This may seem like a contradiction. Astrobiologists are actively searching for alien life. It’s their job. And yet whenever new evidence of alien life is presented, astrobiologists are the first and most vocal skeptics about it. If your job is to search for alien life, why would you be so quick to doubt any evidence that alien life actually exists?
This goes back to the famous “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” line from Carl Sagan, or the whole proof beyond a reasonable doubt thing I kept saying during my recent A to Z series on the search for alien life. Astrobiologists very much do want to find alien life. They’re eager to find it. Perhaps a little too eager.
And thus, astrobiologists have to be careful. They have to be extra skeptical, because they have to be on guard against their own wishful thinking.
And really, this is not only true in the field of astrobiology; it’s true of science in general. And frankly, it’s a valuable lesson for us all, even if you’re not a scientist.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really wanted to believe something. I’ve really wanted to believe that some girl likes me, or that I’ve put my money in sound investments, or that I’ve voted for the right people. And when you really want to believe something, you’ll latch onto whatever flimsy evidence you can find to prove to yourself that it’s true.
Astrobiologists know this. Scientists know this (or at least they’re supposed to). And I think it’s good advice for us all to live by. The more you want to believe something, the more you should question and doubt it. Always, always, always be on guard against your own wishful thinking.