Are cosmic gorillas limiting our search for E.T.?

Remember the fantastic attention experiment in which you have to count the times the basketball is passed? (If you don't know it, watch the video before reading the rest of this post.)

In a recent paper in the scientific journal Acta Astronautica, University of Cadiz psychologists suggest that like the gorilla experiment, "selective attention" based on our preconceptions about possible extraterrestrials and how they may communicate may cause us to overlook evidence of their existence. Over at the SETI Institute blog, BB pal and astronomer Seth Shostak likens their argument to the gorilla experiment and counters that right now, the best thing to do is what we know how to do. And that's scanning the skies with antennae listening for signals:

It would be heavy-duty hubris to claim that we have considered every possibility in our efforts to find aliens. We’ve certainly been myopic in the past. During the nineteenth century, European physicists suggested we could establish contact with Martians by turning gas lanterns in the direction of the Red Planet. The plan was hopeless, but not because the scientists were ignoring other possibilities. They simply didn’t know about radio or much about Mars, and proposed a reasonable experiment given the science understanding of the time.

Sure, our preconceived notions of what would be good evidence of aliens — including radio signals, flashing lasers, or megastructures — might be blinding us to clues that, like nitrogen in the air, are all around us and yet overlooked. But to quote Dirty Harry, “a man’s got to know his limitations.” The men and women searching for extraterrestrials can do no better than to go with what they know.

So while it’s easy to complain, as members of the public occasionally do, that scanning the sky with big antennas is old school and parochial, the fact is that sending information from star to star on a radio wave is fast and efficient...

New ideas about how to search are important when they make a prediction that can be verified with a telescope or some other instrument. Succinctly put, the idea that we’re missing the boat would be more interesting if it were accompanied by a battle plan for finding boats.

"What can a fake gorilla teach us about the search for space aliens?" (SETI)