Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Tricorder Tech: Confidence of Life Detection: The Problem of Unconceived Alternatives

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
Astrobiology via Pubmed
August 2, 2023
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Tricorder Tech: Confidence of Life Detection: The Problem of Unconceived Alternatives
Tricorder (biosignature detector) — Paramount

Potential biosignatures that offer the promise of extraterrestrial life (past or present) are to be expected in the coming years and decades, whether from within our own solar system, from an exoplanet atmosphere, or otherwise.

With each such potential biosignature, the degree of our uncertainty will be the first question asked. Have we really identified extraterrestrial life? How sure are we? This paper considers the problem of unconceived alternative explanations.

We stress that articulating our uncertainty requires an assessment of the extent to which we have explored the relevant possibility space. It is argued that, for most conceivable potential biosignatures, we currently have not explored the relevant possibility space very thoroughly at all. Not only does this severely limit the circumstances in which we could reasonably be confident in our detection of extraterrestrial life, it also poses a significant challenge to any attempt to quantify our degree of uncertainty.

The discussion leads us to the following recommendation: when it comes specifically to an extraterrestrial life-detection claim, the astrobiology community should follow the uncertainty assessment approach adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Peter Vickers, Christopher Cowie, Steven J Dick, Catherine Gillen, Cyrille Jeancolas, Lynn J Rothschild, Sean McMahon

Astrobiology. 2023 Jul 28. doi: 10.1089/ast.2022.0084.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