Over the course of the last couple of days we’ve been treated once again to the parade of astronomers and astrobiologists pontificating on the likelihood that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. In the wake of a couple of decades of failure on the part of the SETI program, the new credo is that “aliens could be staring us right in the face,” but we’re too dim-witted to recognize them. In an effort to renew enthusiasm for the search for extraterrestrial life, Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society and astronomer to the queen (wonder why she needs one of those) recently directed a conference entitled, The Detection of Extra-terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society. The purpose of the conference was to ask whether the discovery of aliens would cause terror or delight on earth. Rees and other astronomers have been making the news rounds telling anyone who will listen that improved telescopes made the chance of finding extra-terrestrial life “better than ever.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that astronomers are atheists. I personally know some PhDs in this field who are firm Christians. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t make any investment in trying to detect intelligent ET life. I share the enthusiasm of Lord Rees, at least to some extent.  I don’t, however, share his optimism.  I also think the recent news is a prime opportunity for showing how many scientists who do espouse atheism allow their wish to find an ET somewhere to blind their rationality. I would suggest that the optimism of Rees and his fellows is not based on better technology–it’s really based on faith. In this case, faith in an equation. The trouble is, this equation is basically worthless.

I begin with a simple question: WHY is Lord Rees and so many others so optimistic about the likelihood of intelligent ET life being out there? The answer is they believe that mathematical probability argues in favor of likelihood.

But does it?

This idea—that there is an overwhelming mathematical probability that there are intelligent aliens somewhere else in the universe has risen to the status of a creed in the UFO community. It derives from something called the Drake Equation.

The Drake equation was created in 1961 by astronomer Frank Drake. Its iconic status is seen in that it has been referenced in Star Trek: Voyager (“Future’s End”), Michael Crichton’s Sphere, and the Jodie Foster sci-fi film, Contact.

The Drake Equation is a mathematical postulate that states:

N = R* x   fp x   ne x   fe x   fi x   fc x   L

Okay . . . what does all that mean?

  • N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible
  • R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
  • fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
  • ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
  • fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
  • fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
  • fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
  • L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

In 1961, the values that were inserted into the equation yielded and answer of 10—ten postulated civilizations were out there in the universe somewhere waiting to be discovered. I know it’s hard to fathom, but this is the basis for the supreme confidence of a host of astronomers and physicists who promote SETI (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). It gets worse.

Current data suggests the answer to the equation is really 2.31. It gets worse still.

Let me share what one lauded scientist, T. J. Nelson, thinks of the strength of the Drake Equation. It sort of affirms the obvious, but I think people might respond to it better from this credentialed scientist (emphasis is mine):

The Drake equation consists of a large number of probabilities multiplied together. Since each factor is guaranteed to be somewhere between 0 and 1, the result is also guaranteed to be a reasonable-looking number between 0 and 1. Unfortunately, all the probabilities are completely unknown, making the result worse than useless.

The famous science fiction author and medical doctor, Michael Crichton, echoed those sentiments:

The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses . . . Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless.

In other words, the Drake Equation is simply guesswork dressed up to look like data. This is what produces all the optimism.  This is why atheists, like our friend in my earlier post, say that have faith in knowledge, not myth. The Drake equation is not knowledge; it is a slice of faith grounded in no actual data that has now become a dogma. It’s part of the ET Hypothesis catechism.

Granted, I’d love for this emperor to have some clothes. The genuine discovery of ET life (that isn’t hostile or evil) is on my short list of “ridiculously improbable things I’d like to see or experience before I die.” But the next time someone brings up the statistical odds of ET being out there, I’m liable to test their faith. It’s time someone asked them to do the math.