What is Worth Study?

Last week I had lots of fun talking and listening at a SETI conference.  Turns out the US is almost the only nation to fund SETI research, and even then most funding is private, and most researchers are outside universities.  Apparently most people the world over think aliens exist, think searches might find them, think that would be a very important discovery, but think the subject is way too silly to justify government funding.  Why?

It would be good to survey public (and academic) opinion about a wide range of "odd" research topics, such as SETI, ESP, dinosaur civilization, sex, humor, ancient Egyptians in the Americas, living in a simulation, or future robots, for each topic asking questions like:

  • how likely is the topic a real phenomena,
  • how important is learning about the subject if it is real,
  • how fast could research make substantial progress on it,
  • should governments fund research in it,
  • should universities host professors who study and teach it,
  • should private research on it get a charity tax deduction,

and any other questions that might offer clues to the topics people think worthy of study.  Any suggests for other illuminating survey questions here?

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  • Caledonian

    A substantial number of people will say that they believe ‘aliens’ exist. Sadly, the ‘aliens’ they believe in ride in mysterious sky chariots and abduct people for bizarre, usually sexual experiments. They are the modern version of fae.

    Would you look for the Queen of Air and Darkness with a radio telescope? Neither would they – and so they reject the idea of looking for signals from aliens.

  • steven

    You could write a whole book about how silly SETI belief is. Here’s what I have so far (read from the bottom).

  • steven

    Specifically I don’t see why SETIology should be seen as more respectable than UFOlogy given that it has no more direct evidence for it and both require aliens to be half-heartedly secretive conspirators.

  • I thought you were supposed to be an economist. Why no mention of markets?

  • Adam Safron

    Sex shouldn’t be lumped in as an “odd” research topic. Sex is a central part of people’s lives. It is a legitimate matter of public health.

    That being said, I am ambivalent about government funding for science (or anything else for that matter). On the one hand you help to nurture basic-research that may not get funded by markets because of long/uncertain time-scales for pay-offs. On the other hand, charitable organizations might expand their activities more if government wasn’t cannibalizing their potential budget through taxes. Also, by making people rely on government support, you reduce the demand for alternative sources of funding. It’s difficult to tell how much research would get supported in a truly free market.

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    Find some way of asking whether a researching a subject sounds silly, regardless of how reasonable studying it is otherwise.

    People can be remarkably and tiresomely stubborn about what sounds silly– perhaps that needs to be studied, too.

    Vaguely related: Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank. Practically everything people believe about virginity is wrong, and this is the first book on the subject.

    For something else that didn’t seem worth researching until rather recently, see Drumming at the Edge of Magicby Micky Hart. He found that there were plenty of books about pianos and violins, but no general adult books about drums.

  • tcpkac

    Another area for silly research : the Gaia hypothesis.
    Additional necessary question concerning each area of research :
    – if you feel this area is important, in what way is it important to you ? (a,b,c,d,e, listing different ways things can be important)

  • Adam Safron

    Importance criterion 1 = high probability of making a far-reaching contribution to our understanding of the world.
    Importance criterion 2 = high probability of providing tangible benefits to the human condition.
    Sounding silly = at first glance, it seems like there would be a low probability of meeting importance criteria 1 or 2.
    Being silly = based on thoughtful cost/benefit analysis, low probability of meeting importance criteria 1 or 2.

  • jamie

    Dean drive, cold fusion, zero point energy.

  • Astrology

    * how likely is the topic a real phenomena,
    Kary Mullis discoverer of PCR describes the sceince here
    * how important is learning about the subject if it is real,
    Quite. If our personality is shaped by gravitational bodies millions of miles away that is very odd
    * how fast could research make substantial progress on it,
    Very. a statistical analysis of the census could confirm biases
    * should governments fund research in it,
    It would be very hard to separate cranks from legitimate researchers
    * should universities host professors who study and teach it
    Not at the current state of knowledge about it
    * should private research on it get a charity tax deduction
    No there are too many cranks in the field to know the research is valid

  • This has quickly degenerated into a listing of pet odd topics. I doubt listing odd topics was Robin’s point.

