Winter 2007 Issue

DR. SETI’s STARSHIP

Journalistic
Exuberance

By Dr. H. Paul Shuch,* N6TX

To be considered interesting, a SETI detection (whether from Arecibo or from your back-yard dish) needs to be clearly artificial, like this one. However, it also needs to be independently verified, or repeatable. The “detection”
reported in 2004 by New Scientist was not.

Upon my arrival at a ham convention in Boston a couple of years ago, I encountered a SETI fiction far stranger than truth. It caused us all a momentary flurry of excitement, before fading into the noise level of SETI science. I refer to claims appearing in the reputable British journal New Scientist of a promising detection from the SETI@home distributed computing experiment, in which I know many of you are participants. Unfortunately, these claims proved to be a classic case of journalistic exuberance.

The story in question was actually rather cautiously penned. It made no claims, beyond the assertion that at least one candidate SETI@home signal had reappeared upon follow-up examination, when SETI@home chief scientist Dan Werthimer and his team headed to the legendary Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to re-examine the coordinates of a couple of hundred promising hits during the spring of 2004. The real excitement stemmed from an apparent disconnect between a responsible journalist and a headline writer who may not actually have read the story in question. The headline screamed, “Mysterious Signals from 1000 Light Years Away!”

Would that it were true! Unfortunately, the story itself reported something far more prosaic: “This radio signal, now seen on three separate occasions, is an enigma. It could be generated by a previously unknown astronomical phenomenon. Or it could be something much more mundane, maybe an artifact of the telescope itself.” This is, of course, the nature of most unconfirmed SETI signal candidates, and a familiar occurrence to those of us engaged in the ongoing Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. In sort, unless ET gives his callsign and grid square, you just can’t claim the contact.

Light Years Away” pronouncement of the headline? Back to the article itself: “SHGb02+14a seems to be coming from a point between the constellations Pisces and Aries, where there is no obvious star or planetary system within 1000 light years.” It’s not hard to see how this statement, carelessly read, was transmogrified into a claim far more concrete.

The late physicist and science-fiction author Dr. Robert Forward espoused a philosophy which, over the years, has become codified as Forward’s Law: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I respectfully suggest that what we’re seeing here is an example of this corollary: “Never let the story get in the way of a good headline.”

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