Saturday, March 10, 2007

Itzkoff Fancies Himself a Reporter

I hope to have a longer post on Itzkoff's current "Across the Universe" column, in which he takes two whole pages of The New York Times Book Review no books, but to instead follow around the head of the SETI Insititute for a few days. (If this piece was worth printing -- and I'm agnostic on that point -- surely somewhere else in the millions of words the Times publishes weekly would have been better than the Book Review, since this Itzkoff article doesn't review any books? Your correspondent is confused, and wonders if Itzkoff perhaps has photographic records of the Book Review editors doing something unsavory or unlikely.)

But that post is not this post. This post aims lower -- to just reprint, and explicate, the first paragraph of the current Itzkoff emanation:
Is there anybody out there? Give the question some thought before you answer, because it’s more perilous than it seems. Deny the possibility of a universe populated with intelligent extraterrestrials that can speak and mate and battle with humanity, and the science-fiction canon collapses; more than a century’s worth of novels, from “The War of the Worlds” to “Old Man’s War,” would find their speculative foundations swept out from underneath them. But admit to a sincere belief in the remotest potential for alien life, and prepare to be fitted for a straitjacket; a recent survey conducted by Baylor University found that more Americans believe in ancient civilizations like the lost continent of Atlantis than in U.F.O.’s.
[large sigh]

First: new data about possible extraterrestrial life will affect the literary merit of The War of the Worlds precisely as much as new historical evidence about the battle of Austerlitz will affect the literary merit of War and Peace: that is, not at all. Itzkoff really needs to learn the difference between literature and life; science fiction is literature, and can only be judged as such.

Second, "extraterrestrial life" does not equal "U.F.O.'s," [1] and only the very sloppiest of thinkers would think the two are identical. Scientists and laymen differ about the proper numbers to plug into the Drake Equation -- understandable, since every single number in that equation is a pure guess -- and thus on whether SETI is a reasonable endeavor, but the idea that life arose only once in the history of the universe seems more religious than scientific to me; any event so unlikely that it would happen once, and precisely once, in the history of the universe, requires a rather heavy thumb on the scales of fate.

UFOs, in the sense of intelligent visitors to Earth from somewhere else, are at least one order of magnitude more unlikely than "intelligent life somewhere close enough that we can communicate with them," which is what SETI seeks to find. So the fact that Americans -- for once weighing the actual evidence relatively correctly -- disbelieve in UFOs is actually a good sign. UFOs are incredibly unlikely, and probably have not happened. The American public might also think SETI is a bad idea, but SETI is cheap and (as Itzkoff says later in his article) almost entirely privately funded these days, so that doesn't really matter.

To sum up: No it doesn't, and that's irrelevant. Itzkoff goes 0 for 2 in paragraph 1. (I'll grant him "mate" in his third sentence as a rhetorical flourish.)

Now I have to take Thing 2 to his gala last gymnastics class, so that will have to be for this morning. I may be back...

[1] I cannot stand the Times's style for acronyms -- with both periods and an apostrophe -- so I won't be following it after this point. This is not an inconsistency.

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