In a House Science Committee hearing Wednesday, Seth Shostak, an American astronomer, defended the notion that the search for alien life is worthwhile. He pointed out that NASA's Kepler mission has found there are trillion of planets in our galaxy, including many planets that could hypothetically support life.
"It's very easy to make fun of this," Shostak said. "On the other hand, it would have been very easy to make fun of Ferdinand Magellan's idea to sail around the earth, or Captain Cook to map the South Pacific."
And make fun of it the committee members did. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, joked that extraterrestrial societies may be actively avoiding contact with earthlings. "Maybe they've got their caller ID turned on or something," Johnson said.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, joined the fun. "I'm going to ask what everyone in the room wants to ask. Have you watched Ancient Aliens, and what do you think of that series?" he asked. "I think I've been on that program," Shostak replied.
But committee Chairman Lamar Smith took the issue very seriously, pressing the panelists on how likely it is that there's intelligent life on other planets. He was pleased with their response: nearly 100 percent.
While Smith may support the search for extraterrestrial life, he's much less sympathetic about the cause of climate change on this planet. Last year, Smith wrote a column in The Washington Post casting doubt on the idea that global warming is caused by human energy use.
"Climate change is an issue that needs to be discussed thoughtfully and objectively," Smith wrote. "Contrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science."
But, judging by the actions of the committee Smith chairs, a reasoned debate about Earth's atmosphere isn't nearly as appealing as speculating on the atmospheres of other planets.
You could argue that it makes sense for the House Science Committee to rigorously discuss outer space — after all, it's right there in the committee's name. But you could also argue that when the committee you chair has the word "science" in its name, you may want to discuss the premier scientific debate that's going on.
The House Science Committee has discussed climate change in relation to other projects, such as the Keystone XL pipeline. But its main focus, along with other House committees dealing with energy and the environment, has been to reprimand the Environmental Protection Agency for its regulations.
At Wednesday's hearing, Dan Werthimer of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, or SETI, made the point that a search for intelligent life could prove futile. "If we discover that we are alone, we'd better take really good care of life on this planet," he told the committee.
The truth may be out there, but so are some uncomfortable truths we'll eventually have to deal with, right here.