Potential biosignatures offering the promise of extraterrestrial life (past or present) are to be expected in the coming years and decades, whether from within our own solar system, from an exoplanet atmosphere, or otherwise. With each such potential biosignature the degree of our (un)certainty will be the first question asked. Have we really identified extraterrestrial life? How sure are we? This paper considers the problem of unconceived alternative explanations. We stress that articulating our uncertainty requires an assessment of the extent to which we have explored the relevant possibility space. It is argued that, for most conceivable potential biosignatures, we currently have not explored the relevant possibility space very thoroughly at all. Not only does this severely limit the circumstances in which we could reasonably be confident in our detection of extraterrestrial life, it also poses a significant challenge to any attempt to quantify our degree of (un)certainty. The discussion leads us to the following recommendation: when it comes specifically to an extraterrestrial life detection claim, the astrobiology community should follow the uncertainty assessment approach adopted by the IPCC.
Vickers, P., Cowie, C., Dick, S. J., Gillen, C., Jeancolas, C., Rothschild, L. J., & McMahon, S. (2023). Confidence of Life Detection: The Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. Astrobiology, https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2022.0084
This is the accepted version of the following article: "Vickers, P., Cowie, C., Dick, S. J., Gillen, C., Jeancolas, C., Rothschild, L. J., & McMahon, S. (2023). Confidence of Life Detection: The Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. Astrobiology" which has now been formally published in Astrobiology at https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2022.0084. This original submission version of the article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with the Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers’ self-archiving terms and conditions.