Philanthropic donations are like kindergarteners' drawings: We're supposed to act like even the bad ones are good. On being presented with a new one, only a truly obnoxious person would point out its flaws. Better simply to praise the doer and encourage the impulse behind it, in hopes of inspiring worthier future offerings.
I know that, and mostly agree with it. Still, I can't find it in my heart to celebrate Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner for pledging at least $100 million to the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life. I just can't.
Not when other tech billionaires are putting their astronomical wealth to work in ways that are so much more vital and altruistic. Bill Gates has had astonishing success battling river blindness and other infectious diseases that mostly afflict the world's poor. Mark Zuckerberg has bankrolled schools and hospitals in the U.S. and internet access in the developing world. Elon Musk is trying to sever humanity's dependence on fossil fuels while simultaneously writing our Plan B in the form of a colony on Mars.
It's possible to criticize any of these endeavors. You could say that Zuckerberg, in bringing more people online, is not-so-coincidentally enlarging Facebook's market, or that Musk, in hyping the promise of space migration, is distracting focus from problems on Earth.
What you can't criticize are their aims. Poverty, illiteracy, disease, pollution -- in one way or another, each of these billionaires is seeking to decrease the total of human suffering.
That's not true of Milner's new cause. Finding proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos would be a gigantic, historic event for humanity -- one that would in no obvious way improve our collective lot. For the foreseeable future, all it would do is create a new battlefront for contentious political debates: Should we contact our extraterrestrial neighbors or hide from them? Do we need to build a planetary defense system? What should the world's religions make of the news?
That's not to say we shouldn't be scanning the heavens for signs of life. But headline-grabbing donations like Milner's are only partly about underwriting the work itself. They're also about sending a message. In this case, the message is: This is something we need to be thinking about.
It's not. It's a pure luxury, at a time when we can't afford luxuries. Maybe I feel so strongly about this because I just read this terrifying article in Esquire about how climate scientists cope with the reality of being the only ones who fully understand what's in store for the planet. Read it and then tell me how much you care if a civilization 50 million light-years away has figured out how to build radios.
I'm not saying that everyone with the resources to practice high-level philanthropy is under an obligation only to support causes with existential dimensions. Nor do you have to emulate Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna and take a data-driven approach to maximize your ROI. Passion and curiosity are valid and indeed wonderful avenues to giving. Even self-interest can lead to noble places: Peter Thiel's belief that he should live forever is quixotic and arguably selfish, but in pursuing it, he's also sponsoring the search for cures to everything from Alzheimer's disease to cancer to age-related bone loss.
What potential benefits could Milner's SETI pledge hold for humanity? Even he admits there may not be any. "Although it would be a fundamental discovery, life would not change a lot," he tells Time.
I'm glad that Yuri Milner is putting up money to support basic science research in physics and other areas. I'm really glad he joined Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to give away more than half of his wealth, either during his life or in his will. But when it comes to this particular act of "philanthropy," I'm holding my applause.