You Are Not Alone.
Skepticism surrounding alien life is normal, some would even say healthy. Yet, every so many years, skepticism about life beyond Earth increases. At such times, it is not unusual to hear many repeat some version of the Fermi Paradox. What is the Fermi Paradox? Why is it important in the study for extra-terrestrial life? More to the point, is skepticism logical?
What is the Fermi Paradox?
The year was 1950. The place…Los Alamos National Laboratory. Enrico Fermi was speaking with co-workers about the UFO reports which had become pretty common in the area. Just a few years earlier (1947), a UFO crashed near Roswell, NM and was quickly covered up by the United States Air Force. Government workers such as those as Los Alamos were not unaffected.
As with many, the government workers at the lab were interested in UFO’s and the possibility of alien life. However, as with most other people, they had not personally seen or witnessed direct evidence of alien life – so, they were skeptical.
At a point in their lunch conversation one day, Fermi was said to have suddenly asked, “Where are they?” Those present laughed because they understood him to be mocking the news events of the day. But Fermi went further and proposed the argument that would gain him historic fame. He said,
“(i) if such beings exist they would have visited Earth, and (ii) if such civilizations existed then they would have given us some sign of their existence."
The conclusion of the Fermi Paradox is obvious – aliens do not exist because they have not been in touch. Logical, right?
Why is the Fermi Paradox Important in the Search for Alien Life?
Science is based in skepticism. As every researcher knows, going into a scientific study with some degree of skepticism is healthy. It forces the researcher to think of the best way to isolate variables and find definitive proof of a hypothesis. Those without skepticism often produce loose results. So, the Fermi Paradox invites serious scientific examination in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Still, it must be noted that the Fermi Paradox lacks logic. How so?
1. It takes an ego-centric position that the universe revolves around Earth…that if Alien life exists, they would naturally WANT to contact us. Why? Are we really THAT special? Maybe not on a universal scale. And maybe intelligent life would treat us much as the Federation does in Star Trek when encountering species which are less advanced (you know, the Prime Directive?).
2. The logic is that if alien life exists, we should have found it by now.
Let us consider this second step in the logic in detail.
If Alien Life Exists, We Should Have Found it by Now
Every so many years, this argument rears its head because some think it to be logical. After all, have not humans been searching for signs of extraterrestrials for over 70 years? Perhaps longer? Have we not been to be moon, put satellites into orbit, and scanned the cosmos for radio and other signals? We should have found something by now. At least, that is the conclusion of some.
What is Logic?
Logic consists of examining an idea with a view to drawing reasonable conclusions. It involves formal and informal evidence, theories and fallacies, math and abstract thought, and any assumptions which may affect the argument.
Logic is also based on facts. Logic is not some willy-nilly gut feeling that all the evidence has been accounted for nor is it the end of scientific research. Logic is the start of research. Logic takes into account all existing evidence, for and against. Then, it simply asks the right questions to guide one to a conclusion which makes sense.
At this point, some may say, “Right. It is not logical given the facts that aliens exist.”
But consider this.
One day, you hear a news report that says a new kind of insect has been reported to have been found. But that is all you caught of the report. So, you decide to do your own independent exploration for this new insect.
You then head to your front yard and begin to comb through a one-inch square of grass. You look deep into that small space, you check under every blade, dig into the dirt, and even use a magnifying glass to more closely examine the tiny patch of land.
Finally, after a couple of minutes of searching, you conclude that the news reports are wrong – no such new insect exists.
See any problems with this logic?
Scouring the Universe for 70 Years for an Unknown
Scouring the universe for the last 70 years for signals, the origin and nature of which remain unknown, is like searching a few minutes in a tiny patch of grass for an unknown form of insect.
Just as anyone would reasonably conclude that the yard search was woefully incomplete, searching the vast universe consisting of billions of star systems is just as incomplete.
Humans have only been searching for a fraction of the roughly 13 billion years the universe has existed; we have only searched a square inch of the total area of space (assuming a square inch is compared to the Earth in area coverage); and we do not know exactly what we must look for.
On this last point, it is worth noting that whereas researchers are using every possible scanning device and frequency, there could be forms of transmission, travel, and communication we have yet to discover.
In fact, according to a recent study, the totality of our search to date consists of roughly “0.00000000000000058%” of what we can study. In other words, we have only just begun.
Given that and really, in line with the Fermi Paradox, it is still far too early to be skeptical about the possibility of alien life. Let’s give it some time, shall we?