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Second Class SETIzens
by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.

It's certainly not a requirement for membership or participation, but because the founders of The SETI League, Inc., and about half of our members, happen to be licensed radio amateurs, we've always had close ties with the ham radio community. Thus, we often seek amateur radio events in which we can participate, and ham radio organizations with which we can partner.

For several years, when our financial circumstances permitted it, The SETI League has been pleased to host stand-alone SETICon technical meetings and symposia. More recently, limited resources have forced us to team up with like-minded organizations, and schedule our meetings in conjunction with theirs. SETI is, after all, a niche market. Since we draw relatively small numbers to our own meetings, such partnerships allow us to achieve relative economies of scale, without compromising technical content. This year's EuroSETI04 conference in Germany, for example, was sponsored jointly by the European Radio Astronomy Club, and our recent SETICon04 Technical Symposium was held in New Jersey in conjunction with the International Ham Radio Moonbounce Conference. We thank our sister organizations for making us feel welcome.

Looking ahead to 2005, a few months ago I approached another sister society about the possibility of holding our next SETICon in tandem with their own annual meeting. There were some understandable concerns expressed, which I tried to alleviate, regarding the possibility of The SETI League's presence diminishing the impact of their own meeting. I made it clear that the event would remain their meeting, and we would be their grateful guests, whereupon that club's Board of Directors voted eight in favor, none opposed, one abstaining, to invite The SETI League to join them next year.

Just as I was starting to put the specific plans in place, the story changed. The President of that particular amateur radio society told me that members were generally opposed to inviting "those people" (meaning us) to their meeting. Much to my surprise, it turned out those expressions of concern came from the very Board members who had just approved the proposal, nearly unanimously! When I asked the club's President why those same directors had all voted in favor, his only response was, "peer pressure."

Well, I'm certainly not one to go where he's not welcome, so as far as I was concerned, the only logical decision was to go elsewhere for 2005. And I am very pleased to announce that our friends at the Trenton Computer Festival have invited us to hold our next Annual Meeting with them, at The College of New Jersey, over the April 16-17 weekend. Although the details have yet to be worked out, the Trustees of The SETI League are grateful for the offer, and look forward to another successful joint meeting.

Still, I have to wonder just what turned an otherwise like-minded sister society against us. Especially when they publicly profess their support of SETI science. It's reminiscent of the social and political attitudes regarding racial minorities in the Southern US states, during the middle decades of the last century. Though elected leaders gave lip-service to equal rights, though they even backed civil rights legislation when the vote was being made public, behind the scenes they did everything they could to stifle progress. When a politician did vote for a progressive bill, when questioned he or she would attribute that vote to "peer pressure." That they didn't have the spine to stand up and admit what they really believed was their collective downfall. Frankly, I can't expect much of a future for ham club leaders who similarly vote one way, and then act another. But that's their problem, not ours.

No, our problem is to figure out why even our fellow radio amateurs look askance at SETI. Are we among the lunatic fringe chasing after saucers? I don't think so, but that may well be the way we're perceived. So, it behooves us to redouble our efforts at gaining scientific credibility. We have to remain cautious in our pronouncements, steadfast in our adherence to the scientific method, and ever willing to dispassionately detail the facts of nature that lead us to envision a Universe teeming with life. But we must never become enamored of our own hypotheses. Rather, we must remain objective in the extreme. Otherwise, we are doomed to remain second class SETIzens.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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