A new study by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler and Toby Ord at the Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford) suggests that we are probably alone in the observable universe.
The study, entitled “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox,” was published on June 6 on Arxiv, a server for sharing science papers that have yet to be peer-reviewed. That is an important point that seems to get a pass in the flurry of sensational headlines that followed its publication.
“Our main result is to show that proper treatment of scientific uncertainties dissolves the Fermi paradox by showing that it is not at all unlikely… for us to be alone in the Milky Way, or in the observable universe.”
OK, how did they determine this? Well, in their methodology, they state:
“In this paper, we shall look at two different ways of extending this approach beyond a toy model — generating probability distributions for the parameters of the Drake equation based on the variation in historical estimates and doing so based on the authors’ best judgment of the scientific uncertainties for each parameter.” [Emphasis mine]
Estimates and guesses. Commenting on this in Forbes, Ethan Siegel notes:
“Unfortunately, this falls prey to what I call the first law of computer science: garbage in, garbage out. Historical estimates and the authors’ judgments are no substitute for the data we need, and do not have.”
Nevertheless, the authors conclude that once they factor in these historical estimates and author guesses, “we find a substantial probability that we are alone in our galaxy, and perhaps even in our observable universe (53%–99.6% and 39%–85% respectively). ’Where are they?’ — probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”
To which I respond… Does anybody else notice what a wide probability range that is? So it’s a coin toss as to whether we are alone in this galaxy at best and an almost certainty at worst. Meanwhile, we seem to have a 60% chance of finding life elsewhere in the observable universe at best or a slim 15% chance at worst. That is a heckuva range and it’s worth noting that it only supports the sensationalist headlines and the authors’ conclusions if we take the worst case scenario. The best case scenario gives us a 50/50 chance of being alone, basically.
Well, we always knew that. Our sample size is one. Either there is intelligent life out there to be discovered in the observable universe. Or there isn’t. Thank you for restating the obvious. With math.
As I suspected from the moment I first started reading the sensational headlines that resulted from this not-yet-peer-reviewed paper, it didn’t take Creation Ministries International long to start touting its doubtful propositions in support of its anti-alien rhetoric. They even toss in some good old-fashioned Luddism wrapped in theological condescension toward some statements by Elon Musk regarding space exploration. Answers News live chimed in similarly on Facebook, quoting from the paper but not seeming to see past their own confirmation bias.
The Bible doesn’t really give us any indication whether extraterrestrials exist one way or the other. It didn’t mention microbes either, and they turn out to be very important to our health and well-being. Despite sensational creationist claims that the possibility of sentient ET would cause “huge theological problems,” their soteriological objections to intelligent alien life were answered by theologians in the Middle Ages. So for the Christian, the question is still open.
This study and it’s wide probability range only restates what scifi author Arthur C Clarke once said:
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”