SETI's Echo Chamber

In a recent opinion piece Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute makes a strange claim: only Americans are interested in SETI.

In "Why Only Americans Are Interested in the Hunt for Alien Life", Shostak says: "Bottom line? Today, SETI is solely an American enterprise. And even then, it's pretty minimal. SETI is not on the back burner ... it's on the pilot light. The total number of researchers can be tallied on your extremities, and there's essentially no government funding. The effort is tiny, but at least there's effort. So what's going on here? If a dozen other countries have the telescopes, the money, and the research horsepower to search for cosmic company, why is this extraordinarily profound quest confined to the U.S.?"

Shostak goes on to make some sweeping assumptions, gross mischaracterizations, and naive conclusions about the conduct of - and interest in - SETI around the world.

First of all, Project Breakthrough is being funded to the tune of $100 million by Russian businessman Yuri Milner. Milner is renting time to do SETI scans on the largest radio telescope on Earth which is located in China. So this claim about the U.S. being the only country that is interested in SETI is simply untrue. Follow the money.

Second, there's Shostak's suggestion that America's special frontier mentality is behind all of this. No mention of the other nations of similar age who confronted - and still confront - real frontiers. A gross oversimplification to say the least.

Lastly and most importantly: How can Shostak possibly know what people in every nation on Earth are or are not interested in? He seems to equate writing checks to the SETI Institute and renting telescope time as being the only way to measure "interest" in SETI. Could it be that limited budgets and other priorities that he is unaware of drive these decisions - just as they halted Congressional support for SETI in the U.S.?

Let me suggest that it is Shostak and his clan of SETI enthusiasts who have a problem understanding how to communicate with large portions of humanity about SETI and Astrobiology. It may well be that there is a vast amount of public interest in Astrobiology and searching for intelligent life - interest that does not show up on the radar screen of Shostak et al because they do not know how - or care - to search for it.

Until the SETI community takes the time and creativity to understand humanity's stance on life in the universe with the same methodology that they apply to aliens, this situation is not going to change.

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