on those that “got in its way”.  Beef cattle do not “get in the way” of the abattoir.

This line of reasoning eventually leads the authors to their most astonishing conclusion - that we might inadvertently invite destruction through too much success as a species:

Another recommendation is that humanity should avoid giving off the appearance of being a rapidly expansive civilization. If an ETI perceives humanity as such, then it may be inclined to attempt a preemptive strike against us so as to prevent us from growing into a threat to the ETI or others in the galaxy. Similarly, ecosystem-valuing universalist ETI may observe humanity’s ecological destructive tendencies and wipe humanity out in order to preserve the Earth system as a whole. These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets. We acknowledge that the pursuit of emissions reductions and other ecological projects may have much stronger justifications than those that derive from ETI encounter, but that does not render ETI encounter scenarios insignificant or irrelevant.

A-a-a-and THERE IT IS!  Just as surely as the seasons come ‘round, I knew we would eventually get to greenhouse gas emissions.  Apparently now I have to stop driving my SUV lest environmentally conscious aliens destroy us.  And here I thought that exterminating the human race in the interest of saving the planet was a peculiarly human psychosis.  This is the most astonishingly obtuse of the authors’ many obtuse deductions, and displays an ignorance of basic science that is nothing short of appalling.  I hardly know where to begin, but as it’s the duty of every would-be scientist to drive a stake through the heart of unsubstantiated and unjustifiable prognostications, let’s give it a go, shall we?
First, even assuming that an ETI is close enough to detect the feeble electromagnetic signals we have been emitting for the past six decades, we are unlikely to “give off the appearance of being a rapidly expansive civilization” as those signals are coming from only one planet.  Any alien species sophisticated enough to detect our radio signals at any distance (say, outside of our solar system) would have had to develop the technology to travel to our solar system, which would mean that they had either perfected long-duration sub-light travel (with all of its attendant problems of generational crews and relativistic time dilation), or had, through some science entirely inconceivable to us, developed the ability to travel either faster than light, or through some non-Einsteinian geometric manipulation of spacetime.  Any species with that kind of technology would likely be comforted rather than alarmed by the comparative lack of sophistication of our space travel, power and energy, and communication technologies.  For example, when coming across the gold phonograph record bolted to Voyagers 1 and 2, they would likely be relieved that we had not yet, as of their respective launches, developed the CD (although they might find Chuck Berry’s warbling rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” a little difficult to comprehend, having no idea what a “guitar” is, much less a ”gunny sack”).
Second, any attempt to deduce the psychological much less strategic motivations of an unknown ETI - particularly by ascribing human motivations to them, as the authors do - is without logical foundation.  The assumption that a “universalist” ETI would value an eco-system over its clearly dominant species is so utterly and anthropogenically speculative as to be laughable.
Third, as with Voyager, Cassini, Pioneer and our other long-range probes, any species that was able to detect accumulations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and that decided to pre-emptively exterminate humanity on that basis would be even more ignorant of basic science than the authors of the article (by the way, detection of atmospheric trace elements at a distance is not impossible; we are already able to spectroscopically analyze the atmospheres of the exoplanets we have detected when they occlude their respective stars, identifying water vapour, sodium vapour, methane and even CO2 in the atmospheres of some of them).  The problem is that CO2 levels in our atmosphere are at present less than 400 parts per million; but only a few million years ago, long before the genus homo emerged (much less started making cement and driving Jeeps), there was more than five times that concentration, as a result of entirely natural processes.  Even today, humanity is responsible for only about 3% of the annual CO2 emissions into the atmosphere; the rest comes from forests, oceans and other biological processes.  Methane, sulphur dioxide, and so forth are all produced by natural processes as well.  One could infer technology levels from some particulate elements in the atmosphere – for example plutonium, which is not produced by natural processes – but particulate matter is not identifiable by spectroscopy.
Fourth, apart from respiration, the bulk of human CO2 emissions come from burning fossil fuels and making cement.  No species capable of interstellar travel is likely to find those technologies even remotely threatening - and if they’re the sort of folks who blitz around the galaxy wiping out intelligent alien species because they’re adversely affecting their own planetary environments, then I doubt they’re the sort of folks we’re likely to be able to negotiate a peaceful coexistence treaty with anyway.  Any alien species that went around obliterating planets because of high CO2 concentrations would be operating on pretty flimsy science, and would in any case probably have to start with Venus, which would, when it vanished in a burst of neutrons, give us at least a little warning to set our affairs in order before the BEMs decided to turn the carrier-killing death ray on us.
Refused to ratify Kyoto, eh?  You brought this on yourselves, pathetic Earthlings!

Not surprisingly, the authors of the AA paper decline to quantify anything in their outline scenarios.  This is because there is nothing in them that CAN be quantified.  They describe their paper as “an important step towards a quantitative risk analysis” but note that such an analysis is beyond the scope of what can be accomplished in a single paper (the understatement of the century) “and thus must be left for future work” - i.e., a future in which there is more data about alien intelligence to support quantitative analysis than, you know, NONE.  They then proceed to a paragraph loaded with disclaimers in which they admit that they have no empirical data about ETI and that all of their speculation is therefore based on human experience, and acknowledge that “it is entirely possible that ETI will resemble nothing we previously experienced or imagined” - the scholarly equivalent of confessing that the preceding 26 pages may be nothing but a load of bollocks.  They then suggest that future work should look at, amongst other things, possible impacts of contact on the ETI themselves, and “feel strongly that consideration of impacts to nonhumans represents an important area for future work.”


Look, this is a fun subject to play with.  Extrapolation is fine so long as it’s deductively rational and you have something to extrapolate from.  But when you don’t even have that first data point, you have absolutely nowhere to begin, and therefore nowhere to go but into the realms of imagination.  At the end of the day, the only difference between the AA paper and the average pulp title published by Tor or Del Rey is that the latter is more likely to be commercially viable because it’s better written; and the only difference between these ‘scientists’ and the crazy guy ranting about chemtrails, mind control and the Trilateral Commission in the corner booth at Quiznos is that the NASA and Penn State guys are publicly funded. 

At the end of the day, anything based on ungrounded speculation and lacking even a single piece of observed evidence ain’t science.  You can’t make something out of nothing, and it does our profession - and our clients - a disservice to pretend otherwise.