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June 29, 2018

Oxford researchers think we’re probably alone in the universe — here’s why

by John_A

It’s a brainteaser asked by everyone from SETI enthusiasts to the couple of fans who liked the Suicide Squad movie: Are we all alone in the universe? While science has yet to give us an answer on the second part of that conundrum, a new paper from philosophers at the U.K.’s University of Oxford chimes in on the possibility of other alien civilizations — and, sadly, they don’t think it’s looking too good for E.T. and friends.

Their research paper explores the so-called Fermi Paradox, aka the answer to the question “where is everyone else?” Discussions surrounding this topic often involve the Drake equation, a probabilistic estimation of the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy, based on seven variables. The possible results are an argument that has raged for decades, leading to some investigators concluding that there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance that we’re alone in the galaxy, and just a 39 to 85 percent chance we’re alone in the universe.

“Our paper looks at the assumption about ‘reasonable probability,’” Dr. Anders Sandberg, one of the three authors, told Digital Trends. “Normally we speak of one-in-a-million chances and higher, but of course a probability can be arbitrarily small. People tend to be biased when they plug numbers into the Drake equation to make a rough estimate of how many alien civilizations are out there.

“We point out that in addition to estimating numbers, one really needs to estimate how certain they are: If you just multiply them together without taking into account that some of them could have very different values, the result becomes misleading. We demonstrated that if one either take past guesstimates and use their range as a crude estimate of how uncertain we are, or try to sketch what science currently know and estimate how uncertain that is, the paradox goes away.”

Ultimately, they suggest that, even if you’re a really optimistic researcher who thinks there are likely to be lots of alien civilizations, an honest uncertainty estimate “will force you to admit that there is a pretty big chance that we are alone.”

However, Sandberg doesn’t think this means we should stop searching. “Quite the opposite,” he said. “We should acknowledge that there is a nontrivial chance that it will all be for nothing, but given how important it is to figure out if we are alone — among other things it tells us a bit about our own chances of survival — we should not stop. In fact, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is bringing us important knowledge and ideas about life, intelligence, and technology.”

Check out the researchers’ paper to see if their argument convinces you.

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