Those of us still hoping for the detection of a signal from intelligent life on other worlds will have perked up this week. Astronomers are investigating the news of a possible signal from Proxima Centauri, our nearest neighbour. If it’s a positive it may seem to some a little too close for comfort. Ian Sample covers it well for the Guardian, but most news organisations had good pieces this week.
The trouble with all of these “aliens” is that we’ve been here before. Back in the last century, news of the first pulsars was hailed as possible evidence of alien life. Then came the famous Wow signal. More recently there have been SHGbo2+14a and Tabby’s star, which fuelled excited speculation but have since been shown to be at best equivocal, or to have a natural(i.e. non-alien) explanation.
Jerry Ehman, discoverer of the Wow signal, perhaps said the wisest words of all when he warned against drawing vast conclusions from not-vast data. And this is a problem all of us humans have. We see something, get an idea into our heads, then defend it come Hell or High water. All new bits of data fit into our hypothesis. Everybody who puts up contrary data or arguments becomes a fool and traitor. From this root grow most of the troubles of the world.
Fortunately there is an antidote. It’s very simple. It’s called the Null Hypothesis. Every time you come up with a theory, you have to consider the direct opposite. Example-suppose we think that the Moon is made of cheese. We first gather every piece of data that we can from astronomy, spectroscopy, what have you, to support that hypothesis. Then we construct the Null Hypothesis. In this case, that the moon is not made of cheese. We then gather all the evidence we can to support that argument, from the same data sources. It’s an amazing mental exercise, better than all those computer games. It’s actually how drugs trials work. Your hypothesis is your drug, and your null is the placebo.
Try it today. Think of your favourite political, religious or scientific belief. You have most of the evidence you need, or you wouldn’t believe it anyway. Think why you want it to be true. The Null Hypothesis is easy- this belief of yours is not true. Now gather all the evidence you can for that hypothesis. Why would anyone want this to be true? (Caution- not all people are fools and knaves)
We’d be interested to hear how you got on.
#seti #proximacentauri #nullhypothesis #evidence #criticalthinking