Views on Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

Given that educational level and scientific literacy positively correlate both with belief in evolution by natural selection and with willingness to increase space funding, and that religiosity negatively correlates with belief in evolution by natural selection and with willingness to increase space funding, it could be that astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life are subject to acute levels of disapprobation, at least among those with less education or those with higher religiosity. 

It is not safe to assume that astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life inherit the same degree of popularity as space exploration more generally. 

What of the data that bear directly on astrobiology? 

To the best of my knowledge there have only been four surveys that have attempted to measure the public’s interest in, and willingness to support, astrobiology and the search for life; and only one of these surveyed the American public.

This telephone survey, which took place in 2005, used a random sample of 1,000 U.S. adults, making it the largest survey of its kind. 

It is also noteworthy in being the only survey that attempts to discriminate between belief in extraterrestrial life of various types (e.g., microbial extraterrestrial life, versus plant-​or animal-​like extraterrestrial life, versus intelligent extraterrestrial life). 

In response to the question “do you believe that there is life on other planets in the universe besides Earth?,” 60 percent of the sample said yes, 32 percent said no, and 8 percent were not sure.(Pettinico 2011). 

Belief in extraterrestrial life correlated negatively with frequency of religious service attendance: Only 45 percent of those attending services weekly believed in life on other planets, whereas 70 percent of those rarely or never attending services believed there was life on other planets.

Pettinico also reports a positive correlation with belief in life on other planets and household income.

Of the 32 percent not open to extraterrestrial life, 56 percent cited religion as a major reason.

Among this group (about 18 percent of the total sample), frequency of attending religious services correlated positively with the identification of religion as a major reason for rejecting the possibility of extraterrestrial life, with 72 percent of those attending services weekly giving this reason compared to only 31 percent of those attending rarely or never.

This information might lend credence to the analogy between evolution and astrobiology, since religiosity is negatively correlated with belief in evolution by natural selection and with belief in the possibility of extraterrestrial life. 

Nevertheless, these results do not provide definitive insight into the public’s interest in and support for astrobiology, if only because of a curious spread of beliefs about the likely nature of extraterrestrial life. 

Of the 68 percent open to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, 45 percent think that there very likely is extraterrestrial microbial life; 25 percent think that there very likely is extraterrestrial life similar to plants; and 21 percent think that there very likely is extraterrestrial life similar to animals.

Meanwhile, 30 percent believe that there very likely is alien life similar to humans; and 39 percent percent think that there very likely exist superior extraterrestrial intelligences.

Pettinico offers an explanation as to why these beliefs do not correspond with scientifically informed expectations (that the probability of alien life diminishes as the complexity of such life increases):

It seems logical that the public thinks extremely basic life forms such as bacteria are the most likely alien life forms, because most space experts would usually agree—​at least that extraterrestrial microbes would probably be more frequent than more sophisticated life forms. 

However, the public is more inclined to believe in the likelihood of sophisticated life forms than they are to believe in the probability of plant-​like or animal-​like life forms. 

This may be, in part, owing to the influence of the media, which tends to highlight human-​like or sophisticated alien life forms. 

When ordinary Americans think of aliens, they may more readily picture Star Trek’s Klingons than they do any kind of lower-​level animal. 

Of course, it is essential to question why it is that, e.g., media representations of alien life tend to be extraterrestrial intelligences (ETI), and very frequently human-​like ETI. 

Clearly, human-​like ETI are simpler to conceive and to depict in movies. 

But it also may be that ETI, especially human-​like ETI, are just more intriguing to most people than other kinds of alien life. 

Thus, it may be that what motivates the answers in the instances of human-​ like and better ETI are not scientifically founded views but instead preferences based on what the respondents hope is the case or what they would find most interesting. 

For this reason, it is essential when polling the public to try to account for this possible variation in excitement regarding alien life. 

It is conceivable that people who are excited about the hunt for life are mainly thrilled about the prospective finding of human-​like or better ETI, and less so about “simpler” forms of alien life. 

It must be acknowledged, however, that little is known with any certainty regarding the public’s opinions particularly about the scientific hunt for alien life as it is presently being done, e.g., through robotic exploration of Mars or by exoplanet biosignature detection. 

There are, in my opinion, five problems that must be addressed in future research before we can make solid conclusions regarding the public’s views on astrobiology and the scientific quest for alien life. 

The first issue is that interests in extraterrestrial life are diverse, and could come from interest in the possibility of microbial life in the Solar System, from interest in the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, or from interest in the paranormal (e.g., UFOs and alien visitation) (e.g., UFOs and alien visitation). 

These passions are self-contained. A person may be interested in the paranormal but not in microbiological alien life, for example. 

Similarly, someone could be extremely interested in the potential of life on Mars but not at all interested in extraterrestrial biosignatures. 

Another problem is that views in alien life are not always the same as beliefs about the significance or usefulness of looking for it. 

The degree to which a person believes it is essential to seek for evidence of alien life is not the same as their conviction in the existence of extraterrestrial life, and the latter was not addressed in Pettinico (2011). 

A third problem is that curiosity in alien life is not the same as curiosity about what science has to say about it. 

Some people are fascinated by the origins of human existence but are uninterested in what evolutionary scientists have to say about it. 

It's possible that the same is true for alien life—that many people who are interested in extraterrestrial life will be uninterested in what astrobiology discovers. 

Two prominent examples are conspiracy theorists who believe in extraterrestrial visitation despite a lack of solid proof, and religious people who think (and have little doubt) either that God only created life on Earth or that God created life wherever it exists. 

The fourth problem is that curiosity in alien life, and even curiosity about the science surrounding extraterrestrial life, does not imply a desire to expand funding for the scientific quest for extraterrestrial life. 

If the comparison with space exploration is correct, we should anticipate few people to favor increased spending for the hunt for alien life, even if the majority of people support the quest. 

When seeking the public's opinion on the hunt for alien life, it's critical to ask both types of inquiries. 

A last point to consider is that absolute interest in alien life is not the same as relative interest or prioritizing the quest for extraterrestrial life. 

It's conceivable that even people who are highly interested in alien life, and even those who believe it needs more financing, do not prioritize the quest for extraterrestrial life above their other interests. 

The same may be said for opinions on space exploration in general. 

Thus, it is insufficient to simply question if one believes the hunt for alien life is worthwhile in isolation. 

Rather, the aim should be to assess the relative importance of the hunt for alien life to other space exploration goals and initiatives, both scientific and otherwise. 

Although there is more to astrobiology than the quest for alien life, it is possible that interest in astrobiology may exist independently of extraterrestrial life research. 

Nonetheless, the hunt for alien life is a major priority for astrobiologists, and they are not bashful about publicizing it. 

It is noteworthy, then, that there is no clear evidence of widespread public interest in and support for astrobiology and the scientific search for extraterrestrial life— leaving the claim that the public's desire to see astrobiology answer "life's big questions" provides sufficient grounds for the existence of an obligation to support astrobiology in this way as unsubstantiated.

~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan 

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