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Where Are The SETI Police?
by Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director

Of all the policies adopted by the Trustees of The SETI League to ensure scientific rigor, none has proved more controversial than the one stating no Project Argus participant should publicly disclose any signal detections until they have been independently verified by another participant. Concerns have been expressed specifically about Step 12 of our Detection Protocols, the language of which reads:

12. In order to avoid undermining the credibility of Project Argus by making premature disclosure of unverified signals, I will await instructions from The SETI League regarding any public announcements of my findings.
The reasoning behind the policy is simple: in statistical analysis, sample size is critical. When n=1, all bets are off. We learned from the Ohio State "Wow!" signal that an event which does not repeat and cannot be verified is no existence proof whatever. Science demands peer review, and in our case the panel of peers is comprised of our hundreds of observers around the world, all coordinating their observations and correlating their findings via the Internet.

Remember Cold Fusion? About ten years ago, two chemists in Utah thought they had sustained a fusion reaction at room temperature. After an exuberant press conference, a flurry of scientific papers and presentations, and the concerted efforts of physicists and chemists around the world, it appeared that their results could not be duplicated. To be sure, they had discovered something. Just what, we still can't say (it may have even been cold fusion), but if a discovery cannot be independently verified, it has little scientific merit. It's clear that Pons and Fleishman tarnished their reputations by premature disclosure of their work. And these were trained professional scientists!

So what could be wrong with waiting for confirmation before making an announcement? Many of our members feel the Detection Protocols adopted last year somehow impinge upon their personal liberties. Especially in the US, but elsewhere to be sure, a strong tradition of freedom of expression suggests that nobody tell anyone else what he or she can or cannot say, or to whom. The conspiracy theorists, many of whom are sure that NASA SETI discovered positive signs of life prompting Congress to shut them down, are concerned that The SETI League may become party to some grand cover-up scheme. Then, there is the fear that someone's proprietary findings might somehow be usurped, that those making great discoveries may somehow be denied their due. At the extreme of this line of reasoning is the fear of one's rightfully earned Nobel Prize, or other significant recognition, going to someone else.

I fully realize that my simply telling you these concerns are groundless may do little to dispel them. But in fact they are. Ours is a grand, grass-roots effort, perhaps unparalleled in the annals of science. The SETI League makes no proprietary claims to anyone's efforts. There are no SETI Police to arrest you if you violate the Protocols. Nobody's membership is going to be revoked for excessive exuberance. We are not here to restrict anyone's freedoms. What we are trying to do is urge restraint, and reasonable scientific rigor. Without it, we risk becoming a laughingstock, and any real discoveries made by our members being rejected by the scientific mainstream.

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