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In Defense of the 'Silly Effort to Investigate'

I find the vehement disdain some UFO advocates, be they fans of the field or researchers, have for SETI. Would not the discovery that we share our galaxy with intelligent, communicating life only serve to reinforce the claims of the UFO advocates? Yet, SETI is subject to scorn and ridicule from the UFO community. Chief among SETI's critics in the UFO field is Stanton Friedman, grandfather of modern ufology, who never misses a chance to attack the programs. On the 2012 Binnall of America holiday special, Mr. Friedman was in rare, gleeful form.

It is disheartening to see a person of such undisputed intelligence display such a lack of thought and imagination on the subject. Instead, Mr. Friedman resorted to out-of-hand dismissals, appeals to ridicule and straw-man arguments in his criticisms.

Friedman asks a question often asked by SETI's critics: why would an advanced alien civilization use radio to communicate? This question makes several mistaken assumptions.

It assumed that either there is only one other intelligent civilization in our galaxy, or that every alien society in the Milky Way is of one monolithic age and advancement. Why should we make the assumption that in a galaxy that is home to 200 – 400 billion stars, where solar-systems are constantly being born and extinguished, a galaxy plagued by countless hazards that can ruin or destroy any civilization, fragile compared to the power of these cosmic dangers, that every single alien culture is far more advanced than our own? To be certain, if we are not alone, some being will have more advanced technology. But there will also be far more primitive societies, and societies with a level of technology comparable to our own. SETI is not seeking out only the most advanced societies but any civilization capable of communicating. It stands to reason that civilizations of a technology level comparable to our own will use radio.

Being a physicist, Mr. Friedman knows that to look into the heavens is to look into the past. Just as light leaving even our closest neighboring stars will not reach us for years to come, so is true for potential radio transmissions from an alien race. Even if an extraterrestrial civilization's technology has long surpassed the need for radio, transmissions decades or centuries old could still be on their way to us. SETI is not seeking only the most recent intelligent signal, but any signal that will tell us we are not alone, no matter the age.

The most troubling aspect of this particular criticism is an implicit attitude that is both unscientific and defeatist. Mr. Friedman suggests that because a hypothetical alien civilization may have developed a hypothetical form of communication that surpasses radio, that SETI should not bother. What nonsense. Friedman suggests we forgo seeking out the greatest discovery in human history based on hypotheticals. There very well may be better forms of communication, but we cannot begin to know what they are.

As it stands, radio is the best way we know. Knowledge is not won waiting around for better tools that may never come, but forging ahead with the tools available to us. What Friedman suggests would be as if telling the great explorers of the Age of Discovery to stay home, because carracks are not the best means to cross the oceans. No, they had best not bother until the jet-plane is invented centuries later. Of course, with Friedman's attitude, why would the Wright Brothers even attempt flight, when there could one day be much better materials than spruce and muslin from which to construct a plane.

It would be very easy to turn this attitude against UFO researchers such as Friedman. In seventy years of studying UFOs, researchers have yet to produce incontrovertible evidence that will convince the world-at-large, be they scientists or laymen. There must be better methods for finding this evidence than what the UFO researchers currently employ. So why are they even bothering?

Friedman also asks why we should expect an advanced civilization to send us a signal appropriate to our technology. There are two very simple answers to this. One has already been addressed; we may detect ancient signals as well as current. Second, why should we expect alien civilizations to completely forsake older mediums? Looking at our own world, email has not made the telephone or traditional mail obsolete. Extraterrestrials wishing to communicate may use whatever technologies available to them, employing less advanced mediums if they wish to contact less advanced societies.

Perhaps the silliest criticism Friedman brings is his scoffing question of “What are they going to say to us?” Why not “Hello”? Why not “Is there anyone else out there?” We have sent signals such as the Aricebo Message, the Cosmic Calls and the Message from Earth, announcing our presence and hoping for a response. Why would not aliens do the same?

In his 2012 Holiday Special appearance, Mr. Friedman chides skeptics to have all the facts in hands before opening their mouths. It does not seem this follows for Mr. Friedman's attitudes toward SETI. In regards to SETI, Mr. Friedman has become one of the nasty, noisy negativists he so despises.