  • You could ask, would you personally be willing to donate to a study to investigate X? And how much, if so? You could ask people to rank various topics in terms of the listed criteria (likelihood, importance, etc.) rather than just evaluate them individually. In terms of markets, you could ask what kind of betting odds they would want to see before being willing to bet a sum of money that the phenomenon was real.

    You could ask, do you think governments and/or the elite already know about this and are covering it up? Lots of people believe that about their pet phenomena and might think there is no point in investigating it for this reason.

  • This puzzles me as well. About four in ten of Americans (at least, Americans who have nothing better to do than answer nosy poll questions) profess belief in ESP; why don’t those people take steps to make sure it’s funded?

    At the risk of stating something you’ve already thought of, it might make more sense to first find out what theories people have about this “lazy believer” phenomenon, and then find two or more people with different theories and ask them what poll questions would be necessary to prove or disprove their theories.

    I’ve never asked one of the lazy believers why they don’t actively lobby for such things, I think I’ll make a point of doing so in the future, I honestly can’t predict what they’ll say in response.

  • Ian C.

    I’m sure people care about those things, just not as much as other things, and all government funding is a tradeoff. Maybe one question could be “Would you support funding this activity if it required a tax increase?”

  • I wonder how narrowly-defined was the term: ‘SETI’, at that conference, because there is extensive research in Europe focused on the life in the universe and the search for planets. For example, the COROT mission has been returning fantastic data, the European Astrobiology Network has been around supporting researchers and meetings since 2001, and ESA’s Darwin mission will be launched this year.

  • Timothy Underwood

    Saying “if it required a tax increase” might be a bad way of getting an accurate response to a question like that, by leading people to vastly overestimate the real cost to them personally of the project. A 100 million dollar study, would be less than one dollar per American household. Perhaps a better question would be “would you be willing to pay one dollar a year to have X studied”.

  • Anna Salamon

    I’d include in your survey: How likely is a given researcher in the field to be a crank?

  • londenio


    Many other things fulfill the criteria you mention.
    (1) are believed to exist
    (2) it would be important to study them (conditional on existence)
    (3) they might be found in searched for (again, conditional on existence).

    Replace SETI in the post above by “Angels”. Maybe we should poll the public if we should research the sky to see if we can find angels.

    Or maybe we should overcome our biases and admit that search for ET life has a negative expected value.

  • All, yes there are many other odd topics I didn’t list explicitly (including odd markets). No, I wasn’t trying to create an exhaustive list of such.

    Hal, Ian, Anna, yes those might be good other questions to ask.

    Amara the “I” in SETI refers to “intelligence.”

  • Doug S.

    Astrology has been tested and found to be useless many times…

  • michael vassar

    Rolf Nelson’s point about lazy believers seems to give the lie to this part of an old post. I would drop whatever else I was doing, but presumably lazy believers, which may include the large majority of people, would not. Honestly, even though I would drop what I was doing I would probably put it behind me in a few days if I didn’t make any progress and didn’t have a repeatable phenomenon, mentally file it as confusion and not try to update other beliefs.

    “If you thought the light bulb was scientifically inexplicable, it would seize the entirety of your attention. You would drop whatever else you were doing, and focus on that light bulb.”

  • Douglas Knight

    If no one is actually intent on doing the proposed survey, brainstorming examples of non-studied subjects doesn’t seem so interesting to me, but examples of reasons that various subjects aren’t studied seems like a good exercise.

    Complementary to the example of UFOs as popular but not studied, is, I believe, alternative medicine, forced on NIH by congress.

    (Incidentally, while I think sex is a good example of something not studied for reasons of “silliness,” I don’t think that’s a necessary part of the explanation of SETI. There, I think, the issue is that the public is not so interested in aliens at other stars.)

  • Lee

    SETI is beyond ridiculous. As if aliens advanced enough for interstellar travel would use radio transmissions.

    It would be like primitive civilisations looking for smoke signals from the next valley from other primitive civilisations. They wouldn’t even hear radio.

    Give up, wait for technology to advance beyond the primitive, which is what it is now. Some sort of quantum system is far more likely. Radio? Give me a break.

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